Thursday, December 25, 2008

Upward spiral. -


You all know how I love spirals – I’ve always seen them as symbols of the ever-changing but ever-present cycle of nature, of life. It wasn’t until after I got my tattoos that I learned such a set of three spirals, arranged triangularly, is an ancient Celtic symbol of nature – earth, water, fire.

Now I come to Morocco and find that the spiral is also an ancient Berber symbol of infinity. It’s everywhere – from carvings to pottery to wall tiles to jewelry, like this pendant I picked up in Marrakesh, my first piece of Moroccan jewelry:

Some people think a spiral is a ridiculous infinity symbol, because it does in fact have a beginning and an end. I’m OK with that. Everything does end – change is the only constant in life. But then things begin again, slightly altered.
“You are Welcome here.”
It’s funny how aghast some people here are that I don’t speak Tashelheit, the regional Berber dialect. That I’m new to this country, that I’m here as a volunteer, that I’m trying to learn the language spoken by the vast majority of Moroccans – these mean nothing to them. Why would I come here if I don’t learn the language? (This after I’ve been in the village for all of four weeks.)
Sound familiar to those of you back in the States?
Of course, the vast majority are so pleased, proud even, when they here the slightest trickle of pidgin Darija dribble out of my mouth. At the post office, in a taxi, at the corner store, I’m constantly congratulated … and when I demur as to my lack of skills, it’s they who encourage me: “Shwyia b shwyia, shwiya b shwiya.”
And while I feel keenly the stares of disbelief when I walk down the street (not to mention the calls of “Hey, foreigner” and various French phrases), often mixed with a healthy dose of suspicion, I do my best to look people in the eye, smile, and say, “Good morning, are you well?” Those unblinking stares generally turn into surprised smiles and handshakes and the usual 12-minute exchange of greetings.
Even better is when a stranger takes it upon her/himself to greet me first. The ancient man with the toothless grin, bumping along on his donkey cart. The heavily wrapped Berber woman walking the long road to the weekly suq market, rattling off a string of Tashelheit I can’t possible unravel. Especially the children, running up to kiss me hello (instead of throwing rocks, the alternative means of capturing my attention). Such small gestures can make all the difference between a good day and a bad one in my mind, between feeling welcome here and … not.
So if you see a possible newcomer in your own little village today, smile and say hello. It takes so little, but it can change that person’s entire outlook on the day and on the town you share.
L3id update.
First off, I now understand why the sheep was pumped full of air on the L3id Kbir holiday. You maybe don’t want to know … if you’re squeamish, just skip to the next paragraph. If you’re curious … it’s to blow all the s**t out of the bowel and intestines. So’s they can be eaten, y’know. Remember: 99.9% pure from bacteria!
However squeamish I may be about all this, I also have a great deal of respect for those so in tune with their food sources. The procedure is little different than what happens to that Christmas roast (or ham, or goose) you might be enjoying today. Perhaps we are the odd ones, feeling the need to distance ourselves, pretend that meat is just another shrink-wrapped, value-added “product” that comes straight from the supermarket.
As my brilliant 9-year-old niece told her mother on viewing pictures from my previous post, “Well, Mom, but if they do this every year, they’re probably used to it and it’s something for them to look forward to.”
The days after L3id entail an odd tradition in several Moroccan communities, and I was fortunate to get a glimpse. My host sister Khadija asked if I’d like to visit her family’s home in one of the many dyour that surround our village. A duoar is kind of a mini-village of Berbers who work in the surrounding orange groves. Little did I know our visit meant a 5- or 6-mile hike, through several dyour, a walk I enjoyed immensely but for which I would have shod myself far differently had I been apprised.
We stopped at one duoar and walked the dusty path toward the sound of chanting and beating drums. Women were gathered in every doorway. The closer we got to the center of the duoar, the louder the music got. A pack of children started running from around a corner.
Then, there they were, the main attraction: A young man dressed in a costume sewn of goat and sheep skins, with a posse of friends dressed in a variety of costumes, striding authoritatively through the town, weapons in hand. The aim is to stop at every house, and corral every running child, to demand dirhams. For those cheeky children who refuse, the punishment is to be whipped … with a bicycle innertube.

