Friday, January 23, 2009

Be careful what you wish for.

Did I really say things were moving slowly around here?

That was before this week’s school vacation. Suddenly the dar chebab has been overrun by drari sgar – little kids. (except, of course, on the one day I brought my camera.) My job title has apparently changed from English Teacher to Babysitter. On any given day, I’m playing host to at least 20 children between the ages of 4 and 10. Games have been broken, tables have been drawn on, fights have broken out, and Teacher needs a cocktail.

They’re all positively adorable, and desperately in need of attention and activities. But I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed. I ask if they want to learn English; they enthusiastically do. That lasts about 10 minutes, so we’ve had the same “Hello”-based class every day this week. Hard to teach, too, when they keep running in and out, pulling games off the shelves, pulling on Teacher’s sweater so she’ll bend down for a kiss.

So we try some outdoor games, which generally devolve into shouting, or tears, or cartwheels, or nose-picking contests. You think I’m kidding. I’m not.

There’s no word for “babysitter” in Darija – the concept doesn’t exist when there’s always a (female) family member around to care for the children – but I managed to tell my mudhir that I’m a teacher, not a mom. He laughed.

I’m not cut out for running a preschool. I hope things soon get back to “normal,” whatever that might be.
First, though, I hit the road for a week and a half. Teacher training with some of my stajmates next week in Ourzazete, then on to Rabat for my first Gender and Development Committee meeting.

And, when I return, I’ll likely have to recruit students all over again. A week and a half is long enough to forget a routine, 'round these parts.

But when class is in session …

My lessons with the bac students (baccalaureate students are in the final two years of high school) are my favorite so far. They don’t want to go over the finer points of grammar; they simply want to practice conversation. They don’t get a chance to use the English they learn in school, so their pronunciation is stilted (and highly affected by their knowledge of French).

And they enjoy discussing fairly sophisticated topics … in English. This week’s lesson, at the request of one of my male students, was about the moudawana, or Morocco’s new family law that gives women far more equal rights in marriage. That gave us plenty to talk about! We’re also learning a few new idioms each week … when you think about it, English conversation is all about the idioms. Which, when you think about it from a non-native-speaker’s standpoint, don’t make a lick of sense.

Plus, not only can the bac students understand and translate my English, they also seem to play really well with the younger students – far better than I do. Last Saturday during our weekly game day, as I was playing Monopoly with the middle-school boys, I spotted a couple of the older boys gently singing and playing with two little girls who couldn’t have been more than 5. Add together those translation skills and ability to work with kids and – presto! – I just may have some counterparts to organize some new activities with the kids.

Then there’s Brahim, by far my most dedicated student. He’s 14 and comes to class every single day, whether the lesson is for beginners or bac students. He’s not yet old enough for formal English classes in school, yet he’s taught himself a great deal already. On his own, too – no older brother or sister to teach him their lessons.

Oh, how I wish I were young enough to absorb language the way Brahim does. If we learn colors one day, he’s back the next day to tell me what color everything is. If we learn time phrases (yesterday, today, etc)… he can’t wait to shout out “See you tomorrow!” as he scrambles onto his bike to get home before dark. He understands simple present tense and wants to know the English equivalent of every verb he can think of.

And he retains … I don’t need to teach him vocabulary more than once. He almost never writes it down, but he’s got it all filed in his head. He’s going to be fluent by the time I leave, I can feel it. And if he’s that smart and driven in English, he has the potential to do anything he wants to do.

Now to save him from the all-too-common trajectory of smart, driven, educated young Moroccans who manage to earn their university degrees … only to end up making change in a small local hanut (shop) because that’s the only job available.

Life lessons.

But the learning doesn’t stop there. Oh, no!

I couldn’t possibly be prouder of my host family than I am this week.

Kabira and Khadija have their share of sisterly knock-down, drag-outs. But last week’s took the cake. (Hmm, another idiom.) Later, I found out it was because Kabira wanted Khadija to show her how to use the Internet. She’s very frustrated because she doesn’t understand how to go online and has to rely on Khadija’s availability and willingness to help her with Skype or MSN so she can talk with their other sister, Aziza, in Germany.

Later, Kabira and I had a talk about how getting so upset only hurts her. She can really work herself up. (Who better to understand her than me, eh?) We talked about how it’s entirely OK to be angry or upset, to cry, to voice your disappointment … but that there have to be better ways to solve our problems than to break down so completely. I’m not sure how we had such a sophisticated conversation, but we really did; she understood where I was going with it.

