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2/28/10 Word of the day: aHandir

As I've said before, "Berberville" gets its sobriquet from its standing as the heart of Berber - Imazighn/Amazigh - culture. Of course, there are many flavors of Amazigh culture, just as there are several dialects of the overall Tamazight language: Tarifit, Tamazight, Tashelheit, Tasusit, and whatever crazy blend they speak in Marmoucha (Tamarmouchit?).

But Berberville sits deep, deep in the High Atlas mountains, pretty much at the middle of a blank spot in most maps. It's the biggest village (town?) around, and is home to the Ait Hadidou tribe. There's a wonderful story I'll tell sometime, about our tribe's origins, but the short version is that it's a combination of Ait Brahim and Ait Yaza. Ama is Ait Brahim. Baba is Ait Yaza. Many families, like mine, are a hybrid. Generally speaking, girls keep their mothers' tribe, while boys keep their fathers'. The logical implication is that all of Ait Hadidu are probably genetic mutts, despite people continuing to identify by either Ait Brahim or Ait Yaza.

Women show their tribal affiliation/heritage on their faces, with chin and/or forehead tattoos, as well as on their backs, with traditional capes.

These capes are called aHandir (the big H represents a sound like a sharp exhalation; if you say ah! an deer! you'll be pronouncing it reasonably accurately), but cape is only a half-translation, at best. The word aHandir includes the full sense that these are the traditional, striped, capes, made in precisely the same way and following precisely the tribal design. (Each of the half-dozen tribes in the region has their own traditional aHandir design.)

Here are some performers from this year's summer festival:

The two women in the center are wearing the aHandirs of Ait Brahim, but the mostly-hidden woman behind them is in the zebra-striped Ait Yaza cape. Ait Brahim's design features broad swaths of blue and red and black, with some white accents. Ait Yaza's is black and white striped, though a closer look reveals some red as well.

Here's a group of Ait Yaza women, awaiting the long-promised arrival of the king. (For the record, he finally reached us about 5 hours later. But the cheering, singing, and ululating didn't let up. These folks *love* their king.)
As you see, the Ait Yaza aHandir features black and white stripes, with red piping. Two women in the middle of the group aren't wearing their aHandirs, but are instead wrapped in lighter-weight outer garments. The one on the left is a bedsheet, which is common here (since aHandirs, when not being worn, look exactly like blankets to the uneducated eye, I suppose the logical extension is that in warmer weather, you should wear a sheet). The one on the right is wearing the traditional wrap of the southern region. You see them around here from time to time, as increased ease of transportation leads to more and more cultural exchanges. Speaking of cultural exchanges...

These two women, standing across the street from the line of Ait Yaza-dressed women, are wearing taHruyts, which aren't actually an Ait Hadidou tradition at all. These white, decorated capes are traditional to a tribe several mountain ranges away. However, a long time ago - exactly when is lost in the mists of memory - a woman came from that valley to Berberville with her taHruyt, and the women found it so beautiful (and sparkly!) that one copied the design for her own marriage, and then another did too, and now you're more likely to find taHruyts at weddings than aHandirs. Every woman still weaves herself an aHandir, of course - some things go without saying - but she might also make herself a taHruyt or two for her wedding day. Or, more likely, she'll borrow one from each of the two or three cousins that have one, and thus have them on her wedding day. (Property ownership is clear, here in Berberville, but property use is very nearly communal, especially within families.)


2/27/10 Mbruk l'3id Milud!

Today, Muslims around the world are celebrating the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. In Arabic, the name of the holiday is 3id Milud. It translates approximately as Feast of the Birth, and is one of only 3 major religions holidays Muslims celebrate annually. (Morocco has lots of holidays, but most of the rest are secular, and usually nationalistic - ascension of the king to the throne, king's birthday, the day Morocco staked its claim over Western Sahara by marching hundreds of thousands of people in to occupy it/live there...holidays like that.) Most of those holidays are marked on the Western (Gregorian, solar) calendar, so they fall on the same day each year. Islamic holidays, though, are marked on the Islamic (lunar) calendar, so they shift about a week and a half each (solar) year. So last year's 3id Milud was March 5th and 6th (? as I recall), and the year before was I think March 21st(?).

In addition, Islamic holidays are determined by the observed phase of the moon, which builds in some uncertainty. How full the moon looks to astronomers in key places in each country, determines whether or not they celebrate the holiday the following day. So folks don't know until the week of, and sometimes not even till the day of, if it's a holiday. There's probably a point to be made about the impact that has had on the role of uncertainty in the local culture, but I'll let it go.

