Monday, September 29, 2008

Two days at the salon.

Planned by forces other than myself, I’ve participated this week in two major rites for Moroccan women.

Part One: In which I am cleansed.

Earlier this week, my host sisters – ages 17 and 18, you’ll remember – asked if I’d like to visit the hammam. I only half understood, but I knew the offer was coming, and I knew I had to be brave enough to say yes, dread it though I might.

The hammam is a public bathhouse, frequented regularly by Moroccans of all classes, whether they have their own indoor bathing facilities (as my family does) or not. Getting clean is serious business; there’s also a good deal of community spirit involved.

Armed with a bag of clothes and a bucket of supplies, we walked through the souq stalls near our home, dodging mud puddles as best we could. Hammams are scattered about the community, in unmarked buildings, but I knew where we were going as soon as I saw the ginormous pile of wood logs out front; a huge wood fire, constantly stoked, is the source of the hammam’s famed heat.

Admission: 8 dirham, or a little over a dollar. The dressing area was smack inside the front door. Travel books had prepared me to leave my undies and bra on … but, in this case at least, the bra went as well. It’s entirely uncouth to look at anyone, though; keeping my eyes on my feet, I became as unselfconscious as I could, but I also came away with little idea of what was going on.

We skipped the first washing area and went straight into the second, where the heat immediately coated my lungs so I could barely gasp. we dipped a bucket into the fire-heated water basin, rinsed off an area of the tiled floor, laid down several rubber mats and got to work. Around the room, as far as my downcast eyes could tell, women and girls were doing the same thing. A series of buckets is filled with water nearly boiling, tempered with a scoop or two from a cool-water spigot.

We sit on our mats and start by rinsing down, scooping bowls into the buckets and dumping water over our heads. Shampoo, rinse, repeat; then a good soapdown. If you’re so inclined, you can scrub your skin with a loofah until the epidermis is completely removed. Rinse and rinse and rinse and rinse and rinse. At one point, Hadija casually reached over and started scrubbing my back; the implied sisterhood in that small act made me grateful for the damp steam that camouflaged a couple of tears.

Most hammams have a third room, even hotter, that acts as a sauna. Ours didn’t have one, and I can’t imagine a room hotter than this one. Inefficient, perhaps, compared with a five-minute shower at home, but incomparably more relaxing. Slowing down, I’m learning, can be a good thing.

One unanticipated lesson of the day: I think of these two sisters as quiet and sheltered homebodies because I’ve yet to see them leave the house; I’m unable to lure them to the cybercafe or the dar chebab (youth center). But in the souq we were greeted repeatedly by a series of lovely young women who kissed the girls – and me, a stranger – repeatedly on each cheek. Same thing happened in the hammam, where they made casual conversation with women of all ages. Important not to forget how the slow, home-based pace of Ramadan is affecting our first impressions of Morocco.

Part Two: In which I am adorned.

Last evening Aziza, a friend of Haajja (my host mum), stopped by during the late supper. She was with a young girl who I assumed (wrongly, I now realize) was her daughter. The girl – I’d put her at about 12, so she’s probably about 17 – had henna painted on her hands, and in yet another attempt to enter the dinner table conversation with my pathetic Darija skills, I pointed at her hand and offered an enthusiastic “Zwina!” (pretty). A lively debate ensued, none of which I could understand, but as it turned out they were arranging to have the girl return today to paint me and my host sisters.

Henna is a red or black dye used in many cultures to adorn women, especially their hands and feet, for special occasions such as a wedding, or, in this case, L-Eid Sgr, the feast that will mark the end of Ramadan when the new moon arrives in a day or two. The paint looks like chocolate pudding in the bowl and is piped onto the hands with a needleless syringe not unlike the tools used to pipe icing onto grocery-store cakes. Out of this mud come swirls and petals and spirals and dots and brushwork, intricately detailed. The mud is wash;ed off several hours later to reveal semipermanent tattoos that last a week or two

Anyway, the appointed time came and went this morning, and I was OK with that because I really needed to study and make some geekorama flash cards. I bathed (third time in eight days – such a glamour girl!) but didn’t wash my hair, clipping it up instead and forgoing makeup (yes, I’m still wearing makeup … and even ironing my hair, most days, even though I’m not washing it very often and use very little product; it actually looks better as a result).

