Saturday, October 22, 2011

Asking a Woman's Opinion

This afternoon, I went over to my host family's home for lunch. As usual, when I arrived, the TV was on. In most Moroccan homes, if the TV is not on when one arrives, then shortly after one arrives for a visit, it is switched on. For a while, I was talking with some of the members of my host family. One of them was showing me some photos which she and her extended family members and friends had taken in Rabat, Casablanca and Ouarzazate on her cell phones (yes, she has more than one cell phone). After a while, my host family brought out some tea and sweets which we enjoyed together. Some time later, we ate lunch, which was a tajine, or stew, with bread, and drank the peach nectar which I had brought to their house with me.

At some point, we were watching a TV show about a group of Moroccan women who went to Marrakech for a weekend getaway. It seemed like a reality TV show. The footage was switching back and forth between their Moroccan husbands at home cooking and caring for the kids, and the Moroccan women enjoying their time in Marrakech, which included a meal in a Chinese restaurant as well as some time poolside.

I was struck by one thing which I've noticed before on TV here in Morocco which has always somewhat puzzled me. During the segment of the show at the pool, women in bikinis were shown. Yet I was watching this show not only in Morocco, but in the home of a fairly conservative family, in a conservative rural town, where the vast majority of women cover almost all of their bodies, except their faces, hands, and below their ankles. I've been repeatedly surprised by how conservative families here in Morocco watch TV programs showing scantily clad women, or women at least wearing clothing with low necklines, and baring most of, if not all of, their arms and legs. I suppose that I can discern that these viewers might be making a distinction between what they choose to wear themselves and what they choose to watch other women wearing on TV. Still, I am a bit surprised to see conservative women and men here watching TV shows starring women who are so uncovered.

In any event, when the TV show was over, I asked one of my host sisters (who, incidentally, in the last few months, has been to Casablanca and Rabat) what she thought of how these Moroccan women went to Marrakech for the weekend and left their husbands to cook in the kitchen and care for their kids. My host sister wouldn't answer.

After she wouldn't answer my question, I felt that I was led, by her failure to respond, to think a couple of things. First, it occurred to me that she wasn't used to someone asking her for her opinion, at least not on the topic which I was addressing. Which makes sense, given the cultural norm here in conservative rural Morocco, of how women are generally expected to stay at home, cook and care for their kids. Second, it occurred to me that perhaps she didn't feel like she could say what she really thought in response to my question... whatever it was that she thought. However, I still thought that it was important to ask her for her opinion...

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Prioritizing

Last weekend, I went to the city that's about an hour away from my town. I had very much wanted to return there for Bible study with the group of Christians I had met there earlier this year.

Before last weekend, I had had the idea in my head that if I was going to go to the city, I had to stay overnight there for at least one, if not two, nights, to make the trip worthwhile. Last week, I realized that I could take a bus or a grand taxi there on Sunday morning, and take a bus or taxi back here to my town on Sunday afternoon.

Essentially I realized that I had to prioritize. It's not a priority to have a weekend outside of my town. In fact, one of my priorities is to make sure I don't spend too much time outside of my town.

I concluded that by going there for just part of one day, I'm focusing on what's most important, tending to my spiritual health and well-being. I spend time doing what's most important, while at the same time not spending a night outside my community. Taking care of everything, while being sure to do what's most important.

So, last weekend, I went into the city just for the day. That day, I felt, as I do now feel, supported and encouraged in my faith by the other Christians there; I'm very thankful to have the spiritual community I have with them. After the Bible study session, we had a potluck barbeque lunch there in one of their houses. In the meal, I especially appreciated the barbequed chicken, the barbequed sausages, and the potato salad. All of the desserts were great; we had German chocolate cake for the birthday of one of the women there in the group; we also had chocolate brownies, which were enjoyably gooey; and we also had some yummy peanut butter brownies with chocolate chips in them.

After the barbeque, I headed back here to my town. I was sad to be leaving them after having had such a good time. At the same time, I'm glad that they're so nearby.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Funkytown, Or, A Sort of Mid-Service Crisis

For most of September, and a good part of October, I was in a funk, a trough to which I returned more than once; I was going through a series of rough patches during this period. I was feeling down, a bit challenged.

When Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) are about midway through their Peace Corps service, they often go through what has been called a "mid-service crisis." Midway through, PCVs ask themselves whether they're really making a difference, sometimes doubt the effectiveness of the Peace Corps, bemoan their lack of progress in learning a new language, and just generally question whether they should be in their host country at all.