Enough background.

Today we celebrated!

This is the first 3id Milud I've actually gotten to celebrate as such. The one two years ago was during CBT/stage, and though I was with my (first) host family, there was no real celebration. Nobody ran around calling "Mbruk l'3id! Mbruk l'washer!" (Happy Feast! Happy Holiday!) Nobody spent the morning going door-to-door for tea and cookies. Midafternoon, my host mom set everybody in the family down and gave us each a piece of chocolate...and that was it. Safi. Rather anticlimactic. Our LCF (Peace Corps-hired tutor-person) found the whole thing depressing, since she's from a part of the country that makes a much bigger deal of it.

My second 3id Milud in-country, last March, I spent with a group of friends in Essaouira. Since we'd been given 2 vacation days for the holiday, we took a 4-day weekend for fun in the sun. :) Good times, yes, but not exactly a traditional celebration.

Today, I went early to my (2nd and final) host family's house. I would have gone even earlier, but torrential winds rattled my doors and windows, making me unwilling to walk across town. (I'm not a crazy wimp - pebbles were being flung at my windows so hard that when I woke up, I thought it was hailing. Life without paved roads means that there are lots of bits of dirt and pebbles around.) The wind died down mid-morning, so I headed over.

Before that, though, I gathered up the gifts that I've been accumulating for a while, for my host family. Crayons and stickers and books I found in Marjane and cookies from SouqTown and suchlike. Bubbles, complete with wand-in-the-bottle-cap. A handmade wooden rattle for the baby. Etc. I also dressed in a relaxed version of Moroccan-wear: headscarf, turtleneck, slacks under a skirt. I left off the jellaba that I've worn the past few 3ids, because almost no one in town wears them. (They're more common in my CBT region, where I bought two of them.)

Ama was delighted to see me, of course, and promptly served me bread and cake and cookies and tea. She assured me that today is not a feast of meat like 3id al-Adha, to which I responded with a hearty, "Al-humdulillah." A few friends and neighbors came over and shared in the deliciousness, and then Ama and I headed over to one of my aunts' homes. More chatter, more tea, more cake, more hugs... :)

Then back to Ama's house for lunch and some quality hanging-out time (including the distribution of presents). I explained that in America, gifts are traditional at birthday parties (both regular ones and Christmas, which is the closest analog for 3id Milud). I didn't explain that I feel awkward giving just-'cause-I-was-thinking-of-you gifts, and so had been waiting for an opportunity - an excuse? - to give them the presents I've been accumulating.

I've brought gifts for my little brothers and sisters, and occasionally for Ama and Baba, every holiday I've spent with them. They've never given me a present as such, but it never occurred to me to find this odd. They feed me a few times a week, house me whenever I want, and have been a source of love and refuge in a thousand different ways. I respond with cookies and presents (and lots of love!). It seemed perfectly equitable to me, the few times I even thought about it.

But apparently, unbeknownst to me, Baba had been thinking about it, too. Today, while I was watching my little brothers and sister parcel out their stickers (they're sticklers for equity between the siblings, so they tore apart the long coiled strip of stickers to make sure that each one had exactly as many stickers as the others) , Baba (apparently) told Ama that she should give me something. She told me a couple weeks ago that she'd been hoping to weave me a rug or aHandir before I left, but between chasing a newborn and then convalescing from surgery, she didn't think she'd be able to. I'd assured her that it was fine, but that I did want an aHandir from her tribe, both to remember her by and because they're gorgeous, and she'd promised to help me buy one.

(Her help would be key because, though my haggling skills have gotten steadily better over the past two years, I'm still going to be starting from the tarumit - foreigner - price, where Ama will be starting from the tamaghrebit - Moroccan - price. As she explained, and as I already knew, most weavers would simply expect that I'd pay at least 100dh more than they'd think to charge a fellow Moroccan. So she was planning to do the negotiations for me, if I'd just provide the cash. I found this an excellent idea, and felt very grateful that Ama would overcome her severe dislike of the souq to help me.)

But then, this afternoon, as I sat in the living room, playing with my siblings, she walked in carrying something. (She, and everyone, routinely come and go from the kitchen, the bathroom, the other room, so I hadn't even noticed her slipping out a few minutes earlier.) Wrapped in shiny paper was a folded, carefully stored, aHandir. Of her tribe.

I blinked. Gasped. Felt my jaw drop.

"Snnit?!" (Really?!)

