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8/21/10 Welcome to Boston

Tonight, I went to a "Games Night" at a friend's house. After several hours of Metro and Apples2Apples and Rock Band, those of us taking public transportation said goodnight, and headed back into the city.

We peeled apart, to our separate destinations, and I found myself alone on Boston's T. (For non-Bostonians: formally known as the MBTA, or Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, the public transportation system is informally known as "the bus" for the bus and "the T" for the subway/elevated rail system.)

A few stops down the line, a group of girls in little black dresses and strappy sandals clambered on. They'd been at a bachelorette party, and were now headed back to their hotel. Some hijinx ensued, and after they got off, those of us still on the T had a rare spirit of conviviality. I got off with several of them, and said a cheery goodnight as they headed to the buses and I started walking back to my apartment.

I'd checked the route repeatedly on the map, but there was one critical decision I needed to make. I needed to walk west, NOT east, ie in the direction of Massachusetts Avenue. So when I got out onto the street, I took a minute to figure out the compass points, and then head west. But I wasn't 100% sure of my process, so asked the first car I passed (driving in the other direction on a divided road, so as to ensure that he couldn't possibly follow me afterwards - City Living 101) "Is this the way to Mass Ave?" He confirmed that it was, so I continued briskly down the road.

A few intersections later, I saw a car pulled over to the side of the road. A beefy fellow - a textbook example of a Joe Sixpack - said, "Mumblemumble Mass Ave?"

I pointed the direction I was walking. "Mass Ave is this way," I announced with confidence.

"Ih day toe ya kah?" he continued.

I stared at him. Why was Joe Sixpack suddenly speaking Japanese? As though he expected me to understand it??

But I still wanted to be helpful, and the last thing I'd understood was "Mass Ave?", so I reiterated, "Mass Ave is up that way."

He tried again, with all the tolerant patience of the village women who had needed to repeat themselves for their poor pale friend. "I easkt," and suddenly I heard the thick Boston accent, and began calibrating my ear for it, "Did day toe ya kah?" And this time I understood him. Did they tow your car?

Turns out the same skills that helped me decipher the mumbled language of my illiterate neighbors are helping me here in Beantown.

I smiled and shook my head. "I'm walking from the subway," I said, gesturing back towards the T stop, now several blocks away.

"OK, well, bee kayuhful, sweedaat," he said. Be careful, sweetheart.

I smiled and thanked him and continued on my way, with a prayer of thanksgiving in my heart for all kind-hearted souls. I made it the next few blocks peacefully, exchanging greetings with the other folks still out on the sidewalks ("Weyah's the paaty?" "There's no party,"), and then let myself in through my wrought iron gate, suddenly so reminiscent of the steel door I'd lived behind during my years in Morocco.

I pulled it locked behind me with the same sweet comfort of knowing that I was home - for however long or short this apartment remains my home.

At no point in the half-mile walk had I ever felt unsafe, despite the hour, the setting, or the presence or absence of others on the street. Instead, I'd received help when I needed it, kind words from a stranger, and friendly conversation with some folks who'd blown their tire across the street.

Welcome to your first Saturday night in Boston, little Volunteer!

8/20/10 The "Real Arabic"

I'm settling into a new neighborhood, and therefore still learning my way around, learning the local amenities, etc.

The other day, in my first walk-about, I saw a sign saying "INTERNATIONAL FOODS". At first I walked by, since I was making a beeline for a major chain grocery story I'd heard was just up the road, but I glanced in as I strode by.

It took a couple seconds to register what I'd seen: two women in head scarves.

I stopped, turned around, and retraced my steps. The two women - apparently a mother and daughter, based on resemblance and interactions - seemed relieved and thrilled to have a customer.

I started shopping, and the overeager daughter (whose English is the best in the family, and so takes on the bulk of the customer relations) followed me around the store, chattering nervously. I stocked up in the spice section, because everything was so cheap! (Americans spend waaaaay too much on spices. 4 to 8 dollars for a small jar?? Go to any international foods store and get a small plastic bag with at least as much volume - and usually more - for a DOLLAR. It's still more than spices cost me when I bought them in souq, when this amount would have set me back 2 dirhams, or about 25 cents.)

