Tuesday, March 24, 2009

In country.


“One must dare to be happy.” – Gertrude Stein

Not sure what Tom and I are looking for; photo by Matt Heller.

I’ve just had the most idyllic weekend. My friend Anny generously hosted a group of volunteers in our region at her retreatlike villa out in the bled, or countryside. Thanks to the peacefully pastoral setting and Anny’s superb homemaking/chef skills, it felt as if we’d gathered for a family reunion at some high-priced, all-inclusive B&B – and the cost of admission was a bag of produce and some cheese.

The setup of her home would be right at home in upscale Santa Fe: A series of rooms face onto a small courtyard with high, whitewashed walls and a pomegranate tree surrounded by herbs in various buckets and soda bottles, a rustic table and chairs in one corner, a bamboo mat under the verdigred iron window frame. Her main room is a shrine to individuality, all kitschy fabrics, photos of beloved faces and places, inspirational poetry and Obamabilia.

One of several remote villages, Anny’s site is a bumpily slow 45-minute drive from the nearest town over rutted, gravelly trails, in a taxi given to bottoming out under the stress of (at least) six passengers. The only sounds here are birdsong, the occasional braying of a donkey, a herd of sheep rumbling past. Her neighbors are quietly friendly and accepting – none of the harsh stares and snickers we often encounter in the city.

The weekend’s menu could have been pulled from any gourmet cookbook: Gazpacho with baguettes, Brie and various chutneys; an onion tart with zucchini soup; nothing from a jar or a can or a box. We ate pasta with homemade marinara under the stars, scones and fresh orange juice in dappled morning sunlight.

Ancient village ruins.



Makes a Nebraska girl feel right at home.

We took long walks on the trails meandering around her duoar, admiring wheat fields as tall as me, wildflowers resembling poppies, daisies and morning glories, the ruins of a long-ago village. A group of women riding in the bed of a pickup, heading home after working in the groves, tossed us fresh, juicy oranges like candies from a parade float.

Back at the villa, we ate more good food, traded books, movies and music, watched “Airplane!”, had a dance party, suffered late-night fits of giggles, solved the world’s problems and generally enjoyed each others’ company.


Rug weavers.

We also visited the association of rug weavers Anny works with. After two years of labor, the dozen or so women have paid off their startup costs and received their first envelopes of cash for the long hours spent hunched over their looms. Much more than a way to bring extra money into the household, the association gives women something creative to do with their time, and a social setting they wouldn’t otherwise enjoy.

I put in an order for a rug of my own, deep red with an Egyptian-inspired border and the word “Peace” in Arabic script at the center; it’ll look something like this:

Working with what I have.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m battling a fair amount of jealousy over Anny’s site. This is the Peace Corps I’d imagined myself in, plopped down in a remote, rural village with no amenities save time and quiet. I’d perfect my yoga, start to meditate, learn to cook from the village women, and finally write that book … all while saving the world.


In reality, I live on a busy highway, above a variety of shops with crowds of people passing all day long. Besides the street noise, there’s the drill of the dentist across the hall whirring all day long, and the din of neighboring families and televisions amplified by poor acoustics. To enjoy the “great outdoors,” I have to trek out of town, past the grins and fingers pointing at my strange foreign getups for cycling or run/walking; even then, I am surrounded by exhaust, by insistent horns and rumbling motors. No backyard where I can relax with my lunch and a book, surrounded by fresh air and plant life.

I often long for peace, stillness.

But I also realize the grass is always greener (or, in our case, the desert always more deserted?), and I am given to gazing romantically over the fence. Important to remember all I have to be grateful for. If I run out of anything – tomatoes, dry goods, toilet paper, cheese – it’s at best a block away, rather than two hours round-trip once I happen to find a car going that way. I don’t have to plan and shop for two weeks’ worth of meals at a time. I never have to wonder how long the water or electricity’s going to hold out. If anything breaks, someone who can fix it is close to hand. My “office” is a five-minute walk away, rather than a half-hour by bicycle. I’m blissfully located between two cities with any modern amenity or diversion I might desire.

This is where I am. Generally I am content, interspersed with moments of dread and panic that are more than offset by the moments of wonder and laughter.

Song of the day: “I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got,” Bettye Lavette channeling Sinead O’Connor

Currently reading: “Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific,” J. Maarten Troost; “Summer Camp Teacher Curriculum, Agadir, Morocco, Summer 2004”

Currently mourning: The loss of my upper ear piercing … the fastener went down the shower drain and I couldn’t keep the hoop in without it, so I guess I am no longer cool or Down With That.

Currently listening to: All kinds of awesome music from Shawn and Ann. Coltrane! Monk! Thom Yorke! Stars! Amos Lee! Bonnie Prince Charley. Been soooo long since I had new music … thanks, y’all.

Currently NOT listening to: Any news or podcasts. I’ve messed up the shaky infrastructure that was holding my Internet connection together, so I’m back to visiting the cybers for the time being. If anyone’s familiar with Parallels for Mac and can tell me how to force it to Install Parallels Tools, I’d be most grateful! Failing that, I’m thinking it might be time for a shortwave radio …

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What goes around, comes around.