A few nights later I came into the patisserie to find Khadija in Kabira’s place behind the counter. Where’s your sister, I asked.

Turns out Kabira had signed herself up for a month’s worth of Internet lessons at the cyber. Is that not beautiful? Especially when you consider that Kabira works seven days a week, at least 12 hours a day, and really had to do some negotiating to fit it into her schedule. I’m so proud to see her doing something good for herself.

Not to be outdone, their mother is on a new learning journey of her own. Rakya has often bemoaned the fact that she can’t read or write Arabic. She can’t read the news or use the Internet, or even read text messages or run the satellite television. I’ve often said she could take classes, maybe at the nedi neswi (women’s center). She’s always brushed me off.

A few afternoons after Kabira had started her Internet classes, I came home to find Rakya busily copying script into a notebook. She’d walked herself over to the nedi and had just finished her first Arabic class. Rakya’s not unusual; so many women her (my) age and older never had an education and are illiterate in their own language.

As, come to think of it, am I – in Arabic, I’m illiterate. Hard to swallow for someone who’s spent her life submerged in words. Rakya, you’re showing me up!

Idioms of the Week:

Piece of cake.

You crack me up.

Hang on.

Quotes of the Day:

“The present moment is all you ever have.” – Eckhart Tolle

“It is when the ice and snow are on them that we see the strength of the cypress and the pine. I am grateful for this trouble around me, because it gives me an opportunity to realize how fortunate I am.” – Chuang-tse

“Trying is the first step toward failure.” — Anonymous (ok, just kidding … kind of … )

“We think we know what we want – until we get it.” – the Divine Miz K


More care packages this week! You all are just entirely too kind. Thanks to My Favorite Subversive Used Bookstore Maven, and to my favorite high school journalism teacher. My kids thank you as well.

More photos.

My host "mom," with the family's house in the background.

Entertainment center at the host family's house.

Bab (door) into Taroudant medina.

Shopping in Taroudant.

Monday, January 19, 2009

DIY: An Inauguration Day Playlist.

Wake Up / Arcade Fire
Brand New Day / Van Morrison
Good Morning Boyfriend / Tulip Sweet and Her Trail of Tears
My Favorite Mutiny / The Coup
The Laws Have Changed / New Pornographers
I’m Waiting for the Man / Velvet Underground
You’re the One / Vulgar Boatmen
He’s Misstra know It All / Stevie Wonder
Ready for the Good Times/ Shakira
Everybody’s Everything / Santana
I’m Diggin’ You (Like An Old Soul Record) / Me’Shell Ndegeocello
Killing Me Softly With His Song / the Fugees
You Really Got a Hold On Me / Thao Nguyen OR She&Him
King of the Mountain / Kate Bush
We Want Peace / Lenny Kravitz
Feelin’ Free / Michael Franti
Love & Peace Or Else / U2
Let Me Dream / Ozomatli
Keep Your Eyes Open / Helio Sequence
The New World / X
It’s In Our Hands / Bjork
Waiting to Derail / Whiskeytown
Happy Endings / All American Rejects

Can you imagine how proud the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who would/should be 80 years old today, must be? Although should it really have taken us another 40 years?...

That’s what he said.

Darija has no infinitive form; all conjugations are based on the male singular past tense.

In other words, everything in Morocco is based on what he said.

Yup. That pretty much sums it all up.

Now this was a game of Monopoly.

Check out those hotels. Ayoub knows how to deal. No one wants to play with him anymore.

Favorite things about Morocco, No. 132-136.

132. The Moroccan handshake: After (barely) clasping hands, each greeter presses that hand to his/her heart. Such a lovely gesture.

133. The tobis (autobus): My transportation from Sbt Guerdane to Taroudant every weekend. It’s called the S.T.U.D. bus. It’s yet to live up to its name.

134. Mussissell: The Arabic (usually Turkish) equivalent of the telenovela. Highly addictive even if you can’t comprehend the language (standard Arabic is far different from the Moroccan dialect, and I have enough trouble understanding that). My favorite: “The Tears of a Rose.”

135. Ns-ns: Half instant coffee, half whole milk, half sugar, all good. Ask for “kbir,” or large, and you might get more than a thimbleful’s worth.

136: These (below): Are they not hideous? They’re also fabulously warm and comfy, and typical modern Moroccan bling. I never want to take them off.

Rule No. 1 for living in Morocco:
Never, ever, go anywhere without a stash of toilet paper.



An unnamed friend tells a great story about a pit stop during a long bus ride, during which she had to choose between a stray sock and a sheet of notebook paper. She went with the notebook, of course … and had the weeklong papercut to prove it.