I don't think that I really experienced what I would call a mid-service crisis. I asked myself some questions similar to the ones I've described here. But in the last couple of months, I never posed questions as fundamental about my Peace Corps service as some of the more serious ones I've listed here. Nor did I feel as low as I suspect some other PCVs have when they were about halfway through their service.

Nevertheless, I don't discount the possibility that I was feeling low because I'm nearly halfway through my service as a PCV. Speaking recently with my immediate family members on the phone, my sister-in-law reminded me that it's natural and common to question, re-evaluate and re-assess one's position when halfway through any particular endeavor. From doing so, one can benefit from the insight and perspective one potentially gains by devoting one's time and attention to where one came from, currently is, and is heading. I can't claim to have any particular insights from reflecting on my recent trough. However, it's at least my intention right now to re-evaluate my service as a PCV. At this point, I am now more than halfway through my time in Morocco (combining my PST, or Pre-Service Training, with my service as a PCV). I am now also nearly halfway through my service as a PCV.

So, to get more specific about how I've felt from time to time in the last month and a half... among other things, I've been challenged by dealing with a lack of work. For the entire summer, except for the ten days or so that I was at Summer Camp, I've had little, if any, work to do. The Dar Chebab, or youth center, where I do most of my volunteering, was closed for much of the summer. Since it re-opened, little by little, more kids have started coming to the Dar Chebab. I've gradually been starting to work more and more.

I've also felt resigned to understanding Darija, and speaking in Darija, at the level I had reached earlier this year, in the Spring. At that point, more than a few months ago, I hit a plateau in learning Darija, which is Moroccan Arabic, and which is the language I speak the most here in Morocco. After progressing in learning Darija for at least half of a year, I felt like I was no longer improving in my ability to speak and understand Darija.

At times I've felt homesick for family and friends in the USA, and just the life and culture there. I miss my loved ones there. And the culture in the USA is the one to which I am the most accustomed.

Given that I'm most comfortable in the culture of the USA, at times I feel challenged here in Morocco. While I've learned how to live here, and have adjusted to life here, it's still a foreign culture to me. I've learned about it, and can explain it, but I haven't adopted it as my own. I still am very much a citizen of the USA living in Morocco. Consequently, sometimes the cultural differences here are still prominent to me. It's as if, at times, I feel a later stage version of culture shock. Perhaps shock is no longer the most appropriate word, but to the extent that that word is no longer entirely evocative, I believe it is largely due to simply having been exposed to this foreign culture for as long as I have been living in it. That, having lived here as long as I have, the cultural differences are no longer surprising, or shocking, but only because they're no longer novel. The attendant challenges, of coping and adjustment, are still present.

Yes, if you think that I am implying that I feel in some ways that I have not entirely adjusted to the culture here, then, yes, you are correctly interpreting what I am trying to say. I think that perhaps it is still reasonable to still be adjusting to the culture here. But I also think that I in particular feel especially challenged in living here due to my particular makeup, approach to life, philosophy, religion, faith and values. I generally favor freedom and latitude over restriction; debate over silence; inquiry over static acceptance and failure to question; activity over passivity. I attended a college which helped me to further develop these values and this approach to life; which keenly tried to encourage its students to engage in critical thinking; and which strongly supported respecting others' rights, which certainly included buoying and improving the status of women. In addition to all of these facets of my intellectual makeup, I feel most challenged here in terms of my spirituality, given the relative lack of exchange between religions, paucity of debate and little diversity within any particular conversation about religion here. And I face these spiritual challenges in the context of being Christian in a country which is more than 98 percent Muslim.

You might think that I have been describing many things descriptive of my entire time here in Morocco. I think it's true, that in the last month and half, I have been feeling emotions which I have always felt here in Morocco. To a certain extent, in my mid-service crisis, if it deserves to be called that, I have been continuing to grapple with challenges I have always felt here.

In a way, I think that maybe in the last month and a half, I have been assessing how I have been dealing with these challenges. I've been evaluating how I cope.

I've gained some fortitude from knowing that at this point, I feel relatively stable in my service. I know how to cope well. I did experience a series of rough patches in the last month and a half. Yet, at no point during this period did I sink anywhere nearly as low as I did during my first few months living here in my town, from late November last year to mid-March this year. I think that I've fared as well as I have because of the advice I've received, and my own advice (mostly contained in my August 2011 blog post entitled "Tips for PCVs and PCTs,") which I myself have tried to follow. Recently when I was feeling down, I identified how I was feeling. I thought, "I'm feeling homesick." Next I thought, "It's reasonable for me to feel homesick. I am far away from many people I love. I miss them. It's completely natural for me to feel this way." Immediately I felt drastically better. Knowing that I can competently cope, I then feel empowered to take action in other areas, such as my work.