When I went to check out, the mom and daughter started squabbling about the prices. I think the mom wanted to give me a discount so I'd come back again, but the daughter wanted to drive a harder bargain now.

I didn't catch every word (but then, I never really did in Morocco, either), but I did understand the numbers.

When they said, "Tlat", meaning 3, I echoed it. The daughter looked up at me. The mom had already turned to go into the back of the store, and I don't think she heard.

"I speak a little Arabic," I said. The daughter's eyes grew wider. "Shweeya, mashi bzzef," I added. A little, not much.

"That's Moroccan," she said flatly.

"Yes, I lived in Morocco for the past two years."

"I speak the real Arabic. I can't understand Moroccan."

I admit, I was put off by her high-handedness, but smiled and said, "Yes, Darija is different from Classical Arabic. But at least you recognized it. You understand some."

She seemed to find such an implication insulting, and went back to calculating my tab. I started asking a few questions. Turns out the shop is owned by an Iraqi family who have been in America for two years. The daughter's accent is the lightest Arabic accent I've ever heard. I had to listen carefully to even realize that there *is* one, because I'm so used to listening through much thicker Arabic accents.

By the time I was done, the mom had come back to the front of the store. As I left, I said to her, "Shukran jazillan." Thank you very much.

Her daughter tossed off a careless, "Afwan." You're welcome.

But the mom's face lit up in a way I haven't seen since Morocco, with the incredulous joy of finding a fellow language-speaker. It's a widening of the eyes and a dropping of the jaw and a radiance that suffuses the features. I hadn't realized till I saw it just how much I've missed it. How much I loved surprising people by treating them as members of a shared community, when they expected the condescension of the high-handed tourist to the local peasant (or, in this case, of the citizen to the immigrant).

As I walked out the door, the mom rushed forward a few steps to call, "Salaam-u alaykum!" Peace be upon you! With a big smile, I called back, "Wa alaykum as-salaam." And also with you.

Welcome to the neighborhood, Kauthar. :D


8/18/10 Employment

The continuing adventures of your favorite RPCV [that's Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, to those of you just tuning in]...

Emerging from the Peace Corps into America is daunting enough under the best of circumstances, as I've outlined in these posts. Emerging into the worst economy since the Great Depression ... has been its own challenge.

Virtually none of the RPCVs who finished with me, 3 months ago yesterday, have a job right now. Some are about to start graduate/nursing/business/medical school. Many, actually. But many others are caught in the same joblessness as 10-25% (depending whose numbers you believe) of Americans.

Which makes it kind of remarkable that I have found a job. Alhumdulillah! I'm so very grateful.

But that means that future posts are likely to be about issues facing me at work and at home. My home here in America. Since I created this blog to write about Peace Corps, I feel like I'm bait-and-switch-ing y'all.

I considered starting a new blog, for my new career...but all my friends and relatives [[and some loyal fans who are neither, but who I hope I'll get to meet someday. Seriously, people, introduce yourselves]] know this address and it seems unnecessary to abandon it just to start over.


You'll be hearing about my new adventures, as a journalist in Boston. I haven't yet decided whether I'll link to any stories I write (for publication). That would mean surrendering the anonymity I've clung to for three years.

But for now, let me just say how much I've appreciated all my readers. I don't know who you are (unless you've told me), but thanks to Google Analytics, I know how many of you there are. Knowing that y'all were reading me helped my service immensely. I can't tell you what it meant to know that I had a connection, however tenuous, to the world beyond my mountain village. That people cared about my ongoing experience.

But if you only signed on to hear Morocco and/or Peace Corps stories, I understand. Feel free to go on your way. No hard feelings. I hope you've gotten what you wanted out of my ramblings.

And for those of you sticking around...thanks for sharing my journey.