She explained that Baba had urged her to give me something, but that she'd felt bad because she had nothing to give. Then she remembered that I want an Ait Brahim aHandir, and she realized that, well, she's got two of them.

So she gave me one.

I unfolded it slowly - reverently. I love both the ancient and modern styles of her tribe's cape; the only difference is the brightness of the colors. The "classic" design features organic dyes, as have been used for centuries or millenia. The more modern look uses synthetic dyes, and therefore really "pops". Both look beautiful. This - my! - aHandir featured the organic dyes.

Some women still use them today, though most have switched to the brighter colors, in the ongoing evolution of their very-much-alive-and-dynamic culture.

"Did you make this?" I asked, softly.

"Yes," she answered. "Well, me and Xalti." I immediately imagined the two women sitting at a loom, weaving together, chatting together, spending hours upon hours creating this... But wait, Xalti hasn't lived with us over a year. And Ama's loom hasn't been set up since well before that.

"When?" I asked next. This isn't the kind of project you can work on in secret; the loom fills a good chunk of the family room, and a project of this scale takes weeks or months, depending how many hours per day you spend working.

"We wove it for my wedding to Baba," she said with a smile. "I was twenty."

And then I realized that not only was she giving me a handcrafted work of art, she was giving me her wedding dress. (The cultural equivalent thereof, anyway.) Tears rose to my eyes, and I hugged her again.

I spent the next hour or so fingering the wool - I can still feel the lanolin, thirteen years after it was woven! These things are extraordinary - and then, eventually, it was time to go. I asked Ama to take a picture of me, wrapped up in her - my? our? - aHandir, feeling delightfully Moroccan. Yes, my clothes were actually all western, but I'd chosen ones that don't look out of place here. And most of them were covered by the cape, anyway. All you could see was my scarf-wrapped head, my Imazighn tafuyt earrings, and this glorious cape from my mother's - and therefore my - tribe.

Kauthar tin Ait Brahim.


2/26/10 Double Vision, aka Reverse Culture Shock

Ever since returning from my trip to the US (for my cousin's wedding), I've been meaning to write about this.

My doubled vision.

My duo perspectives.

Or, as I usually refer to it, the Moroccan and American on my shoulders.

These aren't the devils or angels depicted in legend and cartoon. Just voices. Little voices. That talk to me...and disagree.

It's disorienting.

Much like doubled vision, I imagine.

Here's how it works:
  • I walked into CostCo. The scale staggered me. My Moroccan-self simply goggled at the unthinkable volume of things for sale, the sheer size of the building. I couldn't see the walls or even much of the ceiling, because the shelves were stacked so high. I grew light-headed and had to hold onto a shopping cart lest I actually fall over.
    But my American-self shrugged and said, "Yeah, it's big. And yeah, I've never liked malls or superstores, but whatever. Deal."
    So there I stood, my decades of experience as an American taunting me while my years in Morocco left me dazed and confused.

  • I found my table at the wedding reception and sat down. My Moroccan-self stared at the mass of tableware. The table was set for eight, or maybe ten, and each place setting had multiple forks, knives, spoons, glasses, dishes, bowls... There wasn't even any food out yet, other than the breadbowl, but the table already groaned under the weight of the amassed dishes.
    My patient, bemused American said, "Yes, this is what tables look like at fancy dinners. You know this. You've gone to lots of them. Nothing here is remotely out of the ordinary. You even know which fork goes with which course, which gives you points over most Americans."
    "Okay," protested my inner Moroccan voice, "but there's just so much stuff! What's it all for?! Who needs this many tools just to eat with?!?"
    The blase American voice reiterated, "This is normal. You've seen this before. Many, many times. Nothing here is weird."
    "OH YES IT IS!" retorted my floundering Moroccan. "This is NUTS!"
    ...and so it went.