I've also maintained a sense of direction and purpose by reminding myself while I'm here. I remember very often that I'm trying to do what God wants me to do, namely, help others, and, more specifically, help impoverished people, and, even more specifically, help them better themselves.

In keeping in touch with my faith, and reminding myself what my values are, I've been taking my own advice, remembering what I've learned. And I've also been remembering what others have taught me. You might think I am making a very obvious point here. However, I've seen numerous PCVs sinking low because they succumb to various forms of tunnel vision, of pessimism, of failing to consult, listen to, and learn from others (and at times I have suffered from this malady as well). So remember what you have learned, and ask for help when you need it. After all, the Peace Corps is all about learning from others.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Wormhole to the U.S.

A couple of weekends ago, I went to the city that's about an hour away from my town. I was very happy to attend a Bible study session with the Christians who I had met there earlier this year.

Later in the day after the Bible study session, I stayed overnight at one of their houses. While the Christians in this group, which meets for Bible study, are expats from various countries, the particular family, with whom I stayed overnight, is originally from the U.S. Consequently, when I was in their house with them, they were speaking nothing but English, except when they were on the phone with Moroccans, when they then spoke Darija, that is, Moroccan Arabic.

Also, they've been living here in Morocco so long that this is their home. They've adjusted quite well; they're comfortable. One of them commented to me that it takes months to adjust to life here in Morocco. I agree, and I can say from experience that it takes a while for Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) to adjust to life in their particular host countries.

During much of the time I spend with other PCVs, we end up talking about challenges of serving here in Morocco. However, these expats from the U.S. are so adjusted, that I felt like they were hosting me in a home of theirs in the U.S. Thus the conversation felt much like conversation I'd have in a home physically located in the U.S.

On a more mundane level, I also enjoyed listening to the music they were playing in their home. We listened to The Beatles and Michael Jackson.

When I arrived at their home, it appeared as if they had just finished eating breakfast. One of them told me to help myself to some pancakes... with maple syrup! As if that wasn't enough, once I had started eating some pancakes, he told me to have as many of them as I wanted, since otherwise they were probably just going to go to waste. I was thrilled, since I hadn't eaten pancakes with maple syrup in months!

Another way in which I felt that I had been transported to the U.S.: I used their toilet. Which meant, given that it has a toilet seat, that I sat down to use it! Being accustomed to using a squat toilet here in Morocco, it felt like I was in another country when I sat down to use a toilet!

For various reasons I felt like I was in the U.S. Sure, I felt like I was in the U.S. because I was seeing, touching, hearing and tasting things I don't often experience here in Morocco. But I think I also felt as if I was in the U.S. because my hosts that weekend were, and are, just so hospitable, generous, warm and caring. Why, you might ask, is that any different than when some Moroccans show me hospitality in their home? I was able to just relax and decompress. I wasn't serving as an ambassador of the U.S. like I usually am when I walk around in public here in Morocco, or even when I'm in the home of some Moroccans.

But, truth be told, there is more to it than that. I was so immensely comfortable because I knew I was with other Christians. I don't always have to be spending time with other Christians. Yet at a certain point after not having spent time with other Christians, I start to feel isolated if I'm not meeting in spiritual community with other Christians. In a certain way, I don't feel supported in my faith by others, because I'm not spending time with others who share my faith. While there are various ways of building and maintaining spiritual community, I believe that one gains it in a most helpful and supportive way by actually spending time with others.

When I was applying to join the Peace Corps, I had resigned myself to the reality that I would probably not be able to go to church regularly, and to the probability that I would not be living near other Christians. But God saw fit to have it otherwise. He takes care of me.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Enjoying the Draconid Meteor Shower Under African Skies

Last Saturday night, Stan, the other PCV living in my town, and I went up onto his roof to watch the shooting stars of the Draconid meteor shower. I had read in a news article on the Internet earlier in the day that people in North Africa would be well-situated to see the falling meteors. I had also read that the best time to view the shooting stars would be between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. EST (Eastern Standard Time) on the east coast of the U.S. Morocco is located in the GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) time zone, so Morocco is currently 5 hours ahead of EST. Thus, I figured that the best time to watch the meteor shower here in Morocco would be between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Stan and I got up onto his roof around 7:30 p.m. I had read in the article that because the moon was nearly going to be a full moon, it would be reflecting so much light that we wouldn't see as many shooting stars as if it were a new moon. Indeed, when we first got up onto his roof, the moon was already throwing enough light that it was already obvious that we wouldn't have the best viewing conditions. Also, there were no clouds whatsoever in the sky, which on the one hand meant that our view was not obscured by clouds. On the other hand, though, that also meant that the moon was able to bring that much more light to us, thus making it more difficult to see whatever shooting stars there were.

