Thursday, August 30, 2012

Shifting Cultural Norms

As I mentioned in my last blog entry, I've been in Rabat this week. One morning, I was in the lobby of the hotel where I'm staying, waiting for my friend, a fellow PCV, to wrap up some business he had with the front desk. As he was standing at the front desk, he turned to his right and saw a Moroccan woman also standing at the front desk. He smiled at her. She smiled back at him.

It struck me how infrequently I've observed an interaction like that between a man and a Moroccan woman here in Morocco. Keep in mind that on most of the days I've been here in Morocco, I've been in my site, the town in which I live down in the Sahara. There, the vast majority of the time, women walk down the street and generally aren't interacting with men. Thus, they aren't smiling at men in response to men looking at them; indeed, they aren't even returning the gazes of men. After witnessing the exchange between my friend and the Moroccan woman in the hotel lobby here in Rabat, I was enjoying pondering how women here in large cities like Rabat can respond as she did. She's more likely to be seen as responding in an appropriate manner than Moroccan women in more conservative regions of the country would be viewed for such behavior.

Before I came to Morocco, I wouldn't have given much thought to such an interaction between a man and a woman. Of course, during my time here in Morocco, I've operated in a context with cultural norms different than those to which I was accustomed in the US. As I approach my COS (completion of service) date, I've begun to wonder how my experiences during my Peace Corps service are going to affect how I perceive and process interactions between men and women once I've returned to the US.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Women's Rights And Girls' Imaginations

This week I've been in Rabat. I've been enjoying taking the tram around town, as I usually do when I'm here. One day this week right after I got off the tram, as I was walking down the sidewalk, I saw a gendarme, or a law enforcement officer, walking toward me. I enjoyed realizing that a female gendarme was walking toward me. I'm concerned about the status of women, and women's human rights, everywhere, and thus in Morocco. More specifically, I often hope that women continue to advance in many professions here. Thus I'm pleased whenever I see women here employed in professions where one might not always expect to see them working.

I've also gotten enjoyment out of riding the tram in simpler ways. Yesterday when I was on the tram, the conductor was checking to see if passengers had validated their tickets when they had boarded the tram. As he was checking the tickets, a young girl, perhaps five years old, shyly offered the tickets for her mother and herself. The conductor took the tickets. I noticed that he wasn't sliding the bar code on each of those two tickets through his electronic ticket reader. Then I realized that he had probably already checked their tickets, but was nevertheless running the tickets through the reader, honoring the little girl's shy request.

I couldn't help but imagine that in acceding to the little girl's request, and in feeding her imagination, that the tram conductor might have been implicitly and gently encouraging her to imagine much bolder and individualistic dreams for herself. I hope that one day she'll envision herself working in a profession where people might be a bit surprised to see a woman working. More than that, I hope that she'll see a woman working in a career where people might not expect to see a woman working, and that she'll be inspired to boldly define her own identity for herself.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Marvelous Day

I had a marvelous day today. This morning, I got up early and read the Bible. Then I headed out from the hotel room in Casablanca where I stayed last night. I caught a petit taxi to the Catholic monastery, where I attended Mass at 9:00 a.m. Mexican nuns live in the monastery. Thus, the nun who read one of the Scripture readings spoke in Spanish. However, the parishioner who read the other of the first two Scripture readings spoke in French. The priest spoke in French, so most of the Mass was in French.

Before the Mass had begun, I had been feeling a bit unsettled. Thus I appreciated the nuns' prayers before Mass. By the time Mass had started, I was feeling calmer, more at peace, and more focused on being in the chapel.

After Mass ended, I took a petit taxi to Cathedral Notre Dame de Lourdes for the 11:00 a.m. Mass there. When I arrived, I saw tourists with cameras exiting the church and getting back onto tour buses. Upon entering the church grounds, I discovered a grotto honoring the Virgin Mary. Once I got a better look at the cathedral, I realized that it was quite tall. Yet only upon entering the cathedral did I learn that this cathedral houses an amazing set of stained-glass windows. On both sides of the cathedral is stained glass, continuously stretching, uninterrupted, from the rear of the cathedral all the way to its front, depicting God, his angels and his believers. Above these scenes depicted on the stained glass, many long thin shafts of stained glass stretched up to the high ceiling. It was certainly fine and beautiful artwork.