  • I climbed into my sister's car to ride out of the airport. She had to remind me to buckle my seatbelt. (Though Peace Corps requires us to wear seatbelts at all times, they simply don't exist in the buses and taxis and transits I ride.) We pulled out onto the highway, and I found myself clutching the "Oh No" grab-bar.
    "Everybody's driving so fast!" Cars wove across the four lanes headed each direction, twisting and swirling around each other like braided hairs or schooling minnows. Outside of Rabat, I never see that many cars at once. Even in Rabat, the highways are smaller and the speed limits lower. In California, folks treat careening around encased in steel like a hobby.
    American: "Babe, you've had a driver's license for a whoooole lotta years. Yes, this is how Americans drive. You know this. They haven't gotten any faster in the past 20 months."
    Moroccan: "Are you sure?! Maybe they have. They didn't really drive this fast before...did they!?"
    I flinched away from the door as a taxi vroomed past at something over 80 mph.
    Moroccan: "Even in taxis, I never get above, oh, 100kph. That's what, like 60 mph?"
    American: "Yeah, about sixty. Take a look at the speedometer. That's what you're doing now. Chill out."
    Moroccan: "But everything's going so FAST!"
Over and over again, I'd find myself looking at situations from two radically different perspectives. One side of me, the side that lives the life where most of my days are spent within a 1-km radius, where I walk to get fresh produce, where I boil all the hot water I get to use, found life in America just incomprehensibly fast and laden with stuff. The American obsession with consumption simply dazed (and kinda revolted) me. But then the other side of me, the side that spent decades in America, that drives with a lead foot and eats out of a microwave most nights and takes hot showers every morning, kept assuring the rest of me that Yes, this is normal.

I'm a country mouse and a city mouse. I'm a Moroccan Tamazight and an American millenial. I'm Kauthar and I'm [my other name].

And sometimes, I forget how these two halves of myself - no, they're not equal, though I couldn't tell you what the actual ratio is - I forget how these two sides of myself fit together. Or even if they even do any more. Or if they ever did.

2/25/10 On Toast

Sorry for the long silence - I spent a couple weeks traveling the country. Hopefully, I'll post pictures and stories from that trip in the next few hours/days/weeks.

First, though, a reflection... I've been wandering through old photos, now that my internet connection (though still slow) is dependable enough to post pix to Facebook. I came across a few images that I'd promised to post here, and promptly forgot all about.

Like this one:

When I took the picture, last May, it was to celebrate the extraordinary experience of eating a western-style meal with all the western-style amenities. Lest my American readers are blind to them, lemme tick 'em off for you:
  1. My own napkin - folded into a triangle, no less!
  2. My own knife, fork, and spoon
  3. My own water glass
  4. A *tall* water glass
  5. A giant glass of orange juice
  6. Toasted white bread
  7. Sunny-side-up eggs
What makes these items so extraordinary? Lemme 'splain. No, is too complex. Lemme sum up:

My friends and neighbors here in bled Morocco simply don't share Americans' devotion to material culture. Ever since the 1730s, Europeans and Americans have displayed wealth through tableware. Hence the "silver" in silverware, and the fancy dishes for company, etc.

That trend passed Morocco right straight by.

Food here is served communally. There's one dish, in the middle of the table. It's often a tajine, otherwise usually a couscous platter. Everyone eats out of it. If it's couscous, you either roll the semolina into a ball in your hand and pop it into your mouth or you can eat it with a spoon. Tajine is eaten with torn-off chunks of bread that you use to grasp the meat or vegetable, tear/squish off a bite-sized bit, and pop into your mouth.

My host family owns forks, but they only bring them out when my mountain-guide host father is entertaining tourists. Spoons are used for couscous. Otherwise, we simply don't use tableware or flatware. And as for glasses? There's one big plastic cup, capacity about half a liter (about a pine), that sits next to the one big bottle of water. If you want water, you ask whoever's closest to the cup and bottle to pour you some. Then they pass the cup to you, you drink, and you either set it down near you or else pass it back.

One serving platter.

One cup, which is usually off to the side somewhere.

This is how I'm accustomed to seeing tables.

So when I first visited the restaurant known among PCVs as Toast, and ordered Toast (that's why we call it that), I was so bedazzled that I took a picture.

A couple of them, actually. Here's another one.

She has her own tray, identical to mine. Except for the hot beverage. I think she got coffee, where I got hot chocolate. Oh, and her tray has a bottle of olive oil. We each get our own salt and pepper shakers, but there's never more than 2 bottles of olive oil per table.

But she has her own *two* giant glasses of chilled beverages. Giant because here, the only glasses I routinely see are tiny tea glasses. They're about the same volume as shot glasses, but shaped slightly differently.

But the centerpiece of the meal - eggs on toast - is identical. Toast. Toast. Such a routine thing that it's boring, right? I can't even remember the last time I made myself toast, even before Peace Corps. (Of course, I've never owned a toaster, so that's probably a factor...) But after a year of (delicious! chewy and home-made) round flat-loaf bread, simple toasted white bread seems nearly miraculous. Fried eggs - yeah, those I can make for myself. And routinely do, although I've never seen a Moroccan eat eggs any way but scrambled or hard-boiled.