Anyway, despite the brightness of the moon, very soon after we sat down in his plastic chairs on his flat, concrete roof, we started seeing shooting stars. While there were pauses when we were scanning the sky for shooting stars, I don't think we ever had to wait more than a few minutes to see a falling meteor. And this was given how bright the sky was. Between 8:10 p.m. and 8:20 p.m., we counted 18 shooting stars. I have to imagine that if the sky had been darker, we would have seen even more of them.

Despite how bright the sky was, I was very happy that we saw this one particular shooting star. It was by far the biggest and most impressive one I've ever seen. It was a bright, white, round ball, which had a trail of much smaller, and much less bright, pieces flying off of it. Interestingly, given how bright and large it seemed to be, it didn't seem to fade out gradually; rather, all of a sudden, it disappeared. Whatever the reason for its apparently rapid disappearance, I was very thankful to have seen it.

Stan and I also found this particular meteor shower notable because the falling meteors seemed to be located over such a large portion of the sky. Given that the shooting stars were spread over such a large part of the sky, sometimes one of us would see one of them, but the other of us would miss that particular one because of looking in another part of the sky at that particular moment. At the time when one of us missed one of them, of course the other one of us was disappointed to have missed one. However, in retrospect, the immensity of the scope of the meteor shower, which caused us to miss some of them, seems to have been another indicator of the magnificence of this meteor shower, for which I was very thankful, as a natural wonder and gift from the heavens, which we were able to enjoy simply by looking skyward.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Driving Them Crazy

Last Saturday, a couple of boys who came to the Dar Chebab (the youth center where I do most of my volunteering) asked me to teach them about speaking in English. I decided to continue an English class I had started with them earlier in the week in which I was showing them different vowel sounds, and the different ways in which the same vowel sound is spelled, as shown by different words.

I was telling them that the long "a" sound is found in words spelled like "late," "bait," "pay," "paid," and "stayed," among others. At that point, Stan, the other PCV living in my town, chuckled, and said something like, "English is crazy! All of these words are pronounced with the same vowel sound, but they're not spelled the same way!"

Later, I told them about words with the short "a" sound like "at," "cat," "and," "hand," and others. We also covered words with the long "e" sound, the short "e" sound, the long "i" sound, the short "i" sound, the long "o" sound, the short "o" sound, the long "u" sound, and the short "u" sound.

I think that they started to have difficulty processing the intricacies when I started getting into less usual cases. One of them seemed to be taking a little time to process the pronunciation of the last syllable of the word "illiterate." But the last straw seemed to be the word "dove." I had previously told them that the words "love" and "above" were pronounced with a short "u" sound. Then I told them that the word "dove," when referring to the bird of this name, is pronounced in a way which rhymes with "love" and "above." But then I added that when it's referring to the past tense of the word "dive," that it's pronounced with a long "o" sound. At that point, it looked like I was driving them crazy, so I figured that we had reached a good time to end the lesson!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

It Could Be Much Worse

When faced with a situation which I find difficult, sometimes because I have to wait longer than I had originally expected for something to happen, or because I can't get what I want right away, I often cope by telling myself that it could be much worse. It was in this vein that I found it very appropriate that I was reading some writings by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton as I was waiting over an hour for a grand taxi in a small town here in Morocco last week. In these particular writings, Merton describes how certain Christians coped with the crimes being committed by the Nazis during World War II, and how they coped with expectations that they participate in such atrocities. In particular, Merton writes about the Austrian Franz Jagerstatter, who was executed in 1943 for refusing to serve in the Nazi military forces. I believe that because I was reading about Jagerstatter, and about his refusal to serve in the Nazi forces, and about how he instead adhered to what he felt was a pure form of Christianity, even though the Nazis executed him for it, I gained a good deal of perspective, and was filled with a great deal of patience. I realized that what I perceived to be a problem, namely waiting for what seemed to be a long time for a taxi, if it actually was even a problem at all, was relatively minor, mundane and unimportant, compared with the challenging moral questions which many people have faced in other, much more stressful circumstances.