In addition to the magnificent stained glass, I once again enjoyed the song during Mass today. I enjoyed how, in the absence of a choir at the cathedral, before Mass had begun, a young woman was leading all of the congregants in practicing the song of the day. It made the experience of attending Mass seem even more communal than it normally already feels. I get so much support and nourishment out of attending Mass, especially here in Morocco, where I am not in the physical presence of other Christians on a regular basis. I'm grateful for the presence of other Christians, who share my faith and encourage me in it. I have much for which I am thankful, and that certainly includes them.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Explaining My Beliefs

As I mentioned in my last blog entry, a couple of days ago, my friend and fellow PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) Samantha came here to the town where I live to pick up some things which I've been trying to unload. After she had collected what she was inheriting from me, I walked with her to the bus station.

After she had gotten on the bus, a man started speaking with me in Darija, that is, Moroccan Arabic. He asked me if I was taking the bus too. After I told him I wasn't going to be taking the bus, we started talking about traveling in Morocco. He asked me where I've been in Morocco. I said I'd been to Agadir and Sidi Ifni. I didn't get to mention anywhere else. When I said I'd been to Sidi Ifni, he said he's from there, and the topic of conversation shifted to that town.

After that, he asked me if I had fasted during Ramadan. I told him that I wasn't fasting during Ramadan. He asked me if I'm Muslim. I told him that I'm not Muslim, that I'm Christian. He asked me if I'm going to become Muslim. I told him that I'm not going to become Muslim because it's so important to me to try to live as Jesus lived. He replied that Jesus is in Islam. I then explained that Jesus' place in Islam isn't the same as it is in Christianity. I explained that Islam states that Jesus didn't die on the cross, whereas Christianity relates how Jesus did die on the cross. We didn't have more time to take the conversation further than that, because he was getting on the bus, which was about to leave.

However, it's pretty clear to me that here is a major difference between Islam and Christianity. After all, if someone merely says he's willing to die for you, but doesn't actually die for you, that's clearly, significantly different than if that person actually does die for you.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Unexpected Difficulty In Observing Cultural Norms

When the Peace Corps recruiter interviewed me nearly three years ago, he asked me whether I was willing to change my behavior, whether I was willing to adapt to the cultural norms where I would be living in a host country. In many ways, certainly I regularly act differently here in Morocco than how I act back in the U.S.

While I've been here in Morocco, I've changed how I interact with members of the opposite gender. Here in Morocco, Moroccans, especially those living in rural areas, including the town where I live down here in the Sahara, expect that men and women keep a significant distance from each other if they aren't married or related to each other. More specifically, it's not acceptable to host an adult of the opposite gender overnight in one's home.

Quite contrary to my natural inclinations to be hospitable and host visitors in my home, more than once I've told female PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) that they can't stay overnight at my home here in this town. I would love to welcome female PCVs to stay overnight at my place, but such hospitality would be poorly perceived by the community here. If a male PCV and a female PCV both come into town, then circumstances change. It's easier to explain, and thus to host, a group of people overnight than just one person of the opposite gender.

However, this week unfortunately my friend Samantha, a female PCV, came into town by herself after a long journey. She was tired, so I felt bad about having to send her quickly on her way. She had enough time to pick up the items from my home which I've been wanting to unload, including some spice containers, in anticipation of when I close my Peace Corps service soon.

So, as I've already said, I've altered my behavior while I've been living here in Morocco. I just didn't expect to have to change my behavior in ways which make me feel less hospitable!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Horse-Drawn Carriage

On my way back to the town where I live down here in the Sahara, I went with some of my friends, Chadwick, Tirzah and Emily, to the coastal city of Essaouira. I was happy to be there. I got to see some friends I hadn't seen in the last several weeks. Essaouira is on the coast, so generally it was cool during my visit there.

While it's often cool there, in the middle of the day it can get a little hot, particularly if one is in the sun. So I was happy to agree when one of my friends suggested catching a ride in one of the horse-drawn carriages which transport people there in Essaouira. As far as I can remember, here in Morocco I've only seen horse-drawn carriages in Marrakech and Essaouira. And I'd never previously rode in one in Morocco, so I was glad he suggested it.