Next thing I know, I’m being ushered out of the house and across the neighboring souq (market area) with Aziza and Hannan, Haajja’s 16-year-old housekeeper. After greeting a couple of elderly women outside the mosque, we arrive at our destination. Aziza, it turns out, is the president of an association (like an NGO or nonprofit) that teaches sewing and cosmetology skills to at-risk young women. Immediately I was drawn into the classroom and encouraged to dance, joined by an ever-widening circle of chattering and lovely girls, then to pose for about a zillion cell-phone photos, in a series of group configurations.

Finally Raheema and Asma ushered me off the dance floor and into a tiny room – barely room for two mats, a chair and a tiny table with a plastic floral arrangement and a bowl of mud. Even so, two more chairs were brought in and Raheema and Asma got down to business on my hands while Hannan and a series of other workers rushed, giggling, in and out. (What I took for a wadded-up blanket on one of the mats I eventually realized was a poor young thing sleeping under a wadded-up blanket; despite the ruckus, she never roused.)

I’ve had henna applied once before, in similar circumstances – at a school that taught life skills to street girls in New Delhi. But I was wholly unprepared for the art Raheema and Esma were able to so casually brush onto my hands as they talked and laughed and screeched and poked at me. Within 15 minutes my hands were encased in sticky curves of black mud … yet the ladies spent another 45 minutes making sure no dot of skin went unadorned.

But that wasn’t the end of today’s Becki-beautification effort. (Did I mention just how shlumpy I felt, in my gym pants and sweatshirt, the last of my somewhat-clean clothes?) The ladies insisted – “Coiffure! Coiffure!” – that I stop at the beauty salon next door, apparently also a part of the association. Off came my glasses; what at first I in my nearsightedness feared (and was ready to succumb to) was a pair of shears turned out to be merely a comb, and my unwashed hair was promptly spritzed down and given the best blowout of my life. Then: “Maquillage?” Pancake makeup that managed to cover the recent explosion of zits along my jawline, eyes heavily rimmed with kohl, lips given a bright pink lipstick, then gloss, then glitter, then another gloss.

Despite my personal practices, I don’t like promoting the idea that women need makeup to be beautiful, nor that beauty is all they have to offer the world. On the other hand, it did me no small bit of good to feel somewhat presentable (from the neck up, at least) for the first time in weeks.

And the young women were delighted with the results. More dancing; another mass photo shoot. Several girls insisted on walking us home. Many scraps of paper were pressed into my hand – cell numbers for when I finally get my own “portabl.” I felt full of inspiration for the possibilities of working with these girls, so hungry for attention and with so much to offer. Aziza said I was welcome to teach English there any time, and if our training schedule allows, I’ll do it. At the very least, I can donate some of my paltry Peace Corps “walking-around” allowance and stop by with pastries and the hope of another dance lesson.


It’s raining as I write this late at night (nearly 10:30!), huddled under a wool blanket, trying to escape a cold so bitter I don’t even dare change clothes before climbing into bed. It’s the third heavy rain today, complete with blustery wind and menacing lightning. Just before lftur (the Ramadan break-fast just after sunset), the parlor windows were pelted with tiny hailstones. I know the rain is desperately needed in this apple-growing and honeybee-raising region, but I thought I’d come to Africa to escape such cold. (Though, I’m constantly reminded by Moroccans, this is not Africa.)

It’s hard not to get a little homesick, especially for central heating and steady electricity and paved streets that don’t become muddy bogs under constant rain. But at home I’d still be whining to y’all about my adventureless small life, instead of bathing and dancing comfortably with women I can’t hold a traditional conversation with. Instead, we bond in other ways. And it is definitely an adventure, every second of it.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

I’m the whole package. Yeah.

Dressing up in a caftan with my host sisters.