So I went to "Toast" - actually an Italian Pizzaria, but PCVs mostly just go there for breakfast - and ordered Toast, and got my own tray-full of Americana.

...And now, another year later, I'm marveling again. Not at the western amenities, but at how differently I now feel about them.

In the four days I just spent in Rabat, I didn't go to "Toast" once. (Peace Corps put us up in a zween hotel that offered free continental breakfast, but still.) And the western toilets, that a year ago I rhapsodized over? Yeah, Rabat is full of them...but I don't care.

This is the step beyond wllf-ing, beyond becoming accustomed to something. Without really noticing, I've reached a point of placid indifference. I truly don't care whether I use a squat toilet or a western one. It makes no difference whether I eat with bread or with a fork. I share the communal drinking cup, even when I'm just eating with PCVs and we could all get separate glasses if we wanted.

This is my life. And I'm living it - not enduring it, not tolerating it, not accepting it, but just living it - one day at a time.



2/12/10 Riding Afla

The preposition afla means on top of or sometimes just above.

In the Tam-glish blend that we PCVs speak, "riding afla" means riding on top of a transit.

Rriding afla entails sitting on a flatbed, wood and steel, shallow-sided cage, with no safety restraints other than however tightly you're holding on.

It's wildly unsafe, given the poor road conditions and prevalence of traffic accidents - the #1 killer of adults in Morocco* - and therefore forbidden to us Peace Corps Volunteers. It's also illegal, under a paternalistic Moroccan law reminiscent of American seatbelt laws, but it's one of the many laws that exists only on paper. The gendarmes routinely choose not to enforce the laws against riding afla, in exchange for ... let's call it "mutual goodwill."

Theoretically, the shallow-sided cage perched afla the transit is used to transport goods and belongings, like a car or truck roofrack. In practice, it transports goods, belongings, men, women, children, livestock...

What? Livestock?!

Yeah, I'll get back to that in a sec.

Many people prefer riding afla to riding inside the transit, especially in the summertime. The interior is stuffy, overheated, and crammed with sweaty bodies, while the roof has 360 degrees of fresh air, the steady breeze of our forward motion, and room to sprawl, at least until afla gets as crowded as the inside, which doesn't happen that often. On the other hand, there aren't anything like seats up there, so folks just push in between the baggage and the spare tires. Riding 150 km down the mountain on a spring afternoon, surrounded by fields in bloom, sun on your face, a breeze in your hair, and squishy luggage to lean against... It's not a bad way to travel.

...Or so I've heard. Of course, I have no way of knowing myself, what with it being forbidden and all. Yeah.

But get back to the livestock.

Hang on. In addition to luggage and, yes, occasional livestock, the roofracks carry nearly everything that people want transported up and down the mountain. I've seen ponjs, TVs, satellite dishes, tables, musical instruments, heaters... Most of this is available in souq in Berberville or the two other mountaintop towns that host a weekly souq, but you do get a much wider selection down in SouqTown, so some folks prefer to do their shopping down below.

I get it. People ride afla illegally, all sorts of goods ride legally, but what was the thing about animals?! Riding 10 feet off the ground in an unsecured roofrack??

OK. A couple weeks ago, I watched a herd of sheep get lifted, by their bound ankles, up on top of the transit. Ewes, rams, lambs...a herd - a small herd, but still - were hauled up by their fetlocks and lashed to the roof for a few hours of the 4-hour run.

I sat inside, staring open-mouthed at the animals that the jumper (driver's assistant / baggage handler) was pulling up past the window beside me. The jumper could lift two lambs at a time, one in each hand, but needed both hands to lift the sheep. (No surprise there - these sheep are about the size and weight of German Shepherds. Big ones are *big*.)

Now, this is hardly the first time I've shared a ride with livestock. I've taken rides in transits and buses where the chickens rode inside with me, where they fluttered afla, where sheep rode in the baggage cars under buses, even once when a frightened sheep lay bound in the trunk of a taxi.

But I do think this one wins the prize for volume. I didn't get an accurate count - it took me a second to realize what was going on, and another few seconds to believe it - but it was something more than 10 sheep and less than 20, I'd say.

But Kauthar, how else can people transport their livestock?