Rule No. 2 for living in Morocco:

Also never go anywhere without a book. No matter how well you think events are about to play out, there will be a wait.

A (fairly typical) English quote on a Moroccan T-shirt*.
(*This one belonging to my host sister)

Are you ready for this?
Instinct of love
Go around
My soul side
Does it work
For you
-- Rainy

Quote of the Day.

“When inspiration calls, you don’t send it to voicemail.”
– Will.I.Am (courtesy Miz Meleeska)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Taking it slow.

Typical Sunday afternoon at my favorite café in Taroudant.

Here’s something you won’t see me doing anymore: Wasting away my afternoon in a dark, shabby cybercafe with a sloowwww Internet connection.

Photo by fellow PCV Tom

Instead, you can finding me wasting away my afternoon in the comfort of my own, sunny little apartment with a slooowwww Internet connection of my very own!

I’ve just plunked down a good portion of my settling-in allowance for a wireless Internet modem. It connects via a USB port, so I can use it anywhere. 200 dirhams (about $24 by today’s pretty good exchange rate) buys me a month of service.

The connection is slow, no doubt about it, though not nearly as slow as my parents’ dial-up; I can read a magazine rather than a book while waiting for a page to load. And it was a bit clunky to set up: Macs are unheard of here, and the modem wouldn’t work with my laptop. So I had to buy and install Windows (5 dirhams, so you can imagine how legit it is), and then buy virtual machine software online in order to run Windows on the Mac. My puny hard drive is getting a heavy workout.

But I now can listen to NPR all day, thanks to the beauty of streaming audio. I can work on lesson plans while sprawled in my jammies under several layers of wool blanket. I can catch up on all of my favorite podcasts. I can obsess over all of your Facebook postings late into the night. The obsession should abate soon, and it will merely be a welcome convenience. For now, though, I admit to overdosing a bit. But I can quit anytime I want.


Things have been slow here lately, and it’s not just the Internet connection. I had a few good weeks of productive classes at the dar chebab. Then, last week, nothing – no one showed up for a single class until a handful of baccalaureate-level students on Friday evening. It’s not just a lack of interest in English; my boys aren’t even showing up to play pingpong or board games.

Part of it’s the situation in Gaza; school was canceled for a few days so students could attend rallies. Part of it’s the fact of midterm exams, which keep students at home cramming. I’m told I can expect things to be dead this week as well … and next week, too, as the kids then have a week off from school.

As those who know me can imagine, it’s hard for me to adjust to a slower pace of life. The Internet, the lack of what feels like “real” work. Even the literal pace; I’m sure I’m seen as some type of bull in a china shop for the way I stride across the hard-packed desert earth that serves as my sidewalk. The walk from the city “center” to my host family’s home takes me about five minutes on my own; with my host sisters, it’s easily a 20-minute endeavor. My feet just plain refuse to move that slowly, and I often find myself half a block ahead without even realizing it.

Then there’s the pace at which things get done here. Trying to finalize my apartment rental has turned into a two-month endeavor. Things started out great; the previous volunteer helped me reach a deal with the muldar (landlord) before she left; Peace Corps did a security check and gave me the go-ahead right away. Then the muldar went to Hajj (the annual pilgrimage to Mecca). He finally returned two weeks ago, set the price 100 dirhams more than we’d agreed on (and 100 dirhams over the limit set by Peace Corps) and wouldn’t budge. Daily attempts to get Peace Corps to agree to the higher price finally paid off; now the trick is to track the muldar down again. There’s no office to visit, no phone number to call; one just waits until one meets her muldar in the street so that she can use sign language and pidgin Darija to broker the new deal.

One place I can manage to slow down is in the neighboring city of Taroudant. I’ve made a habit of spending my Sunday afternoons there, simply to get out of town. I get fewer stares and catcalls there, as tourists are more common. I can go to a café without worrying about being taken for a prostitute. There is one café in particular that I’ve made mine, with a quiet balcony lined in sunshine, geraniums and trailing vines; it’s a perfect place to spend the afternoon reading a good book, journaling like crazy and listening to either my iPod or the cacophony of indecipherable conversations that surround me.

Plus, it’s a cheap trip – the autobus (it’s the S.T.U.D. bus, and that makes me smile every time I look at my ticket stub) is 4 dirhams each way; a cup of ns-ns (half coffee, half milk) is 5 dirhams; and the people-watching is free.