In the words of the immortal philosophers Calvin & Hobbes:

It's a big world out there. Let's go exploring!


8/19/10 Kalima

When I moved to Berberville, 27 months ago, one of the first people I met was a tiny little girl that Ama introduced as Kalima (left, with her sister and mine).

"Kalima" sounds like the word kalimo, which means word, so I figured her name was a reference to the holy scriptures in the Qur'an. It occurred to me later that our village's dialect blurs the distinction between l's and r's, and that the little girl's name might be "Karima", a common Arab name.

But since I never saw it written - her mother, like Ama, is illiterate, and even after the child started school, I never asked her to write her name - I simply had to pick a mental spelling, and I've always thought of her as Kalima.

Kalima's mother is Rebha - one of a thousand women in the area to carry that very common Tamazight name. This particular Rebha is Ama's next door neighbor, and her closest friend. Their daughters pour into and out of each other's houses, playing and giggling at all hours of the day and into the twilight. Kalima is the youngest of the girls, and tends to follow Noora and Fatima around with the eager delight that I remember following my big sister around with myself, when I was 5 or 6 like Kalima. (Ages are usually vague, too, because dates are as hazy as written words for the women in my village.)

Whenever I think of Kalima, who I haven't seen in three months, I first remember her sparkling eyes, dancing with mischief and innocence and delight. Sometimes all at once. I've never seen such bright eyes. They glowed with some inner radiance.

Next, I remember her ready smile, with its tiny white milk-teeth. Rebha is one of the better cooks in Berberville, but refined sugar is rare (except in tea!), which might explain why Kalima's teeth remain perfect, without benefit of western impositions like a toothbrush.

Many Berberville children were wary of the tall pale foreigner, but Kalima - like her older sister, Noora - accepted me immediately. After a long day of children clamoring for my attention or begging for candy, it was always restful to run into Kalima on the path by Ama's house, and relax in her undemanding presence.

Kalima and Noora could be found underfoot at Ama's house at least as often as any of my own little brothers and sisters, so she shows up in several of the pictures I shot in my host family's house. Here, she and my sister are reading (or at least looking at) books I brought back from Rabat:

I also took a few deliberate portraits of her on the day of my cousin Lucky's wedding, because she was dressed in her sparkling new caftan (and apparently trying to focus on a mote of dust a foot in front of her ):

For reasons that I never understood - despite repeated painstaking explanations using lots of words I didn't understand - one of Kalima's neighbors decided that he wanted to buy brand new caftans for Kalima and Noora, for the wedding.

Kalima in her new caftan:

Caftans are an Arab import into my Berber village, but they're hugely popular at weddings. Made of satin (or shiny polyester), embroidered with bright patterns, and often liberally sprinkled with sequins, caftans are long, tightly belted garments that manage to cover a girl or woman from neck to wrist to ankle, while still showing the general curves of her body and flowing gracefully with her movements.

Every young woman needs at least one caftan to wear to family weddings - and *somebody* gets married almost every summer evening in my little town. Of course, the entire town is always welcomed at any wedding - whatever you're wearing - but relatives of the bride or groom are expected to dress up. And in Berberville, wedding dress code = caftan. For women, anyway. For men, it's simply the white tunics they wear to pray in the mosque.

Wealthy young women own more than one caftan, plus girls tend to loan them out as freely as my friends swapped our gel bracelets in elementary school, so pretty much anyone who wants to dress up for a wedding will be able to.

The little girls aren't quite as lucky. Since little girls everywhere grow like pretty little weeds, buying custom-tailored garments that can only be worn a handful of times before they're outgrown doesn't make sense to most families. So little girls whose sisters or cousins are getting married usually have to make do with hand-me-down caftans, belted and cinched within an inch of their lives.

At our cousin Lucky's wedding, my little sister Fatima was one such cinched figure, tripping over a hem that trailed a good six inches on the floor, and nearly drowning in a garment meant for a girl at least twice as wide as my stick-thin sister.