Trust me, that's not a problem. Transits are the only way for *human passengers* to make the ride from Berberville to Souqtown on *public transportation*. There are lots of other options for livestock. The simplest, of course, is simply walking them. Meets two needs at once - they get to graze and forage and they get to their destination. Most of the time, though, animals are transported in camios or runnls, different kinds of trucks. Some are small, and can fit only 5 or 10 sheep, crowded together onto two levels; others are the size of dump trucks, and can transport several cows or an entire herd of sheep. People routinely ride these, too. A couple will ride in the cab, with the driver, but most will sit back with the animals. (Not us Peace Corps Volunteers, of course - this, too, is unsafe and therefore forbidden.)

* As I said, the #1 cause of death among adult Moroccans is traffic accidents. The #1 cause of death among children? Diarrhea, most commonly from contaminated drinking water. It's entirely preventable and an enormous tragedy for the country.


2/5/10 Peace Corps Partnership Programs

Some of you have asked me, How can I contribute to your community?

Today, that question gets answered. :)

Some of you have asked more generally, How do you fund your work?

That depends.

As a rule, Peace Corps doesn't provide any funding for its Volunteers' projects. What it does do, though, is keep us informed about various NGOs who are interested in funding the kinds of work we do. Peace Corps also provides us access to two sources of funding not available to any other organizations: SPA grants, the Small Project Assistance funds available to Peace Corps Volunteers from USAID, and Peace Corps Partnership Programs (PCPPs).

Peace Corps Partnership Programs are the official way by which YOU, families and friends of Volunteers, get to directly and tangibly contribute to our work. We write up the grant proposals, in partnership with our community members, and once the proposals have been vetted by various PC staff [a breezy phrase glossing over hundreds of hours of work and multiple revisions], they get posted online, for YOU to read and assess. If you think a project looks worthwhile, you get to make a tax-deductible contribution.

So why haven't you hit us up for money before now, Kauthar?

Because the projects that I've done have been funded either in-country or by other PCVs' grants. Also, because I've been focusing on small-scale, sustainable, on-going projects.

But sometimes PCV projects are large-scale, and require outside help.

Like this one, to build an irrigation system for a village about 40km from me. Started by my friend "Brahim", and now finished by "Jamal", this proposal would make it possible for water to be channeled more efficiently into new fields, opening up more apple tree farming - a cash crop that will make an enormous difference in the lives of many local families.

Please read Jamal's eloquent appeal here, and find his official PCPP request here.

And thank you for all the ways you support us! :)

2/11/10 Doonesbury update

In addition to writing here about my appreciation for this week's Doonesbury strips, I sent a short note to the folks at their website. My motives were twofold - one, I wanted to tell them directly how grateful I am for their handling of this topic, and two, it seemed right to let them know that I'd used their copyrighted material. (I'm pretty sure that posting it on a blog with full attribution falls somewhere under "fair use", but it still seemed like the right thing to do.)

To my surprise, I received a personal, gracious response from the webmaster (a couple of them, actually!), plus my note was posted on their comments page. Thanks to that link, several dozen folks have found my blog for the first time. Thanks, Doonesbury, for helping me meet Goal #3! :)


2/08/10 On Marrakesh

Here's a photo of Marrakesh that I snapped last spring.

Note the contrast between the palm trees and the snowy mountains. (I actually shot pictures of cacti in front of the snowy mountains, but they were out the window of a moving bus, so came out hopelessly blurred.)

But note, too, the grassy foreground, behind the brick and iron barricade.

This is one of Marrakesh's fancier hotels. (Not this one, but sadly, Marrakesh has several.) Where rich tourists spend several thousand dirhams per night (ie, several hundred Euros) to be pampered and coddled and to feel at home.

But you're not at home, silly tourists. You're in Morocco. A desert country, where the vast majority of the precipitation falls as snow in the Atlas mountains or else in disastrous, flash-flood inducing fall downpours. Morocco needs all the water it gets. In order to maintain these lovely grassy fields, sprinklers run for hours each morning. Thousands upon thousands of gallons of water are wasted every day, so tourists can forget that they're visiting a desert land, and imagine that they're sipping their morning coffee in their own backyards.

This waste is simply one of the dozens of reasons I don't like going to Marrakesh - the overcharging, sexual harassment, touristy schtick, and dishonest cab drivers are on the list, too - but it's one of the most readily visible.

It's beautiful, no question.

But at what cost?

2/10/10 G. B. Trudeau on Sexual Harassment

I want to give a shoutout to G. B. Trudeau, creator/artist behind Doonesbury. Over the 15 or so years that I've been aware of him, his strips have provided some of the sharpest, most consistently thoughtful political satire, commentary, and insight that I've seen anywhere. More than anything else, though, he's repeatedly demonstrated the courage to tackle issues that most others avoid.