This -- the animal skin, the chasing of children, the innertube -- is the tradition regionwide. But here the festivities seemed more ceremonial than real. The kids seemed to enjoy the chase; I saw not a single use of the innertube; and this prosperous-looking foreigner, with a giggling-yet-scared-stiff Moroccan woman in full caftan regalia cleaning to her elbow for dear life, got no hassle when she calmly said “Makaynsh l’flus” – I have no money.
But my friend and kind-of neighbor Faye had a far more hands-on experience, and she does better justice to the tradition at her blog.

Khadija with girls from the family’s duoar.

Today is our own l3id kbir, or big holiday. Christmas. In a country that is 99 percent Muslim, Christmas isn’t even on the register here. No shop windows adorned in red and green, no fake snow in the desert, no annoying pop stars belting out Christmas “classics” on a half-hour loop. No crisp cold snap hovering at the zero-degree mark, as it has been back home. No going overboard on gifts and paying the bills into next summer.

Also no baking cookies with friends, then walking the neighborhood to look at the lights. No helping my niece and nephews draw Christmas cards; no spending the afternoon sprawled on my parents’ sofa after inhaling way, way too much food and so much love. No reminiscing about holidays past … the tree ornaments that used to fascinate us for hours, the ancient Christmas records that were the soundtrack to my childhood festivities.

Christmas eve dinner was a little tagine of cauliflower, tomato and potatoes, scooped up with bread. Plus a little dish of fried zucchini, which I know was placed there because the family has seen how much I love it. Woke this morning on my hard flat mat, three heavy blankets guarding against the morning chill, to the sounds of teenagers rushing to the school across the road rather than rushing to see what Santa left for them.

This weekend I’ll gather with some other Peace Corps volunteers in the area for just some of those traditions – too much food; maybe even a little too much wine; overdose on Christmas movies and music. It will feel like home, and not.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Happy holidays! (Unless you’re a sheep.)

My host sisters primping for the holiday.

(Warning: pictures below may affect my fellow vegetarians or other sensitive souls)

Tuesday was L3id el Kbir, the Great Feast. To atone for their sins, each family must sacrifice a sheep or a goat (or a chicken, if that’s all they can afford).

It’s one of Islam’s most important holidays, akin to Christmas in the States, so I tried my best to participate. The day started off lovely, sunny and tranquil, Kabira and I taking a short walk around town, the streets empty and quiet, all the stores closed, everyone home with their families.

Then the man came to kill the ram.

Kabira proudly holding the trophy.
I tried to watch, I really did. I even took pictures (though many of them were snapped with my eyes averted). I could only manage about a minute at a time. I kept coming back, trying to keep my stomach strong for the family’s sake, only to have to escape once again.
First they slit the neck, allowing for a fast (and presumably painless) death as well as for the blood to escape quickly, crucial for both religious and sanitary reasons. Then the head and legs were cut off; these were disposed of by fire.
The part that really surprised me was when they used a bicycle tire pump to inflate the animal. Better blood drainage?
Inflating the carcass with a bicycle tire pump.

The ram was skinned, then relieved of its various organs and bowels. Partly I found it nearly impossible to watch, but I was also surprised by how well I stomached (so to speak) what I did manage to stick around for.

What icked me out the most: Various platters and bowls of entrails being carted down from the rooftop barnyard and washed off in the kitchen and bathroom. We will be eating off these same dishes later, I have no doubt.

Ick factor No. 2: Rakiya happily poking at the ram’s head in the fire, squatting in the pool of blood, wearing my brand-new house slippers.

The animal’s torso is now resting, halfheartedly wrapped in plastic, on a bench in the bedroom. What may be the stomach is soaking in a basin on the chair next to me as I type this. Lunch was a tagine of heavy chunks of bone dripping with meat. (For me, it was bread and some of the best oranges I’ve tasted yet.)

Some of the luckier ones.

Afterward, Kabira dressed up in a gorgeous orange kaftan and took me on a long, exhilerating walk out of town, to visit a friend at her family farm. Of course this meant a little snack – coffee (Coffee! Haven’t had it in weeks), bread with olive and argan oils, dates, olives, nuts.

Home just in time for dinner – another meat tagine, this time of the hooves. But, just for me, Khadija made a delicious bean stew as well. My non-meat-eating ways perplex them, but they’re more than respectful. Although I count it as a step toward integrating into the family that the teenage boy at one point caught me looking at him and made little walking movements with his bones, a sly smile creeping across his face.