But Kalima and Noora got brand-new, custom-fitted caftans. I think because their neighbor is related to the family of the groom, who is connected in some truly round-about manner with the mother of the bride...? Yeah, I never did figure out exactly how they scored new caftans, but that didn't stop me from beaming happily (and snapping lots of pictures) as they paraded around town in hand-tailored finery.

Here's Kalima (second from the right) and a bunch of other sleepy girls at Lucky's wedding. This picture was taken around midnight, when the festivities had been going for about 8 hours and had another 4 or 5 hours to go...

Why am I spending so much time talking about my tiny friend Kalima? Who I met when she was 4 or 5 and who I knew only two years?

Because last week, for no reason anyone could discern, Kalima lay her tiny body down, curled up into an implausibly small ball, and died.

Children die all the time in the Third World, usually from preventable illnesses. I'm truly grateful that none of my tiny friends passed on during the two years I spent in their village.

But that blessed bubble has now burst, and Kalima's shining eyes have closed for the last time.

Ajaar akom Allah.

8/18/10 Yuf Kauthar

A few days ago, I spoke to my host mother for only the second time since leaving Morocco.

I miss her.

And she misses me.

My little brothers and sisters mostly miss my cookies. :) Or at least, so Ama tells me. "They like Hassan [my replacement Volunteer]," she assured me, "but they liked you better. He doesn't bake us cookies. They miss your cookies.

"Today," she continued, "Mohammed [my oldest brother] was reminding me that when you came for l-ftor, you always brought cookies. Usually chocolate chip cookies, and sometimes ones you bought in Souqtown. 'Kauthar was better than Hassan is,' he said. 'Her cookies were great.'"

We shared a laugh. I confess I felt a little smug that, while Hassan has moved into my old bedroom in Ama's house, and my old apartment on the other side of town, he hasn't completely supplanted me in the hearts of my family members.

But if he figures out my secret chocolate-chip cookie recipe, that may change... ;)

8/1/10 D'oh!

Homer Simpson made famous the staccato "D'oh!", the exclamation of surprise and embarrassment and recognition-of-one's-own-failings, often accompanied by a face-palm.

I've had a fair number of D'oh! moments in my months back in America.

Moments where my Moroccan expectations don't line up with my Western reality, and leave me feeling like I've got egg on my face.

Like the time I headed over to my favorite coffeeshop in Amherst, MA, USA. Starting my day in a cafe/coffeeshop feels entirely normal to me, since I started most Souqtown mornings in my favorite cafe there, sipping a cup of hleeb b shokolat (hot cocoa, or literally milk with chocolate). That cafe also had the cleanest bathrooms in all of Souqtown, so I often arranged my mornings such that I could take advantage of them. Of course, being the cleanest and best in a small rural town still didn't include such over-the-top, luxurious amenities as toilet paper or soap, so I was always careful to bring my own. This particular sunny day in Amherst, as I strode through town en route to a delicious hot beverage, I suddenly realized that I'd forgotten to put any tissues in my pocket. I stopped in the middle of the street and started to turn back. And then - D'oh! - I realized that American bathrooms HAVE their own toilet paper.

A month later, I made breakfast for my sister and her housemates in northern California. I made one of the staples of my Moroccan mornings, pancakes. In the past two years, I've made enough pancakes to have long since memorized the recipe (which I take disproportionate pride in). So this sunny California morning, I scooped out the floor, sprinkled in the baking powder, poured in the milk, cracked the egg, tossed in the salt and sugar, measured the oil, then dusted in my favorite sweet spices (cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves and ginger) and whisked it all together. Humming under my breath, I ladled the batter into the frying pan, grateful that my sister's house, like my Berberville home, has a gas-powered stove. At least *something* is familiar. Round about the fifth or sixth pancake, I poked a finger in the dough and took a taste. The instant wrinkling of my features must have been comic. The batter was almost inedibly salty. I ran through my mental list of ingredients and confirmed that yeah, I'd used the right proportions. So whence the Dead Sea saltiness? And then - D'oh! - I remembered how, when I first started cooking in my Berberville kitchen, I found that I had to put three to five times as much salt into everything as I was used to, because the kosher salt (halal salt, technically) available there is soooo much weaker than the American variety I'd grown up with. So my mental Moroccan recipe included over a tablespoon of salt for each cup of flour. A TABLESPOON. While the recipe, made with American ingredients, should have needed no more than a TEASPOON. ::sigh::