I’m trying to take all of this for the lesson I so obviously need to learn. Things get done whether you act frantically or take life as it comes.


Despite the slowness, I can still measure progress, even in small doses. One of my favorite students is an elegant young woman named Soumaia, who’ll be graduating in June and is eager to do well on her bac exam so she can get into university. She’s good in English and understands me quite well, and I so I finally dared last week to ask her if she’d be willing to help me form a girls’ club. I was so sure she’d be too old for such things; instead, her eyes lit up with excitement. It’ll be a good opportunity for her to gain some leadership skills; and no way could I describe possible activities, much less launch them, without a Soumaia to act as go-between.

Of course, now I haven’t seen any of my other young ladies at the dar chebab in a couple of weeks. But it’ll happen; things will pick up when school is back in session in a couple of weeks. Inshallah.

In other progress, a neighboring second-year volunteer is putting together a weekend GLOW camp next month in Agadir and asked me to help out. GLOW, or Girls Leading Our World, is a common theme throughout Peace Corps; the point is to increase girls’ self-esteem and confidence while giving them practical skills for improving their lives. This camp, for older students and young adult women, will encourage participants to create events in their own communities on International Women’s Day on March 8. We’ll also have a discussion on SIDA (the international acronym for AIDS) and on mudawana, Morocco’s new family laws that have given women far greater inroads toward equality.

I’m excited to have a chance to see how such an event is put together without having to do all the work, from scratch, myself. Next up: Recruiting a few young women from my village to attend. It’s going to be an uphill struggle; girls (and their families) are not used to spending even a single night away from home, so I’ll have to focus on what a great opportunity this is, how there will be a large group of girls, no boys, with supervision, and with programs by educated Moroccan women.

(Plus it was a chance to finally see the beach at Agadir, a town rebuilt on tourism after it was decimated by the deadly 1960 earthquake. The beach is gorgeous, though full of European tourists even on a chilly January weekday. Sprawling white sand and tapered palms, backed by a long row of enticing eateries … and then a McDonald’s. Sigh.)

With fellow PCV Faye on the Agadir beachfront.


Gaza. I wanted to say something about Gaza. As Peace Corps volunteers, we are strongly urged to stay away from political conversations and especially from protests or rallies. How did I manage to get myself into yet another career where I can’t speak my mind freely? But I abide.
This being a private, anonymous blog, and me being a U.S. citizen with all the freedoms that entails, and the disclaimer to the left absolving PC and the government of any responsibility for my private views, I feel as if I ought to be able to say something about the atrocity.
And suddenly I find I have no adequate words.

Madre, one of my favorite human-/women’s-rights organizations, has a plethora of resources and background on the crisis – and is doing its best to get emergency supplies past the blockade. Click on the link and do what you can to help.


I feel guilty complaining, down here in the sunny south, but damn! It’s been cold lately. How cold? I don’t know. Nothing to compare with the mountains up north, where they’ve been hit with several snowstorms. And nothing to compare with back home, which has been hit with an extended cold snap as well.

But then compare how you get to go inside, remove your snow-covered boots and cap, and warm up by benefit of central heating. Meanwhile, I’m sleeping (under four double-folded wool blankets) in the same clothes I wore that day … and sometimes wearing them again the next. Too cold to change! Yes, the sun warms things up a bit during the day … if you’re outside. But these concrete walls and high windows do an excellent job of keeping the cold in, and that’s true in winter as well as summer.

Multiple warnings aside, cold is one thing I did not expect to deal with in Africa.


Just wanted to send out another shout of thanks for all of you who sent holiday care packages. They may have arrived late, but they did arrive, and every single item was so appreciated! From the books to the CDs to the Ziploc bags to the lipgloss to the peanut butter and every single thing in between. The photos and gifts from the niece and nephews especially made my day. Thank you, thank you! You don’t know what it means, on a lonely, homesick, confusing day, to find a package waiting for you from home.

Much love to everyone!


Currently reading: “If on a winter’s night a traveler,” Italo Calvino

Just finished:A Language Older Than Words,” Derrick Jensen (PLEASE find and read this amazing book!); “Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit,” Daniel Quinn (don't bother)

Song of the Day: “You Speak My Language,” Morphine

Quote of the Day: “Some people never learn anything because they understand everything too quickly.” – Alexander Pope

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Tsenna sa’3da!

Or bonne annee, or Happy New Year … however you say it, I hope 2009 brings good things to you.