This week, he's tackling sexual harassment of servicewomen. "Melissa", the blonde character in the strip below (from Monday), we met a year or two back, in a VA support group. One of the long-term characters, B. D., had lost a limb in Iraq*, and he met Mel, who had been raped by a fellow soldier. Over time, she decides to re-up, and is now back on active duty. Which brings us to this week:

But Trudeau doesn't mask the multi-dimensionality of the issue. Sexual harassment is usually defined as Unwanted sexual attention that makes the recipient feel threatened. Note the words "unwanted" and "feel" - sexual harassment is in the eyes of the recipient. The object of the objectification. The same actions can feel threatening to one person and not to another, which Trudeau addressed in Tuesday's panel:

These women are both receiving heightened levels of attention, but while one is enjoying it, the other, a rape survivor, has to fight to endure it. The difference is completely internal, and very real.

Here in Morocco, most unmarried women will receive attention from men whenever they go out in public. Some women find it flattering. Indeed, one of our Language/Culture Facilitators (our Welcome-to-Morocco tutors, more or less) said that if she doesn't get catcalls, she feels unattractive and has a bad day.

She's young and attractive and dresses in form-fitting, western-style clothes...but we all get stared at. Young women more than older women; foreign-looking women (Caucasian, Asian, African-descended) more than local women. And while some, like that LCF and the brunette from this week's Doonesbury strips, find the attention flattering and welcome...for others, it's a painful invasion.

And some of us react like this, from today's cartoon:

...and, like Mel, not all of us get support in our reactions from our friends.

I'm eager to see how Mel's story will continue in the coming days, and grateful that Trudeau is using his enormous bullhorn to draw attention to this complex issue.

* The fact that a cartoon character is a wounded vet - an amputee, at that - is just another breathtaking example of Trudeau's unflinching courage in addressing the important issues of our day.

2/09/10 On Essaouira

One of my favorite Moroccan cities - a favorite with lots of PCVs - is Essaouira.

Essa (in the universal Peace Corps shorthand) sits just two hours away from the overpriced, overtouristed, and usually overheated city of Marrakesh, so therefore often serves as an escape valve for unhappy visitors to that overhyped city.

Essa doesn't seem to offer much, at first glance. It's just a quiet beachfront city.

But that's the point.

Essaouira provides a calm, quiet, relaxing place to hang out, shop for souvenirs, walk on the beach, and generally just chill. The souvenir shopping is some of the best in Morocco, with some of the least aggressive shopkeepers I've found. (In fairness, though, they're still more aggressive than most Americans will be used to, but if you grade on the Moroccan curve, they're positively laid-back.) You can stroll through the shops, wander in and out of cafes, meander along the beach... Essa feels amazingly peaceful, especially in contrast to the energy of most of Morocco's big cities.

(Caveat: I visited in the off-season. Essa may turn into a touristy mess in the summers...I wouldn't know. But it was fabulous in March.)

Here's a typical Essa day:

Wake up in the apartment you've rented for the weekend. Though Essa has hotels, most PCVs prefer to rent apartments in the medina; they're available by the day, and have kitchens and living rooms and other amenities.

Go out to a cafe for breakfast and a pastry:
This is a custard-filled, fruit-topped, puff-pastry tart. And it cost 4 dirhams. In France, you can get the same thing for 4 Euros - ten times the price. Did I mention that Essa is cheap?

After you've munched and people-watched in the cafe, wander down to the shops. Nearly everything handcrafted in Morocco is available here: leather goods (especially bags, but also shoes and coats), jewelry (notably silver, which southern Morocco is famous for, but also handcarved wooden bracelets), woodcrafts of every variety (tables, chess sets, puzzle boxes, desk organizers, kitchen utensils, jewelry, etc), and most famously scarves.

Here's my friend modeling an Essaouira scarf I'd purchased moments before. The vibrant colors (this is actually a muted one, since that's my taste) and high-quality fabrics are typical of Essa scarves.

Isn't my friend beautiful? And so's the scarf, of course. :)

Once you've satisfied your inner shopaholic, it's time to hit the beach.

Here, my buddies and I are playing beach frisbee underneath a full moon. (The frisbee is barely visible, but it's there - look for the red streak that Rachid is reaching for.)

Wait a little longer, and you get to see something amazing:

It's strange for Americans to think about, but yes, here in Morocco, you get to watch the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean. (Think about it for a sec.)

Note the ruins silhouetted on the right - those are remnants of Essa's defensive fortress.