Another time, in the same kitchen, I was making spaghetti for two. My sister walked in and asked why I was boiling the water in a 10-gallon stockpot. I blinked, looked at the pot, looked at her, looked at the pot again, and said, "Because it was the pot on the drying rack." Sis pulled open the cupboard doors to reveal at least a dozen pans (with their lids!) of every shape and size. Speaking as slowly as I'd been thinking, I said, "I'm used to making do with whatever pan is around. Most of my PCV buddies only own one or two pans, and most Moroccan housewives only two or three. You just ... use what you've got." My sister stared at me, her expression a mix of bemusement and compassion. "It really never occurred to me that there might be another pan around," I concluded, sheepishly. D'oh!

I swear, I became a good cook in Morocco. But nearly every time I've tried to prepare food here, I've run into another D'oh! moment. The ingredients are different. The tools are different. I'm 7,000 feet lower in altitude, so even the air is different. I've gone from being a skilled cook to barely able to boil eggs. ::sigh::

Shweeya b shweeya, little Volunteer, shweeya b shweeya...

7/1/10 Haggling in the Chinatown Souq

The first time I went to Chinatown, it was in New York City. I felt quickly overwhelmed by the foreign smells, sights (Is that really a carcass hanging in the butcher shop?!?), crowding, noise, bustle, and general feeling of barely controlled mayhem.

I've been to a few other Chinatowns since then - DC's has a special place in my heart - and then I spent two years in Morocco. Which, while not Chinese, has its share of open-air markets (called souq), complete with carcass-y butcher shops and dishonest vendors, adding up to its own style of a haggling, shoving, bustling mayhem.

So when I went to San Francisco's Chinatown a little while ago, instead of feeling out of place, like in my first NYC attempt, I found myself simultaneously homesick and right at home. Homesick for Morocco, where I learned to master the souq, to haggle with the best of them, to sneer at unworthy merchandise in hopes of scoring more worthy products...

Plus, some of the products were similar. Like the scarves. I had a two-year love affair with Moroccan scarves, and brought a few dozen back with me. And here, in San Francisco's Chinatown, I found hundreds more in the styles I've come to love! I looked at the prices, wrinkled my forehead, and quickly converted the prices into dirhams. Then my eyes widened with the delight of a shopper who's found a deal.

I did this a few times, for various products, before really consciously realizing what I was doing. And then I had to laugh at myself.

When I first came to Morocco, I converted prices into US dollars, to make sense of the incomprehensible dirhams and riyals. (Riyals are worth 1/20th of a dirham. It's like giving prices in nickels. I, like so many other Moroccan PCVs, am now capable of remarkable mental math feats as long as they involve multiplying or dividing by 20.)

And now, freshly back in America, I'm coverting prices into dirhams, to know if I'm getting a fair deal. Because I have no idea what scarves are supposed to sell for in America, but I know exactly how much I can get them for in Morocco. (25 dirhams apiece in Essaouira, 20 if you find the right guy in the Fes medina, and 40 in Rabat where they're made of better quality fibers. Tourists typically pay 5 to 10 times these prices, but that's 'cause they don't know what they're doing.)