The best way to memorize new vocabulary is to link Darija words to familiar words in English. (For example: nshfkmnbd, or “see you later,” will always be a wildly inappropriate phrase in my mind.)

Today we learned words that will come in handy at the hanut (shop) or suq (market). Bakiya means “package” and sounds just like Becki-yeah! Thus my new catchphrase: Ana l-bakiya kulshi!

I also hear my name in the word for a particularly sweet dessert called shbkyia. Not a word I want to associate too closely with. Too many shbkyia is going to mean one kbirra (big) Becki in no time.

Hill country.

Upon arriving at our seminar site, my Peace Corps stage* separated into two groups – 29 of us in Youth Development, about the same number across town in Small Business Development. Now we have split into even smaller groups and spread out around the Middle Atlas region, each group accompanied by a Language/Culture Facilitator.

My group of six students and Lahcen, our intrepidly patient LCF, has landed an hour south of Fes. This region is the perfect illustration of the first thing you need to know about Morocco: It is not all one vast sand dune, a la “Lawrence of Arabia.”** Our town*** has the flavor of a European alpine village, blanketed in cedars and firs and maples just beginning to turn. The countryside is all farmland and apple orchards, and beyond those are more tree-swathed hills. The architecture adds a French twist (clay tile roofs with steep peaks, whitewashed rectangular homes) to traditional Arabic patterns (meandering narrow streets, gently curved window and door arches). The mountain springs are the source of a popular bottled water, which comes to us right out of the tap. Outside my front door is a hedge of honeysuckle, with pots of cacti and sedums scattered about.

I’m beginning to navigate my way through the streets and the market and am utterly charmed. The air hints at fall, a reminder of home. The ability to use my budding Darija to buy bread and fruit and almonds for lunch feels like a small victory. My exercise-starved body is craving a hike through the cedar-covered hills above my home. That, inshallah, is my plan for our day off Sunday, followed by a much-needed pedicure.

Our language class is from about 9 to 1, six days a week, followed by a couple hours of one-on-one tutoring, during which the rest of us can go to the cybercafe or grab supplies for the next day’s lunch at the suq. In late afternoon and into the evening, we are supposed to be working with the current PCV at the local dar chebab (“youth house,” a gathering place for teens and young adults). But during Ramadan, the dar chebab is unlikely to be open, and youths unlikely to make use of it even if it were. So our on-the-job training is a bit slow to start. Swya b swya****
*Pronounced stahj, as in French for internship/apprenticeship. I find it terribly pretentious and am only surprised there’s not an acronym involved.

**Though “Lawrence of Arabia” was indeed filmed in Morocco.

*** For security reasons, we’re not supposed to specify where we are, unless we’re in a major city.

**** Face it: You’d better get used to this phrase.

No woman’s land.

After a morning of language class, what I’d like more than anything is to stop at one of the many cafés that line Moroccan streets, curling up at a table for one, armed with an iced soy toddy latte, to go over my notes or maybe sink into a good book. But except in the largest cities, a woman going into a cafe invites hshuma, or shame. It simply isn’t done, and a woman brave enough to try it likely will be taken for a hooker. Even if I could ignore that social barrier, I’d quickly be driven away by the constant slimy “Bonjours” and “Ca vas”; foreigners are assumed to be French and looking for … companionship.

There is nowhere to go to be alone with one’s thoughts, away from the throng, and most Moroccans find the idea of wanting some “alone time” quite odd. That’s no surprise; most of the world views Americans’ stoic independence as both strange and sad. What bothers me about not being able to go to a café is the implications for Moroccan women.

A female’s purview here is quite small, even though the days of harems are history. (And before you go all “1,001 Nights” on me, you should know that a harem was less likely to be a collection of beautiful veiled women dancing for a wealthy sheik, than a group of women related by blood or marriage who live segregated together and were “allowed” outside the home only to attend mosque or purchase food.)

But even though women enjoy far more freedom today, there is still much work to be done. Their socializing is done at home or at the hammam (public bathhouse). I’m told that girls do frequent the cybercafes and dar chebabs, but I have seen very few. It’s expected that a woman keep her gaze to the ground and not make eye contact, and from personal experience I can tell you how quickly that makes you feel ashamed for merely existing.

Education is far more available and accepted for women, yet illiteracy is widespread, and many parents still pull their girls out before they can graduate. This is usually in rural and/or lower-income homes, where everyone must contribute to the family income. Of course, the long-term result is a decreased likelihood of ever breaking that cycle.

Whatever work I end up doing, I hope to help at least a few young women realize their own worth.

Family matters.

I’m blessed with a lovely host family. My host mother, Haajja (the name for any Muslim woman who has visited Mecca), is extremely religious but also extremely laid-back. I usually come home to find her reclining on one of the banquettes that line the parlor, reading the Quran, muttering good-naturedly to herself. Her husband is a kind, quiet man who I only see at ftur, the evening break-fast during Ramadan.

They have two daughters still at home. Doha, 18 (that’s tmnya u esra in Darija, and I can finally say it without looking at my notes!), begins pharmacy school next month in Dakar, Senegal. She and her sister Hadija, younger by a year, are constant giggly companions. The paranoiac in me is sure they’re laughing at me … and they probably are. A 40-year-old who has to check her notes to say “I go bed now”? That’s pretty funny.

I hit the jackpot: I have both a western toilet (i.e., not a squat) and hot running water at all times. I’m in awe of others in my group who manage to keep their good humor in far more trying circumstances. But while the smells and supplies and amenities are far different from what we’re accustomed to in the States, I am aware of just how well off we all are in comparison with the average Moroccan.

Without much in the way of language skills, dinner-table conversation is difficult. But every day I realize I understand a couple more words … which is up from zero words the first day. With a slowly growing vocabulary, a little sign language and a lot of laughter, I can occasionally make myself understood. Frustrating and fulfilling by turns. Can’t burst into a run without first learning to crawl.

The perfect cup of tea.

Moroccans live on mint tea, or atai. Fresh mint grows all around, and you can imagine how I love picking a leaf or two and crushing it between my fingers. Except during Ramadan, it’s impossible to stop anywhere without being offered a glass, which quickly turns into a pot. Many travelers complain that the heavily sugared tea is too sweet, but I actually like it; it’s possible I’ve found a substitute for my Diet Coke addiction.

Tea is sipped not from handled cups but from small, clear glasses – a couple of shots’ worth. It’s important to fill the cup only halfway, so one can pick up the glass without burning one’s fingers. But I’m greedy; I can never stop myself from pouring to the brim. (I also really like it with milk, which apparently is beyond bizarre.)

Until this week, my mint tea experience had been limited to dried green tea, flavored with dried mint and sugar. But my host mother has set the bar impossibly high. She brews a simple syrup, boiling sugar and water together and serving in a sterling teapot. Then she picks fresh spearmint from the backyard and stuffs each glass about half full with leaves, branches and all. The simple syrup is poured over the sprigs. You cannot imagine how wonderful this tastes, so you’ll just have to grow your own mint and see for yourself.

Another tip: The tea is poured from high above, in order to cool it down before it reaches the glass. This creates a froth that is the hallmark of a classy tea server. And here I’ve spent so many years trying to pour beverages without getting too much foam on top …

A young hanut vendor.

In the suq.

With CS, my fellow YD CBTer. omg I am like rotflmao over all the acronyms …

This housing project ...

Is cheek-to-jowl with this one.

The class rules.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sbah lxir!

Or, depending on when you’re reading this, msa lxir! (Good morning or good afternoon/evening, for those of you who don’t speak darija.)

We’re a few weeks into our seminar site at Azrou, a charmingly French-influenced city of about 50,000 a few hours inland from Rabat. Azrou is tucked into a valley in the Middle Atlas region and surrounded by mountains topped with the second largest cedar forest in the world. (Statistics like this have been thrown out to us, and I throw them forward to you without benefit of fact-checking, unless otherwise noted, so accept at your own risk.)

The weather has been absolutely lovely as well, a bit cool in the mornings and a bit stifling in the afternoons, but overall it feels perfect to my Midwestern skin. Trish and I hiked up the hill and out of town yesterday afternoon, finding a quietly pastoral view of the countryside with Azrou and the mountains beyond. Not getting much exercise right now; full days of training sessions, and evening time constraints because of Ramadan. But I can see some beautiful long hikes (and, inshallah, bike rides!) in my future.

After days of dry info sessions in Philadelphia and Rabat, it’s been a relief to finally get started on our language training. It can be a bit frustrating at times, but when I think of what I’ve already absorbed in just a few days, I’m astounded. The pressure’s off now that I know I’m not expected to be fluent by the time I move to my permanent site in December. Already using a handful of phrases in the medina, or city center, buying such necessities as phone cards and nail polish remover. I can now greet people and say goodbye and, I think, count to 100 as well as any first-grader. Swyia b swyia

Language lessons are punctuated by YD (Youth Development) training exercises and technical sessions on health, safety and cultural issues. We’ve met a few current PCVs (Peace Corps volunteers) and have started discussing gender roles in development and how to introduce SIDA (AIDS) prevention in communities where such things simply aren’t spoken of. I’m so inspired and already envioning so many possible projects – but it’s important to go into my site with a blank slate of mind and wait to hear the community’s own assessment of its needs. I have my first interview this morning with the training director to discuss my skills, strengths and experience so they can determine the best site for me.

And have I mentioned my stagemates? There are about 30 of us YD trainees, currently living in a dormlike setting (my room of five women is about the size of my bedroom back home). Collectively we have a great rapport; individually, each brings such talent and intelligence and humor to the group. I’m the only “older” volunteer in YD (no one else is over 30), but I certainly don’t feel out of place. And while I’m not getting a chance to work out much, my abs are going to be rock-hard soon from all the infectious laughter.

On Sunday we divide into groups of four and move to smaller villages for CBT (Community-Based Training: Peace Corps loves its acronyms!). We’ll be there for two weeks, continuing our language training while practicing our job skills in the dar chebab, or youth center. We’ll have our own host families and, for the first time since we gathered in Philly, our own rooms.

Internet access has been sketchy here in Azrou, and while our towns will have cybercafes, the quality of the connection may not foster great communication. And I mailed off postcards the other day, but let’s just say you shouldn’t expect much snail mail from me. Buying and mailing six postcards cost me nearly $10! Aside from overseas postage, everything of course is less expensive here. Time, however, is at a premium during training. Don’t worry when I go AWOL for stretches. I’ll be back when I can, and you can be sure I’m learning and having fun. Kulsi bixir! (Everything is fine, or, as I translate it, It’s all good!)

The view from here.

Heres a YouTube video of Azrou:

Photos from Azrou.

Overlook of Azrou from just outside our compound:

With the lovely Marissa:

Training session on how to aim for the Turkish toilets:

Studying with Faye and Kate:

Ice cream sign near the park (be sure to read the French slogan and question its appropriateness in a conservative Muslim culture):

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The view from here.


Day 3 of training in Rabat. We’re spending a few days at the Hotel Chellah, a charming small hotel that’s completely overwhelmed by our group of 57. (We’re down one already; someone didn’t come to staging in Philly.)

It’s Ramadan, so our first experiences of Morocco are far from typical. Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during the holy month, and while we are not expected to adhere to that, it’s uncouth to eat in public during the day. It also means the city is rather closed down during “regular” hours, but it comes alive after sunset. Today we got two weeks’ worth of “walking around” allowance – 400 dirhams, or about $53 – and were allowed to leave the hotel for the first time. Our time was limited, so by the time we’d walked a few blocks (past street vendors selling Western clothes/shoes/backpacks/etc.) we only had enough time to just peek into the medina. While it’s frustrating to have been here two full days and have seen very little as yet, as someone pointed out we have two years to poke around.

Instead, these past few days have been devoted to going over Peace Corps policies and getting to know our new colleagues. What good fortune to be part of such a group – so good-hearted, smart, funny and with such varied talents and backgrounds and travel experiences. I’ve heard of snobbery and cliques in other staging groups, but I don’t see it here. There isn’t one person who doesn’t have a fascinating story to tell.

We leave tomorrow for Azrou, a few hours inland. This will be our seminar site, where the entire group will gather periodically over the next three months of training. We’ll divide into our Youth Development and Small Business Development sectors and then divide into even smaller groups of five or six, to move to our training communities surrounding Azrou. We’ll stay with host families and spend our days learning the language, understanding the culture and training for our jobs.

Strange how my few previous travels seem so tied up in these early days in Morocco. Peering over the iron railing of our rooftop patio at the low white buildings below is so reminiscent of my home-stay balcony in Oaxaca. Navigating the narrow side streets, inhaling that strangely attractive mélange of dust and fuel and food, brings me back to Delhi. The wide, columned porticos of the buildings surrounding the medina like the mercado in Guatemala City. It’s as if everything up to now is culminating in this, as if my previous travels are giving their blessing.

It’s Sept. 11. The overall mission of Peace Corps is “peace through development and mutual understanding.” Without getting all soapboxy, I’m optimistic and hopeful about the positive impact this group can make over the next two years.

More Morocco facts.

* Peace Corps has 204 volunteers in country (plus our training group of 57)

* Morocco has more PCVs (Peace Corps volunteers) than any other country, is one of the oldest Peace Corps programs and is the longest-continuously served country

* 50 percent of Morocco’s population is under 19 years old. (Particularly interesting in the context of my Youth Development sector.)

* Morocco was the first nation to officially recognize the U.S. as a nation.

* Current U.S. approval rating here (according to State Department security officer: 7 percent

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

On Moroccan time.


“You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place … like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.”

-- Azar Nafisi, “Reading Lolita in Tehran”

We touched down in Casablanca early this morning. Morocco is only five hours ahead of CDT, so jet lag isn’t really an issue, but lack of sleep certainly is. More to come when we are rested. First round of inoculations tomorrow morning. For now, it's an absolutely gorgeous afternoon, about 75 degrees F I'd guess, and we're sprawled around our hotel's rooftop patio, cadging free wireless and views of the city.

Much love back to everyone who's been calling and sending good wishes. And don't forget to sign your comments if you sign in as Anonymous ... otherwise I don't know who to blame for the lame "Casablanca" joke ...

Monday, September 8, 2008

Good to go.

In less than an hour we board the buses to JFK. The plane leaves at 8:20 p.m. EDT. Tomorrow morning, we'll be in Morocco!

More to come. Thanks so much for all the love and good wishes. Miss you already!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Day one.

Just settling into bed after my first day of staging in Philly. Last-minute luxuries of free wireless, soft beds, phone calls from home .... and access to beer (a really great local lager called Yuengling). Thai food for dinner, with seitan that tasted so much like chicken that I just couldn't stomach it.

Upon handing in my paperwork, I officially moved from being an invitee to a Peace Corps Trainee. Spent this afternoon doing hokey but fun getting-to-know you exercises There are 58 of us, split about evenly between Youth Development and Small Business Development. By my count, there are three women in our group who are older than me, one more who looks to be about my age ... and an awful lot of new or recent grads. All very interesting and cool, but I have to work on not feeling my age.

The story of President Kennedy's somewhat impromptu, 2 a.m. speech at the University of Michigan, a speech that set the Peace Corps in motion, actually teared me up a bit.

A full day of focusing on safety and cultural issues tomorrow. Sometime Monday we board a bus for JFK, followed by an eight-hour flight across the Atlantic. I can't be more grateful for all the phone calls, texts, Facebook posts and wall comments. I miss you all, but I'm feeling calm and ready for what lies ahead. I'll keep you posted as best I can. Peace!

By the numbers.

58 Trainees in my staging group.
73 Countries with current Peace Corps volunteers. (74 before volunteers were recently pulled out of Georgia.)
8,079 Current Peace Corps volunteers across the globe.
59 Percentage of PC volunteers who are female.
6 Former Peace Corps volunteers currently in Congress.
182,000 Total Peace Corps volunteers since 1961 (in 138 countries)