Zwina bzzf! (My host sisters are so lovely.)

All in all, a holiday just like we’re used to in America: A day spent with family, eating too much food, followed by too much food. Not sure I’ve ever eaten a holiday meal in the States with a zombie movie on TV as the background noise, but why not? I’m not a zombie, and I’m not a sheep. Two good reasons to celebrate.

Holiday text message from my language tutor:

“Don’t miss to eat a portion of meat it’s blessed u can’t find it in Am its 99%pure from bacterha.”

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The base may be shaky, but it holds.

The kids at my dar chebab build a pretty impressive Jenga tower, no?

This pretty much sums up how I’m feeling lately. Hollow at the base, but somehow everything is holding together.

Actually, things are improving by the day. Yes, there are plenty of moments when I’m scared, when I wonder what the hell I’m doing here or whether I’ll ever be able to speak Arabic or make any kind of difference in these kids’ lives … but these moments pass, I find, and I can mark plenty of progress in just the past week.

I’ve started sessions with a tutor, a teacher at one of the town’s two colleges, or middle schools. Things started out rough. Even more so than in the U.S., Moroccan education is based on rote memorization. Comprehension is less important than simply repeating what the teacher says. I however, have tons of questions and want to steer our sessions in a different direction. We both felt pretty uncomfortable with each other’s styles at first. By the end of the first session, though, Latifa was promising to teach me how to make tagine … and then, upon discovering I don’t eat meat, pledging to convert me from such an unhealthy practice.

I can feel my language slowly coming along, too. One rung up from nothing isn’t much, but it’s still progress. Instead of comprehending walu (nothing) anyone says to me, I’m starting to pick up a few words per sentence (if the interlocutor is patient enough to repeat the sentence a few times beshwiiiyyyaaa, or slowwwwlllly). Enough to think I usually get the gist of things … which is probably going to get me into trouble sometime soon.

Feel guilty that I haven’t done much actual “work” yet at my dar chebab. Right now, afternoons are devoted to pingpong and board games and getting to know each other, though I do have some ideas for small activities/projects to propose. About 20 boys, most of them 14 to 16, pass through on any given day. They’re eager to talk about all the things any young boys anywhere talk about – sports, who can dance hiphop, who can pop his shoulder out of the socket. A few speak enough English that we can communicate. And they’re surprisingly solicitous around me, each making sure to shake my hand when he arrives, help me clean up when we leave, walk me home.

And yes – they’re all boys. Girls here don’t come to the dar chebab. Yet. The boys assure me they will come for English classes. But my next mission is to start up a girls club, devote at least one day a week to making a safe and comfortable space for girls, a place they’ll enjoy and where their parents will allow them to gather. From there, will figure out what to do next. Inshallah.

The boys have helped me set up a schedule of English classes, which I hope to post around town later this afternoon. We won’t get started until after L3id Kbir, the Big Feast – one of Islam’s biggest holidays. Every family slaughters a sheep or a goat, or at least a chicken, as a sacrifice, and then lives on every part of the animal until it’s gone. A weeklong celebration, I’m told, with blood from the slaughter literally running in the streets that first day, and the entire town smelling like barbecue – including one’s home, hair, clothes – for at least a week. This vegetarian is more than a little nervous.

Nervous, too, about starting those English classes. My biggest complaint about Peace Corps training is that we received practically no training on how to teach or develop a lesson plan. We learned about 1,000 “icebreaker” games to play with kids, and we each received a box of books that so far I haven’t found very helpful, and we had a one-day session with a linguistics expert who taught us a few more games. We also received a collection of lesson plans provided by current and previous volunteers, which only served to scare me about the “English” being taught in the name of Peace Corps. If the volunteer can’t distinguish between your/you’re or there/their on a lesson plan, should he or she really be teaching English?

So I have moments of feeling unprepared for the task. There are about a zillion resources online, but it’s hard to hone in and determine which are the most helpful. And I’ve really no idea how to start. Thankfully, the previous volunteer told me that the kids here will be eager to tell me what they want to learn (unlike the kids we taught during training, who sadly couldn’t really grasp the concept of having a say in their own education). In the end, I guess my only plan is to wing it. I’ll learn as I go, I suppose.

Village doorway.