Especially since I live in a rural area, I see donkeys transporting people more often than horses. However, I haven't seen any donkey-drawn carriages anywhere in Morocco. Down here in the desert, I see people using donkeys to transport carts of various items, including food, metal, lumber, concrete blocks and other building materials. It's always interesting to note the differences amongst various regions when I travel here in Morocco, including means of transport.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Buy Local

After summer camp, I came back to the town where I live down here in the Sahara. For part of my return trip, I traveled with some friends, Chadwick, Tirzah and Emily, who are some fellow PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers), on a bus. At one point the bus made a pit stop for about an hour. My friends and I figured that we might as well eat while we were there. After we'd eaten our meal there, I wanted to get something sweet for dessert, so I bought some cold milk at a hanoot (Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, for "small grocery store"), then walked to another hanoot to buy something sweet. Upon arriving at the second hanoot, I saw some large chocolate bars on the counter. I didn't recognize the brand name, so I picked up one of them, and saw on the back of it that it had been made in Morocco.

I'd been wanting to have some of this particular kind of Moroccan chocolate, but hadn't been seeing it while I'd been shopping over the last couple of years here. So I grabbed the bar of Moroccan chocolate so I could buy it. The man sitting at the back of the hanoot saw me pick up the large bar of Moroccan chocolate. He picked up a large bar of the Spanish chocolate which I see so often here in Morocco and brought it to me. It looks very similar to the Moroccan chocolate bar; both are big bars in red packages with white lettering. Consequently I could see how, from the other side of the hanoot, he might think that I wanted to buy a bar of the Spanish chocolate. But once he'd gotten to the counter, it struck me how he didn't comment that I should indeed buy the Moroccan chocolate. Since he's Moroccan, I would've expected him to urge me to buy the Moroccan product.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Summer Camp 2012 Part Two

For the last ten days or so, I worked at a summer camp in northern Morocco. Moroccan kids ended their school year in June, so they've been going to camps to learn English and do extracurricular activities, sometimes in their own towns, and sometimes far from where they live. At this particular summer camp where I was, the vast majority of the kids did not live in the area where the camp was held. The kids who attended this summer camp, who were in their early and intermediate teenage years, traveled from various parts of Morocco to attend this particular Summer Camp. They stayed overnight at the camp for the full duration of the camp, roughly ten days.

At this specific Summer Camp location, we were both north of the town where I live in the Sahara, and we were on the coast, so it wasn't hot at our Summer Camp location. I was glad that I was rarely sweating during this Summer Camp, given how hot it has been in the town where I live in the Sahara. In addition to it not being as hot as it has been where I live in the Sahara, I was also happy whenever we got a cool ocean breeze there at camp.

At this specific Summer Camp, we were working in a city. Taxis run on and near the street on which the camp was located, and grocery stores are within a block.

The Moroccan Ministry of Youth and Sport runs this particular Summer Camp, just like it runs Spring Camp. PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) help to conduct activities at Summer Camp, just like at Spring Camp. PCVs serving in various regions of Morocco worked at this particular Summer Camp. As PCVs, we slept at the same facility as the campers. However, we slept in a different building from the campers.

On the day that our Summer Camp started, I was one of the PCVs conducting LPIs (language proficiency interviews) in English of the campers who were arriving at camp that day. I began to interview some campers who, I quickly learned, did not know much English.

Once we had the results of the LPIs, the two PCVs (one first-year PCV and a second-year PCV) who were coordinating our activities as PCVs at the camp, divided up the students into six levels of English classes according to their ability to speak English. About half of us PCVs then taught English for the next six days of camp.

During the time slot for English class on the last full day of the camp, we PCVs held an English Olympiad in which the campers participated. We PCVs ran stations at which we quizzed campers on what had been taught during the English classes.

During all of this Summer Camp, we operated under an altered schedule because all of the days of this camp fell during Ramadan. Many campers and Moroccan staff were fasting, so that they were not eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset. As a result, we started our days at camp during Ramadan at around 12 noon. Breakfast and lunch were not served.

After teaching the students English from 12:30 p.m. to 2:00 p.m., the campers had time to read in the library. We PCVs listened to the campers as they told us about the books they had read.

In addition to teaching English, as PCVs, we were also trying to monitor and direct the campers' behavior by assigning them to five different teams named after foreign countries. We assigned the campers to Teams Australia, Brazil, Brunei, Czech Republic, Djibouti, and Indonesia. Campers lost and won points for their teams based on whether they behaved well or poorly. Campers lost points for their team if they threw trash on the ground, fought with each other, and otherwise disruptively behaved. Campers won points for their teams if they picked up trash, correctly answered questions in class, read a book and summarized it for us, and otherwise constructively behaved. Campers had one such opportunity to earn points in the afternoon, during library time, when they sat and read books in the library and then summarized them for us, sometimes orally, and sometimes in writing; sometimes in Arabic, and sometimes in English.