(Warning: you might not want to read this first part over your breakfast cereal!)

I’ve barely roused myself from the ponj (sofa-like mattress) all day – only to visit the cold porcelain hole in the floor of my bathroom. Repeatedly. I dare not venture so far from it as to go to the dar chebab today. (And here’s a Turkish Toilet Tip: They are NOT for puking in! What a mess! Use the bucket!)

Blugh. This is my second bout of presumably food-related sickness in less than a week … which of course leads me to question my kitchen abilities all over again. (Despite my whining, no real need to worry, this is likely just a coincidence; I’m assiduous about cleaning my produce.)

My surging stomach acids are a welcome distraction from scratching the insect bites that currently cover my body. Seriously – I lost count just now at around 50.

My tutor assures me the bites are courtesy a tiny (“I might even say invisible”), mosquitolike insect, and says the solution is to keep my windows closed before it gets dark. So my choices are to swelter to death or to scratch the skin clean off my body? Great.

Really, things aren’t so bad. I’m just glad the bites don’t seem to be fleas, or bedbugs. And maybe keeping the windows closed will offer some protection against the fierce, dry desert wind that keeps depositing a fine layer of grit on all my worldly belongings.

And being sick at least leaves me the energy to surf the Internet, which is kind of behaving for a change today.

NPR’s piece on American’s overuse of shampoo led me to all manner of tips and sites and blogs on consumption reduction. I’d already planned to start using a bar soap for hair and body when my shamoo runs out; soaps containing the argan oil produced in this region of Morocco are supposed to be especially rich and moisturizing … and they come sans packaging.

And I’ve already been proselytizing about the plastic bag epidemic to anyone who’ll listen; I have two fabulous cloth bags (including one by my friend, crafter extraordinaire and bride-to-be Miz J at fabulous-fabulous!) And now that I know how easy it is to make veggie stock from scraps, I won’t need vegetarian bouillon from home (don’t really see myself venturing to make soup anytime soon, though, what with the heat and the previous attempts to poison myself).

But here’s one I didn’t know and plan to try tomorrow: Dusting baking soda under your arms just after bathing is supposedly a great natural deodorant. (Though as a heavy sweater I’ve never been able to get away from chemical-ridden antiperspirants, here I have suddenly been going weeks without swiping anything at all under my arms.)

Gonna try the bar soap for dishwashing and laundry, too. It’s not the suds that matter, y’know .. it’s the soap/detergent that latches onto oils and dirt so they can be rinsed away.

All good ideas that I plan to put into use. ‘Course, I haven’t done a darned thing yet about my promised compost pile, so, you know.

Actually I think my plan is going to be to trek my food waste to my host family’s barnyard a couple times a week.

And I wish I had the energy/desire/materials to try making my own yogurt. But I don’t.

Today’s eco-conscious post (hey! I even recycled my own food today!) brought to you just in time for International Earth Day tomorrow. Happy Equinox!

Just finished reading: Kiwis Might Fly: A New Zealand Adventure, Polly Evans (blugh – don’t bother!)

About to start reading: Either The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles or Year of the Elephant: A Moroccan Woman’s Journey Toward Independence by Leila Abouzeid … can’t decide … also various manuals on leading gender awareness/self-esteem activities for upcoming spring camps …

Currently listening to: Snippets from SXSW on NPR (LOVING Thao Nguyen, even more than I already did!)

Lesson of the week: 1 wrap skirt + 1 thong + 1 badass desert wind = 1 VERY narrowly averted cultural mishap!

Quote of the day: “All lives – no matter where they are being led – have equal value.” – from the values statement of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Friday, March 13, 2009

Six months along.

My new women students are far more enthusiastic than they look here.

Has it really been half a year since my group landed in Casablanca and started our respective journeys, fanning out across the country? As of this week, it has.

I’ve turned some kind of corner; I’m feeling settled here. Far more comfortable in the day-to-day dealings of a culture, language and setting vastly different from my familiars.

Even a recent strange episode (which I won’t go into here, but a few of you know what I’m talking about) has, I think, turned into a positive. Notice has been taken; I’m proud to be a role model for women here. Certain things no one needs to put up with. (Certain things up with which no one need put? Please … not even a real English teacher would insist on that.)

Yesterday evening my host mother dropped by* unannounced. She doesn’t like to leave the house – but even more, she doesn’t like to be home alone. So with Khadija out at her grandmother’s village, Reduoane working at the supermarche and Kabira at her Internet class, Rakya decided to pay me a visit f dar – at home. I was proud to be able to serve her tea (American style, Constant Comment to be precise) and kaskrout, or snack – some fruit and nuts. We chatted for a couple of hours, quite comfortably, about some things any middle-aged women would chat about … and some things no woman should ever have to go through, much less share with a host “daughter” who’s three years older.

Other good things have been happening as well.