Not all is work here.
One afternoon my host sister Kabira asked if I wanted to go to see her a mra, or woman, in one of the tiny remote villages near here. Kabira worries a great deal about the acne on her skin; she’s been to a traditional doctor in Agadir but he was a “big zero” (Kabira hasn’t yet met a man who isn’t a “zero”). Instead, she said, she wanted to see this woman who knows everything and has remedies for everything. Eventually I got what was going on … we were going to see a homeopath.

“Maybe she can help you, too, Rakya,” I managed to say (kind of) to Kabira’s mother. Rakya has been having constant pain in her heel, her back, her stomach. If traditional remedies are still practiced, still acceptable … well, I’d be scared to rely on them myself, but surely my host family would see it as the next natural step.

“Well, no, don’t be silly, Rebecca, she’s not a real doctor,” is the response I think I got. Rakya will eventually wrap herself up dramatically in her brown and purple length of fabric, hiding her face but her hot pink knit longjohns and fuzzy green slippers showing underneath, squeeze herself into a taxi and return to her real doctor in the modern city of Agadir.

My host sister, hiding her homeopath treatment behind traditional Berber women’s garb.

But Kabira and I did go on our journey to the homeopath, which I assumed/hoped would be an exotic daylong ritual. Instead, we got lost for a couple of hours in a neighboring town when Kabira couldn’t remember where to go. Eventually she managed to pay (with my money) a taxi driver to spin us aimlessly around the countryside until she recognized the correct village.

There, as we all squatted on a deep red rug in the crumbling concrete salon, a smiling ancient woman took a powder out of a fold of paper, mixed it with water in a ceramic dish and creamed the brown goop onto Kabira’s face. Safi. In and out in 5 minutes, as with any other doctor. No 12 cups of tea, no hours of nodding and smiling for hours without being able to follow the conversation even though it’s obviously about me. Expecting to be encouraged to participate in some ritual involving magical potions and ulular chanting, I was a little disappointed. If also a little relieved.

Fresh-squeezed orange juice (check out those peels!) in Taroudant.

My days off are Sunday and Monday, and I’m trying to protect those days from getting caught up in all the things other people want me to do. I went for a long, solitary walk this past Sunday afternoon, out of town on a long, winding road framed by orange groves with cedar windbreaks, pointing the way to the craggy mountains beyond. My iPod earbuds protected me from the shouts of men passing on motorbikes, but my few fellow pedestrians were friendly and curious. I finally felt peaceful; I haven’t had many opportunities lately for exercise or being outdoors. It will have to become a habit.

And on Monday I met my stajmate Vish in nearby Taroudant. We did slip in one work-related meeting – with the regional delegate for the national Ministry of Youth and Sports, which overseas all of Morocco’s dar chebabs and the work Peace Corps volunteers do there. But the rest of the day was devoted to relaxation and sightseeing. My host sister described Taroudant as a mini-Marrakech, and I can see what she means. It’s an ancient city still surrounded by rampart walls thousands of years old, with long winding alleys of suq where shops sell amazing leather purses and shoes (there’s a tannery in the city), traditional and modern clothing, homeopathic remedies, silver jewelry and dishes, hardware, vegetables, freshly butchered meat and anything else you can imagine.

We had fresh orange juice, peeled and squeezed before our eyes, for 2 dirhams – about 25 cents. We found a Yves Rocher spa where we could (if we had any flus) get a taste of home by buying fancy lipstick or have our nails done. I was able to sit and relax with a book in a quiet outdoor café without being harassed as a foreigner. I have a feeling Taroudant is a place where I’ll spend a lot of my off hours.

Taroudant’s ramparts.

Everywhere I turn lies another beautiful picture that I’m desperate to capture. The colorful spices sifted into cones. Rows of beautiful old women squatting on the curb in brightly colored body wraps. Six bodies piled into a taxi, defying the laws of space and volume. The gnarled, knotty hands of a beggar petting and grabbing for my cloth bag. Men on bicycles bringing their harvest to market, a fresh green block of mint or cilantro that completely obscures both farmer and vehicle. Packs of schoolkids on bicycles, five or six deep and by the dozens, pedaling home down dark highways, flanked by flashy motor scooters and overloaded farm trucks.

But I’m not a photographer. I’m not even a journalist anymore, apparently. I’m too sensitive to others’ feelings to take a photo without permission. Permission is rarely granted. I can understand that. Such images have to live in my head.