This was possibly the quietest New Year’s Eve I’ve passed in quite a long time. Well, maybe not the quietest: After the couscous, after the milfait, we made our own holiday soundtrack accompanied by all manner of table-pounding, hand-clapping, spoon-banging percussion, Shakira shaking her hshuma booty on TV in the background. Still, I was in bed by 10 a.m., in order to make a 6 a.m. New Year’s Day hammam call with Khadija.

Last weekend, I spent some time celebrating the holidays with a few nearby volunteers, up in the mountains north of Taroudant. A village of green terraced farms set against craggy mountains, with palm trees below, all draped in a drizzly fog.

Welcome rain kept us huddled cozily indoors celebrating Christmas much as we might’ve back home: exchanging gifts, eating way too many sweets, playing Pictionary and Monopoly, and overdosing on English-language television shows. Dinner was fried chicken (well, not for me), mashed potatoes and the fattest, sweetest green peas you can imagine, having just come into season here.

Joy to the world!
(a pun that only works if you know that’s the appropriately named Joy in front)

Good company, new friends, and every ending a new beginning.

Success story No. 1:

As I was describing the events of our little holiday gathering to my host sisters, Kabira looked at Khadija and exclaimed, proud as any new mama: “She’s speaking Darija!” As in, “she’s really speaking.” Yup, full sentences with multiple tenses, a sprinkling of adjectives and all.

Progress duly noted. I still don’t understand quite a lot of what I hear … but I’m beginning to pick out enough words here and there to follow many a conversation. I still feel awkward, but not nearly as self-conscious as I did a month ago. Beginning to see the possibility that I might actually catch on, given a few more months.

Success story No. 2:

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve finally achieved Goal No. 1: I HAVE GIRLS IN MY YOUTH CENTER! Despite being told all around that it is acceptable for girls in my village to visit the dar chebab (that’s not true everywhere; some conservative communities frown on boys and girls mixing in the same space), I had yet to encounter one. Felt like a birdwatcher ever eluded by the gray-breasted whippersnapper.

I chatted up every girl I passed in the street, encouraging her to come to class and to bring her friends. They’d nod agreeably. I told my regulars (all boys) to bring their sisters. They’d nod agreeably. I asked everyone I met, do you know any girls who would like to come meet me at the dar chebab? They’d nod agreeably.

Still … walu. Nothing.

Then one day, three girls wheeled their bicycles up to the front gate a good half-hour before class was to start. Brushing aside their veils of timidity, in no time they were fully participating in class, shouting out the answers, jostling each other and giggling. They came back that Saturday for Youth Café, our weekly afternoon of board games, music and chitchat. They’ve been diligently attending class every week, and have even brought a few new friends. Here’s hoping they’re local trend-setters.

My girls.

My English classes in general got off to a slow start, but I think we’re hitting stride. Some days I have 10 students; some days I have one; some days I have none. Some days my so-called “intermediate” class consists of students who haven’t taken a single English class before. It’s all good; someone always comes away learning something … not least of all me.

Success story No. 3:

Speaking of classes, here’s a most unexpected surprise: I find I actually kind of like teaching – the activity I most dreaded about my Peace Corps assignment. It’s a lot like my former career as an editor/page designer: I’m just moving the puzzle pieces around until they fit together for my audience. Nothing feels better than watching a pair of tightly scrunched eyebrows unfurl into virtual grins of recognition.

Despite coming from a family full of teachers, the thought of standing up in front of a crowd of people – even children! – has always filled me with anxiety. It had a lot to do with why I chose journalism instead; I preferred to work behind the scenes.

And, as you may know, I had grave concerns about whether teaching English is the best way to “develop” the youths of Morocco. They’re usually fluent in French as well as at least two local languages. Wouldn’t our efforts be better spent helping teens complete their educations, or develop useful career skills, or find adequate employment?

But how to get those better opportunities? My own students tell me they actually want to learn English – that it will give them a leg up when they apply to university, when they look for a job in this tourist-oriented country or beyond. And I can feel their enthusiasm in class, even when discussing the most mundane points of Present Perfect Simple.

Besides, teaching several English classes a week is a good way to integrate into my village, get to know the kids, when I can’t yet speak the local language freely and fluently. All of my fabulous ideas for community education, girls’ empowerment, women’s issues – all of those ideas are in English and stubbornly resist translation. But, through my classes and spending time at the dar chebab, I really am starting to build relationships.

Now, if I can just keep working on that patience thing, I can see real possibilities ahead.

More photos:

Mountainside village.

December geraniums.

After the fog lifted.
PS: Now I realize why I never got any comments on my last blog: It never got posted! Smuh liya!