In the afternoons, after library time, we PCVs met with the campers assigned to their country teams. We educated them a little about the countries after which their teams were named. We also ran arts and crafts projects during this team time in the afternoons. We made masks with the campers one day during team time. On another day, we made pinatas with the campers during team time.

In the late afternoon, Moroccan staff ran activities for the kids. Sometimes they ran sports activities with the kids. On another day, they took the campers swimming. On another day, they took the kids to the nearby beach, which is on the Atlantic coast. I was very impressed with the Moroccan staff at this camp, who worked with great attention to the proper behavior of the campers.

At around 7:30pm, when those fasting broke fast, all of us ate together in the dining room at the facility where we were all staying. This meal, "ftur," in Darija, consisted of harira, which is a Moroccan soup containing chickpeas and lentils and noodles, dates, "helwa shbakiya," which is Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, for a specific Moroccan sweet served during Ramadan, hard-boiled eggs, orange juice, tea, coffee, milk, bread and jam.

After ftur, about half of us PCVs ran clubs for the campers. I ran a creative writing club for some of the campers who speak at a more advanced level of English. While I was calling it a creative writing club, it probably should have been called a critical thinking club, since I was primarily trying to get the campers in this club to analyze and think critically about different scenarios.

Partly I got the kids in this club to imagine, compare and evaluate different explanations for the same event. For example, on the first day on which this club met, I mentioned to these campers the idea of an apple falling and hitting someone on the head. I asked why the apple might have fallen from the tree. Then I suggested a few different explanations. It fell out of the tree because the branch broke since it's old. His sister threw it at him. He threw it in the air and didn't catch it. A bird broke the apple off of the tree. I gave them another theoretical scenario and suggested more potential explanations. Then I gave them a third scenario but told them to think of, and write about, possible explanations for what had happened in the hypothetical situation.

Later during the week I had the kids in this club consider hypothetical situations which led them to consider how they should treat others. We talked about how youths perceive and should treat their peers who are different from them. We also addressed a variety of other questions, including the importance of listening to others.

After club time, we PCVs and the Moroccan staff ran late evening activities for the campers. One night, the kids competed in a trivia competition. On another night, we PCVs ran Halloween-themed activities for the kids, including a haunted house, face painting, and pin-the-nose-on-the-pumpkin. On a couple of other nights, the kids performed in talent shows. Typically the kids danced and sang in the talent shows.

A little after midnight, we ate a meal just before turning in for the night which closely resembles what one eats for lunch here in Morocco, namely a variety of cold vegetables, including cucumber, beets, and carrots, and a stew of either beef or chicken with some bread, with a piece of fruit for dessert. When the kitchen staff served us this midnight meal, they also gave us bags containing yogurt, cookies, and fruit, all of which was for those fasting to eat just before dawn.

I feel that I should state here that I am not fasting during Ramadan because I don't want people to think I'm Muslim. I don't want people to think I'm considering becoming a Muslim. And I don't want to implicitly encourage others to be Muslim; if I were to fast during Ramadan, probably at least some, if not all, people would think that I'm Muslim, and that I want others to be Muslim. I do not want any of these things to happen, for many reasons.

Among these reasons is one which was expressed to the founder of Islam by one of his wives. He claimed to have had a revelation that one could marry two wives, after which he married a second wife; he then claimed to have had a revelation that one could marry a third wife, after which he married a third wife; then he claimed to have had a revelation that one could marry a fourth wife, after which he married a fourth wife. One of his wives thus criticized him for conveniently delivering prophecies by which he benefited.

The founder of Islam also looked at his adopted son's wife; his adopted son then divorced his wife; the founder of Islam then married his adopted son's former wife. I'm extremely disinclined to follow the suggestions of the founder of Islam for these reasons and for many other reasons. Although as a Christian I believe in God, for the reasons above as well as for other reasons, I don't want people to think I'm Muslim, I don't want people to think I'm considering becoming Muslim, and I don't want to implicitly encourage others to become Muslim. For these reasons, I am not fasting during Ramadan.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Today I returned to the Catholic church here in the city on the coast where I've been working with other PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) for the last ten days or so. When I'd been there this past weekend, I'd learned that there was going to be Mass celebrated there today in honor of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. So I made sure to get up early enough this morning to walk to the church for Mass. Once I had nearly arrived at the church, as I was walking down the block on which the church was located, I heard the choir practicing their song, which came at least partially from the Congo. In retrospect, I considered that it was as if their song was like an invitation into the church, to enter and worship.