I was in Chinatown with my sister and a friend, who looked up to see what I was laughing about. I explained it to them. My sister the scientist, always looking to make rational sense of the universe, loftily announced that this was entirely normal, and due to the fact that I'd had more scarf-shopping experience in Morocco than in the US. She's not wrong - I don't think I've ever bought a scarf in America - but that's not the whole answer, either. It's about familiarity. Comfort zones. Associations. Chinatown, with its bright colors and rapidfire negotiations and delicious smells, feels more like souq than anyplace I've been in a long time. So of course I'm going to react like I'm in souq - with a sharp eye for a bargain, a savvy sense of fair prices, and a comfort level in, yes, Moroccan dirhams.

In a related note - America money feels like play money to me now. Much like the multicolored Moroccan money did when I first got there. (20 Dh notes are purple, 50's are green, 100's beige, and 200's blue. These last are sometimes called "Big Blues" instead of "Two hundreds".) While I was away, American money changed color. The 5 turned purple. The 10 turned orange. The faces grew and shifted their locations slightly. The 1's retain their classic appearance, but have the buying power of dandilion fluff. How long have I been gone?!?


8/12/10 Mbruk Ramadan!

Ramadan has started, stirring up a host of emotions.

I miss breaking fast with my host family each evening, racing the setting sun across town as I hasten to get there before the moghreb prayer call announces the end of the day of fasting.

I miss the food that the women of my village serve for l-ftor, the fast-breaking meal: dates that my province is justly famous for; olives from the south; cookies (shebbekia and store-bought cookies and whatever else they'd concocted in their kitchens); sweet, herbed, milky coffee (the only time in my life I've drunk coffee without gagging on it); assorted nuts; crepes and pancakes and other bread products, served with honey and jam and oil; and the piece de resistance, fatbread. Mmmmm, fatbread. After you're stuffed, the hostess brings out the second course: harira, the delicious and distinctive creamy Moroccan soup with tomatoes and lentils and short noodles and beans and a dozen other tasty bits. Oh, and the drinks: milk and banana milkshakes and beet juice and fresh-squeezed orange juice...

I miss my large family crowding around a small table, hands and arms reaching past each other as everyone grabs bits of their favorite foods. I miss Ama ladling out a special serving of harira for me, since I'm the only one in the room who doesn't want a bit of meat floating in my bowl.

I miss the constant invitations from everyone in town to share their l-ftor meal. (You get extra brownie points if you share the meal.)

I don't miss the long, hot, thirsty afternoons without water.

Or hanging out with PCV buddies who aren't fasting and who therefore make it that much harder for me. (Let alone the PCVs who try to sneak food in public, to my abiding embarrassment.)

I don't miss the stepped-up efforts to convert me to Islam. You're fasting? And you pray? Praise God! You're practically Muslim already! Just repeat after me: 'There is no God but Allah...'

I don't miss people assuring me that it's healthy to starve all day and then gorge on cookies. (For the record, shebbekia, while delicious, are basically less-puffy glazed donuts. Make pie crust dough, twist it into a pretzel-like knot, deep fry it, dip it in liquid sugar, and then (if desired) sprinkle it with sugar or sesame seeds. Really NOT the best thing to jump-start your intestines with, after a long, dry, hungry day.)

So here I am, in America, after observing Ramadan - ie, fasting and then breaking the fast - for two years. And this year, I'm not fasting. Ur da-tazumagh. Which I feel sporadically guilty about, knowing that the migrating lunar calendar** means that this year is even hotter and harder for my observant friends than last year was.

I'm keeping an eye out for Ramadan foods, but haven't found them yet. My best lead - a restaurant owned by a Moroccan! - went out of business a few years back.

But I'm keeping hope alive. I *will* find fatbread before the month is out. Somewhere, somehow...

** Ramadan, like the rest of the Muslim calendar, uses lunar months, which don't align perfectly with the solar years of the western, Gregorian calendar. This means that each year, Muslim holidays come 10-11 days earlier than they did before, when scheduled on a western calendar. So my first Ramadan filled the month of September, last year's was late August to mid September, and this year's is early August to early September. Etc. In the next few years, Ramadan will continue to march backward through the summer months. Imagine maintaining a pure abstention from any water or any other beverage through the heat of a 130*F desert afternoon...
Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps