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 …


Molly said...

Wow. you are having an infinitely cool experience. I can't wait to read more, and I love the pictures. It's like you innately know how to rock a kaftan. The tea also sounds fabulous.

Johellion said...

Dear sweet woman--You are having an incredible experience and I envy you enormously. It's Sunday noon and I'm getting caught up on your blog. You bring tears of pride to my eyes. Love, Jo

librarygirl said...

Hey Becki,
I've been enjoying reading your posts; it sounds like you've been having a great time. Don't be afraid of the alaturka toilets - they're not so bad once you get used to them. Have you had a chance to take advantage of the hammam yet? It's a great way to immerse yourself in the culture - no pun intended :P I look forward to more armchair traveling with you!

B said...

aww... thanks, ladies!