And soon enough, as if to validate my acceptance of the true nature of my situation, a bus stopped on the main road, dropping off some people, some of whom wanted to travel on the more minor road on which I had been waiting. Consequently, with these new arrivals, a taxi filled up and was ready to leave.

I was in a full taxi, riding to my destination, the town of my friend and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) Ben. He is finishing his service as a PCV this week, so I wanted to visit him in his town before he leaves. We had a good time during my visit. A Peace Corps staff person was visiting his site that day, so as to be more familiar with the town if and when a new PCV starts living there. So we spent part of the day walking around his town, and at times in the process enjoyed great views of the palmerie, the massive grove of palm trees there. We had great meals. One was a tajine with Ben's host family. Another one was at a cafe, and included tomato and onion salad, omelettes, French fries, olives, bread, and olive oil.

When I left his town the next day, I thought about how I was sad that he was about to leave. But then I thought that because he's leaving, that also means that I'm that much further along in my service. Which means that I'm in the thick of being able to help people here in Morocco. And learn things here.

And as I type this, I also know that things could be much worse. Because I have been blessed by God with the freedom which accompanies so many opportunities to give, and in the process, to grow. And thus live the life of love which I aspire to live.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Lighting Up the Evening Sky

Walking home from the Dar Chebab (youth center) where I do most of my volunteering here in my town, on one particular night last week, I saw many flashes of lightning. Though it wasn't raining at all for the entirety of my five-minute walk home, the lightning kept flashing. Over the course of a two to three minute period, five seconds never passed in which I didn't see a flash of lightning. At times this one especially jagged mountain was backlit by the lightning, offering an raw, unrefined, giant silhouette of the massive rock. At other times, the lightning flashed in front of this same mountain, illuminating the front of its immensity.

I remembered how, months ago, I had imagined bolts of lightning striking in front of this especially prominent mountain here in town, envisioning it as an impressive and powerful sight. It turned out to be just as magnificent as I had envisioned it.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Workers on Strike!

Earlier this month, the teachers here in my town went on strike, along with the rest of the public school teachers nationwide throughout Morocco. They were agitating in favor of a lower retirement age. A teacher explained to me this week that public school teachers previously were able to retire at age 60. Later the retirement age was raised to 62. The teachers were striking this week to try to exert pressure to change the retirement age back down to 60.

To give a little more context, since I've been living here in my town, the teachers here have gone on strike on multiple occasions before this week. Workers in Morocco have the right under the Moroccan constitution to organize, that is, to unionize, to form unions. Labor unions constitute about 5 percent of the full-time Moroccan workforce; about 500,000 workers are union members in Morocco, in this country of roughly 33 million.

Labor laws here in Morocco have provided grades of minimum wage, paid holidays, and a defined work week. As is the case so often throughout the world, employees in Morocco have a need for the protection of labor laws and the strength which comes through unionizing. Given the inexpensive cost of compensating workers for their labor in Morocco, and the proximity of Morocco to Europe, foreign companies might find it appealing to invest in Morocco. Thus, in this context, Moroccan workers benefit from the freedom to organize, and from the protection of the Moroccan labor laws.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

There's A First Time For Everything...

Earlier this week, I met Stan, the other PCV who lives here in the same town where I live here, at a café for some coffee. As we were sitting there, we shared our musings about our lives here in Morocco. At one point, I told Stan that, in my ten months of living here in this town, while I have seen foreign female tourists sitting at cafés here in our town, I have never, not even once, seen Moroccan women or Moroccan girls sitting in a café here in town.

When we got up to pay for our cups of coffee, we saw two Moroccan teenage girls sitting at a table in the café. There's a first time for everything... Literally one or two seconds later, I looked further towards the front of the café, and saw three Moroccan women sitting at another table. There's a second time...