After Mass, the congregants gathered in the church building for refreshments, including coffee, soda, croissants and cookies. I joined in for their fellowship and conversation with them. I spoke with some Kenyan, French and Italian folks who were very friendly. I was also happy that I found out the national origin of some of the other parishioners. Some of them came from the Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Togo, Benin, and Cameroon. I was glad that I got to speak with at least some of them at least a little bit, partly because I'd enjoyed their singing so much, and because I felt that in a way, they invited me in, encouraged me as fellow Christians in my faith in God, and welcomed me into the church.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Accepting Transformation

When the Peace Corps recruiter interviewed me nearly three years ago, he asked me many discerning questions about whether I'd be able to cope with life in a country served by the Peace Corps. Amongst his questions, he asked me how I'd feel about not being able to attend religious services of my faith. I replied that I'd prefer not to be in such a situation, but that I would do it if invited to a post in the Peace Corps where I wouldn't be able to attend services. It's important to me to attend church services as a Christian.

As it turned out, I was invited to serve here in Morocco, where relatively few people are Christian. While some PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) live in sites with churches, I live in a town here in Morocco where there's no church. However, I live about an hour from a church, so I've attended Mass there. More often in that city, I've attended Bible study sessions with other expats there.

When I travel, I attend Mass in the various cities I visit. For the past ten days or so, I've been working with other PCVs in a city on the coast here in Morocco. On Sunday morning, a few other PCVs and I attended Mass at the Catholic church here in this city. As usual, the service was in French. I understood a bit more of the service, including the sermon, than I usually do, perhaps because the priest was speaking more slowly. My fellow volunteers and I also appreciated the large mural behind the altar, which seemed to include a representation of Adam and Eve and the serpent, and various parts of creation, including the globe and many animals, especially fishes of the sea. We also got treated to some of the glorious sub-Saharan African song which is often heard in churches here in Morocco. It truly felt like a blessing to attend Mass there, as it always is to attend Mass here in Morocco.

I've pondered that while being unable to attend Mass while serving in the Peace Corps seemed daunting when I was applying to the Peace Corps, there was an opportunity for spiritual growth even in simply being willing to serve without being able to attend Mass. When one accepts the challenge, one transforms oneself. And sometimes perhaps God just wants to see us exhibit that willingness. Maybe once we've shown that we're willing to make the sacrifice, as Abraham showed, then perhaps God has seen enough and doesn't always demand the extreme sacrifice which we had initially anticipated. And if we are called to make that full sacrifice, the sacrifice that we're called to make doesn't end up being that intimidating, because we've transformed our outlook. It's no longer burdensome, but liberating. It's no longer a tiresome chore, nor a heavy task, but a wonderful expression of love, and joyous service. As we realize that we are one with our experience, which defines us, our choices fill out our personality, and complete our Identity.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Keeping Cool In The Sahara

Here in Morocco, people tend to keep their front doors and street-level front windows shuttered most of the time for privacy. Since the Sahara summer heat set in, I can't help but get the impression that a few people have started opening their front doors and front windows, presumably to give a little relief from the heat.

During the summer I always keep my windows open when I'm in town. Since it's always darker in my front room than it is outside, people can never see into my apartment, even at night. There's a floodlight directly over the front door of my apartment, so even at night people can't see into my apartment, since it's still brighter outside than it is inside my apartment.

I'll deal with the dust which blows into the apartment, because it really is much more comfortable in the apartment when the windows are open. Moroccans often throw water onto the dirt in front of their homes, to prevent it from blowing into their homes. That's one way to try to prevent the dust and dirt from coming inside.

In addition to keeping the windows open, I've also been keeping cool by taking slightly cool showers. I'm certainly grateful that I have a shower in my apartment! Given how feebly the water trickles out of it, I don't feel bad about taking as many showers as I take, since I'm not using a lot of water when I shower! And at the meager rate of 2.37 dirhams per cubic meter (about 19 cents per cubic meter), after taxes and fees, my water bill runs around 50 dirhams, or around 6 dollars, for each three-month period. Usually I've split the water bill with whatever neighbor I've had in the apartment building. My most recent neighbor, who had been teaching French at the local primary school, got his transfer approved to a school out west on the coast, and he moved there, so I'm back to living in the building by myself. Even paying the water bill by myself, it's still easily a manageable expense! So I'm certainly thankful to God that I have running water and can take cool showers in this heat!