And after a long day of shopping, beachcombing, and eating, it's time for some more quality chillaxing with the buds:

Essaouira doesn't get much mention in the guidebooks, other than in reference to their annual music festival in June, but if you're looking for a beautiful, relaxing, low-key but high-quality time, it's absolutely worth a visit.


2/7/09 Yet Another Post on Showering

The other day, a friend brought this to my attention: made me smile.

And realize just how many factors go into Enjoyment Of Shower[ing].

At this point, I think I've had every kind of bad shower there is. Showers without enough pressure. Without enough hot water. Without enough water at all. Showers that vacillate between scalding hot and arctic cold. Showers where I only realize after I'm all soaked that I didn't bring any soap and shampoo, so I can either dress and go shopping or settle for whatever chlorine is in the water.

I've learned how to mitigate for a lot of these. At the hotel 4 hours away where I've taken probably 80% of the showers I've gotten in the past two years, I know (now) how to confirm that the water is running through the hot water heater; how to check that the buta tank is full enough to keep powering the hot water heater throughout my shower; how to rinse myself (and, harder, my hair) with barely a trickle of water coming out; how to trick people into thinking that both showers are in use, since there's only enough hot water for one (and it tends to wander back and forth between them if both are going)... And then they up and replaced their hot water heater with an *electric* one with a 20-gallon tank. That runs for about 5 minutes when I'm alone, two and a half minutes if someone else is showering, too. (Plus, they rebuilt the showers, so now I can't trick people into thinking that the empty ones are in use.) So instead of getting one long, glorious hot shower every couple weeks, I now get a short, rushed, and stressful hot shower.

Some things I've learned about myself:
* While high-pressure is nice, it's not important.
* Hot water IS important. Tepid showers make me grumpy and cold showers? I'll get out and stay dirty.
* If I haven't washed my hair in over a week, it takes 3 shampooings to be fully clean.
* If I'm spongebathing out of a bucket, I need to be surrounded by hot air.
* Cleanliness of the shower doesn't matter, either. I've showered with a tarantula, stepping around vomit... If the water is hot and plentiful, I can (and have) put up with nearly *anything*.


2/6/10 ...and then there were none

Sorry for the long absence, friends; I spent some time traveling, and then brought friends back with me. I spent Friday night as part of a group of 7; a slightly rearranged 7 on Saturday night; Sunday night I was one of 3; and then came the 10-Little-Indians countdown game: Monday night 5, Tuesday 4, Wednesday 3, Thursday 2, and Friday it was just me.

In Culture Shock: Morocco, written primarily for expatriate Americans seeking to relocate to Morocco's wealthy cities, the author points out that success in a foreign land requires finding the right balance between being alone, being with other Americans, and being with Moroccans. (And of course, substitute folks from your own country of origin or country of residency if you're not an American in Morocco.)

He's right.

Maintaining that balance isn't easy, to be sure, but it is terribly important.

In my case, I find spending time with Americans - and, other than my two Fullbrighter friends and the odd tourist, that has always been PCVs - refreshes me. We have so much shared culture, so many shared expectations, that it's simply restful to be around them. I don't have to explain myself. I don't have to endure the swapped glances or murmurs that inevitably accompany my actions when I'm with Moroccans.

On the other hand, spending time with Moroccans keeps me focused on my work. It keeps me aware of the immense need for new knowledge, skills, and attitudes, and on how much I still have to do. Spending time with my host family keeps me conscious of how much I love these people, and how no bad encounter can ever make me paint "all Moroccans" with any broad strokes.

And spending time alone keeps me sane. I've always - from my earliest memories - cherished "alone time", and found sweet renewal in being quiet with my own thoughts. Here in Berberville, where community is cherished above all else, this usually requires me retiring into my house, pulling closed my steel door, and mentally raising the drawbridge.

This week, I've gotten to do all of these things. I spent the earlier days of the week in the company of PCV friends, eating western food and watching English-language movies and swapping stories. Later in the week, I took a PCV friend into the hammam, on a walk through town, and over to my host family's house, bridging the divide between my two worlds.

When I was once again the only PCV in Berberville, I spent more time with my host family and other Moroccan friends, and also spent lots of hours in the quiet stillness of my cement house, sometimes reaching out to old friends on the internet, other times simply reveling in my restored privacy.

Alone time ... American time ... Moroccan time. Like with a three-legged stool, removing any one causes a crashing imbalance. Some days, maintaining that balance feels like walking a tightrope; this week, it's like strolling down to my lake (on a broad, paved road).
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