Friday, October 7, 2011

Variety is in the Liveliest of Spices

Recently my friend and fellow PCV Ben visited me here in my town, and we decided to make dinner together. While in the center of my town, we were in a hanoot, which is essentially the Moroccan equivalent of a corner grocery store, where we briefly discussed what we were going to have for dinner that night. He suggested making corn chowder. Never having had it here in Morocco, I quickly supported that idea. We set about buying the various ingredients which I didn't already have in my apartment: corn, potatoes, onions, penne pasta, and a relatively unique spice named "ras-l-hanoot," in Darija, or Moroccan Arabic. Literally this phrase means "the head of the grocery store" in Darija. It's fairly unique because it's actually a blend of various spices, thus containing multiple spices. It's also fairly intriguing because one often can have difficulty knowing what it contains, since its actual composition varies so much depending on who is making it. It's also notable because, at least according to at least one Moroccan, it can contain as many as eighty different substances in it. It often contains pepper (sometimes multiple kinds of pepper), cumin, nutmeg and ginger. It often ends up giving a dish somewhat of a curry-like flavor. Indeed, when Ben and I ate the corn chowder containing the ras-l-hanoot, the chowder seemed to have a flavor reminiscent of curry. It made what most likely would already have been a tasty meal even more delectable!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Role Reversal

This past weekend, I met Stan, the other PCV who lives in my town, at a café which I hadn't visited in months. I had suggested that we meet there because I had had some delicious banana juice there on previous visits. I had accidentally stumbled into discovering that that banana juice was good without sugar. On a previous visit, the waiter there had asked me, rather atypically for Moroccan waiters taking an order for juice, if I wanted it with or without sugar; it hadn't even previously occurred to me that there would even be sugar in it. Without the sugar, it tasted much more like a milkshake, with the predominant quality being creaminess rather than sweetness. Unfortunately, when we asked the waiter this past weekend if he had banana juice, he said that they no longer make it at that café. Stan and I decided to have some coffee there at that café.

As he and I were sitting at that café, we shared our musings about our lives here in Morocco. At one point, I thought that I am doing the same things here in Morocco that I would do if I was in the U.S. I noted to Stan that if I were in the U.S., I would be going to cafés, where I would be drinking coffee, and at times, reading. Then, as I was looking out at the mountains and hills in front of us, I added that if I was in the U.S., I would also be hiking and enjoying beautiful views in nature, much as I have done here in Morocco. It made me think of phrases here in Morocco, "bhal bhal" and "kif kif," which one uses when one wants to say that two things are the same thing. One also sometimes communicates that sentiment by outstretching only one's index fingers next to each other. I wouldn't go quite so far as to say that my life here in Morocco and the life that I had in the U.S. are the same. However, my realizations at the café made me think that my life here in Morocco and the life that I had in the U.S. are more alike than I have been thinking.

After Stan and I parted ways soon after leaving the café, I walked into the center of town. On the way, I crossed paths with one of the students who is a regular at the Dar Chebab ("youth center") where I do most of my volunteering as a PCV. We hadn't seen each other since the beginning of the summer, since we both had been traveling over the summer. Given that he and I had not only interacted a lot over the course of the previous academic year, but also that he and I appreciate each other, he greeted me by not only shaking my hand, but also by kissing me alternately on both cheeks, twice on each cheek, for a total of four kisses. Though really, the word "kiss" is technically a misnomer--actually we just touched cheeks, as many people do. Sometimes people make the kissing sound even though their lips are not touching the other person's cheeks. We updated each other on our travels. He asked me if the Dar Chebab had re-opened yet after being closed for the summer. I informed him that it had re-opened the previous week, so when we parted ways, we told each other that we would see each other soon at the Dar Chebab.

As I continued on my way into the center of town, a man greeted me as I approached him. I returned the greeting, and we stopped to speak with each other. I learned that he is a teacher of Arabic and French, and that he just moved to my town to teach in it. I asked him how long he has lived in my town. He replied that he has lived in my town for five days! I found that the usual roles, in my interactions with Moroccan teachers in my town, had been reversed--rather than the Moroccan teacher welcoming me to the town, instead I was welcoming him to the town!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Women Drivers

Walking through my town this past weekend, I came upon a car, which looked like it was a subcompact, being used for driver education. On previous occasions, I had seen people being instructed in how to drive in that area, a minor paved street surrounded by dirt on both sides, which has relatively little traffic. A parking space is drawn in the dirt, in which student drivers practice parking. They also navigate their way around obstacles placed in the street there.

On this particular occasion this past weekend, I was very pleased to see a woman in the driver's seat. I'd previously seen women driving motorcycles in Marrakech, and also I'd just known that women drive here in Morocco. But every time I see that not only are women's human rights respected here in Morocco, but also that women actually exercise these rights, I feel encouraged and strengthened on behalf of Moroccan women.

Especially in light of how women living in other Islamic countries are allowed varying degrees of freedom. In particular, Saudi women have been agitating for the right to drive for years now. In this regard, of learning about the rights of women in various Islamic countries, I found it especially edifying to read "Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women" by Geraldine Brooks. In this book, Brooks reviews how at times women's freedoms have been curtailed in the name of Islam, in the process sometimes distorting what Islam says. For example, the Koran (more accurately spelled as "the Qu'ran") does not mention honor killings, which occur when a woman's male relatives kill her for being intimate with a man before getting married and thus, in their perception, bringing disrepute on their family. At other times, in her book, Brooks discusses how women's freedoms and rights have been curtailed according to what the Qu'ran says. For example, the Qu'ran says that if a woman will not obey her husband, he shall scourge her, which has been interpreted as support for men to beat their wives.

In addition to finding the book informative about Islamic women's rights, I also found the book educational about Islam and its founder. One of his wives accused him of having self-serving prophecies, including of having a revelation that it was acceptable to have more wives than the-then current practice allowed at that time.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Losing Fluency in English

After I bought the cookies which I mentioned in my last blog post, Stan, who is my site mate, who is the other PCV here in town, and I walked to a café here in town, where we sat down to have some coffee. Seeing as it was nearly 8 p.m., and knowing how sensitive I am to the effects of caffeine, I resolved to make sure to order a beverage which would be unlikely to keep me awake. Thus, I told myself to make sure that I was saying the right thing to the waiter. After the waiter asked for my order, I thought to myself, "OK, 'qahwa mhersa' means 'coffee with a little milk,' so that's what I want to make sure that I order." I then quite confusedly asked him for a qahwa mhersa. When it arrived, I looked at it, and how it appeared darker than I expected it to be, and kind of just shrugged in my mind.

Later that night, lying in bed, eyes wide awake, I began to think about how I was so alert, and not at all sleepy. Usually before 10 p.m., my eyelids begin to get a little heavy. Then I realized that I had not ordered milk with a little coffee (which many Moroccans order), but rather the opposite, coffee with a little milk. I couldn't believe it. I thought of how I had translated the Arabic words into English in my head. I didn't fail to correctly translate them. I correctly translated them in my head; I just didn't process the English words well.

I have to imagine that, as a PCV specifically here in Morocco, where many Moroccans know English to varying degrees, I am less prone to this phenomenon of stumbling with English than PCVs are in other countries where natives speak less English than they do here in Morocco, or even no English at all. Then again, I don't know. I've heard stories of PCVs in countries where the PCVs never speak English with the natives. After being in such countries for months, those PCVs burst into a room of other PCVs, and immediately start randomly and quickly spouting English, borne of a lack of opportunities to speak English for months.

Maybe it's just that whenever one lives in a foreign country where one is speaking less English than one was accustomed to speaking back in the U.S., one will experience displacement of English abilities, no matter in what country one currently resides. I have to imagine that that is why another PCV here in Morocco asked me and other PCVs earlier this year, "Does 'E-Y-E' spell a word?"

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Case of Mistaken Currency

I have been greatly blessed to have received many care packages from loved ones since I started living here in my town ten months ago. People who know me know that I have a sweet tooth. Loved ones have sent me chocolate chip cookies and brownies that they have baked, as well as Paul Newman Oreos and Trader Joe's Oreos they have bought for me and sent to me.

I've also traveled a lot in the last ten months, so the sweets I've received in care packages have lasted even longer, since I wasn't eating them when I wasn't at home. While traveling, I've eaten a lot of desserts from patisseries (French for "bakeries") as well as from "supermarchés" (smaller supermarkets).

Consequently, over the last ten months, I've had only brief periods where I didn't have a stash of sweets at home. Recently I finally exhausted the last few Trader Joe's Oreos which my sister-in-law graciously bought for me when I was back in the states this summer. Still I had, and still have, a box of Christmas candy which a former co-worker sent to me! Yet I feel that at this point, I should save that until December, so I can eat it at a more appropriate time of year.

Thus it recently came to be that I didn't have any sweets at home which I was going to eat. It was in this context that a couple of days ago, I stopped by this bakery here in my town. I told the man behind the counter that I wanted to spend twenty. He replied that that sum would get me hardly any cookies. I figured that he was charging me much more than he would charge Moroccans, so I told him that I would rather not get any cookies, and I left his shop disgruntled.

A little later, I asked myself if perhaps he was not trying to overcharge me, but if perhaps instead I had misunderstood him. It occurred to me that maybe he and I were thinking in different units of currency.

In Morocco, the standard unit of currency is the dirham. However, Moroccans also state prices in riyals. Here's how it works: stick with me. One dirham equals 100 centimes. One riyal is 5 centimes. So one dirham equals 20 riyals. So if he thought I only wanted to spend 20 riyals, that would mean he thought I only wanted to spend one dirham, which only would have been enough to buy about one cookie.

PCVs in Morocco often find themselves confused, especially in their first few months in Morocco, when prices are quoted to them in riyals, and, I contend, with good reason. The amount in riyals does not appear on any unit of Moroccan currency. Thus PCVs often find themselves having to convert from riyals to dirhams in their heads as they stand at a shop trying to buy something.

Usually it's obvious when a shopkeeper quotes a price to me in riyals. It's usually in the hundreds rather than 5, 10 or thereabouts. I'm tipped off by the huge difference between the figure he has given me and the amount I expected it to cost in dirhams. I then set about doing the math in my head to convert from riyals to dirhams.

However, standing in the bakery, it just didn't occur to me that he was thinking in dirhams. If I had indicated with my hands the volume of cookies I wanted to buy, then he would have quoted me a price. Since he didn't quote me a price, I had no figure to compare with what I had been expecting to pay.

It was only later that it occurred to me that perhaps he had been thinking in riyals. Yesterday, I decided to go back to test my theory. This time I happened to enter the shop with Stan, the other PCV who also lives in my town. When we entered the shop, the baker offered us a free sample cookie each, somewhat akin to a Madeleine cookie in the U.S. As soon as we had finished those sample cookies, he offered each of us a second sample cookie, each of which had ground nuts sprinkled on top. I bought a bag of cookies which cost twenty dirhams, which contained perhaps twenty cookies. I left the shop happy that I had gone back to give interacting with him a second try, happy to be giving business to a local vendor.

I think that I confirmed my hypothesis which I had developed after having left the shop the previous day, that it seemed that he had been thinking in riyals rather than in dirhams. During PST (Pre-Service Training) during my first couple of months in Morocco, Peace Corps staff directed us PCVs to develop hypotheses about why certain things happen here in Morocco. I received reinforcement of the wisdom of this approach from my trips to the bakery. It's important not just to develop the hypotheses, but also to gather the data which confirm or disprove the hypotheses. Otherwise you might be missing out. On more than just some delicious cookies. Also on the chance to learn more, and understand more, about another culture, and the people who live in it.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

There's No Time Like The Present

Often when I'm at the Dar Chebab ("youth center" in Darija, or Moroccan Arabic) here in town, I find myself waiting for more kids to show up. Kids aren't required to come to the Dar Chebab; they just come if they want to come. While I mention certain activities or classes to them, they don't always come for such activities or classes, even if they say that they're interested in attending. Keep in mind that in Morocco, people very often indirectly respond to an invitation to an event which does not interest them. Rather than directly decline an invitation, very often people will either say that they will attend an event, or they avoid accepting the invitation.

With the Dar Chebab re-opening this week after being closed because it was the latter half of the summer, I began to feel a sense of urgency. Time has been passing, and as more time slips behind me, of course that means that there is less time left here in Morocco for me.

So, yesterday, when one boy, a regular at the Dar Chebab, arrived in the Dar Chebab, I brought him into a classroom and began an improvised geography lesson with him. I drew the globe, started filling it in with the continents, and asking him to name them. He could name them in Darija, but not always in English. Then I started reviewing the names of oceans with him.

Another boy, also a regular at the Dar Chebab, arrived soon thereafter. Within the continents I had already drawn, I was filling in the boundaries of countries, and dotting the map with various capitals. It seemed that they were more likely to know locations closer to Morocco, which of course makes sense. They knew all of the countries in "El Maghrib," the group of countries in North Africa. Thus they knew that Algeria borders Morocco to the east, and that immediately east of Algeria is Tunisia, that east of Tunisia is Libya, and that east of Libya is Egypt. They also knew that Mauritania is located immediately south of Morocco, and that Senegal is immediately south of Mauritania. One of them knew that the capital of Senegal was Dakar. They didn't know that the country of Andorra lies between France and Spain.

I always love teaching, even when it is impromptu. In fact, I think that I might love it even more then, because I am doing it when I didn't expect to be doing it, so then it's like a surprise benefit to be helping others. Thus I definitely enjoyed the geography lesson I just taught. However, also having had so little work recently, for that reason it also felt great to have just taught. I was glad to have had even just the two of them there to teach.