Last week, a group of women approached me, asking for English classes. There are at least five of them, with more, they tell me, to come. Most are older than me, a couple are younger. One is eight months pregnant with her fourth child and as serenely radiant as any cliché. They are teachers at a private preschool and members of a local women’s association. They are warm, funny and welcoming. They’re also persistent, insisting on three classes a week, which nearly doubles my workload. And with motivated students, I’ll have to actually start teaching for reals.

Other good things are happening, too. For International Women’s Day, I did my first activity at the nedi neswi (women’s center). I showed some cartoon films about changes in the moudawana, the Islam-based family law that has been updated over the past few years. Most Moroccans know the moudawana has changed, but they don’t know the specific ways in which women’s rights have increased in terms of marriage. My new friends and I have some ideas for future work at the nedi, such as me teaching them yoga classes and them teaching me how to cook.

A young man approached me the other day at the dar chebab. He’s leading a local troupe practicing for a SIDA (AIDS) awareness national theater competition in Rabat this spring. I try to steer as clear as possible of adult men, especially young men, not so much out of outright fear as out of fear of appearing inappropriate to my fellow villagers. Chatting with Ayoub was a good lesson in needing to follow my own instincts and not worry overmuch about gender dynamics. He’s enthusiastic, well-educated and eager to do more SIDA awareness activities in his community.

Combined with my new contacts at the SIDA association in Taroudant, and the news that there’s a female doctor at the local clinic, I can see plenty of possibilities for creating a SIDA awareness day both at the dar chebab and the nedi neswi.

And the possibility of showing my youths that men and women can work together without improprieties.

Ladies night.

Kabira's a talented henna painter.

Jenny, the volunteer I replaced (though there’s no replacing her!) was in town for a couple of days with some friends from Minnesota. We had an old-fashioned slumber party last night, we four Americans and our friend Kabira. Henna painting (above), hair braiding, way too much junk food, dissing boys … the whole deal. Surprised my little place can sleep five comfortably, but we had a cozy little time.

It’s gonna be a hot one.

View on a recent bike ride in the country.

Remember how eager I was to live down south here, far from the cold, bitter winters of the mountains farther north?

Lately, early March, the afternoons are already approaching 80 degrees. One walks slowly across the dusty expanse, so as to avoid sweating under one’s culturally necessary long skirt and sleeves. L3jej, the stiff desert wind that keeps every surface coated in a fine layer of grit, is a welcome relief; at least it’s a breeze, even if it’s a warm one.

Next foray to Taroudant will have to include a search for a fan. Already. It’s only March!

I’m determined not to complain too much come July-August. Not too much. I did ask for this, after all.

For now, trying to soak up as much as I can of the still-green spring landscape, freshened by an unusual amount of rainfall for this drought-susceptible region.

My bicycle has been leading me off the exhaust-fumed highway lately, onto the dirtpacked, single-lane roads leading to the duoars, tiny villages of orange grove workers that dot the countryside. The surrounding fields are alive in spring bursts of yellow and white daisies, the mountains beyond still tipped snow-white.

This is the closest I’ve been in some time to the joys of single-track, and I find myself chuckling aloud as I navigate road ruts, sand traps, wayward branches and vegetation. Surprised the occasional thornbush doesn’t shred my tires – they may nick an ankle, but I just chuckle again. I laugh at adversity!

Your assignment.

Several people have wondered what they could send me to make life here a little easier. Really,

I’m pretty well set up in terms of creature comforts … though I’ll never turn down a care package!

What I’m in really need of are some easy, fast recipes to expand my pathetic, kuzina-phobic repertoire. Vegetarian, of course (though I’m not vegan and still eat some fish) … and did I mention fast and easy?

Most fresh produce is available here in season – and here, the season for most veggies is pretty long. Most spices, too, though if it requires something like garam masala or curry powder, I’m out of luck. Rice and dried lentils, garbanzos and fava beans … no black beans, to my great dismay.

Also dismaying is the pitiful selection of cheese. There’s a soft, spreadable, bland cheeselike substance, or there’s “red ball,” which is kind of like Gouda and which has to substitute for cheddar, Parmesan, mozzarella and anything else a recipe calls for. (I’m told there’s a fromagerie in Agadir, but it’s probably out of my PCV budget except for special occasions.)

Also not much in the way of canned goods. I’m OK with that.

Keeping to those parameters, send me your favorites, whether by Word .docs, Web links or good old-fashioned recipe cards. And thanks for feeding the cause!

Phrasal verb of the day: Drop by. This one fascinates my tutor, for some reason. She loves asking me to “drop by sometime!”

Lament of the day: My cobbled-together Internet connection suddenly won’t let me download podcasts. I may be comfortable in this culture, but I still want my daily dose of news from home via “Democracy Now!” and “The Diane Rehm Show” …

Song of the day: “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” Neko Case (thanks for the dedication, Miz Amy!)

Currently immersed in: “Madame Bovary,” Gustave Flaubert

Currently trying to read, bit by bit: The Koran

Currently welcomin-ing: The 61 new Health/Environment trainees who’ve just arrived in country!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

What a load of garbage.

The town dumpster, from my balcony
(it migrates occasionally but today is standing in front of the nedi neswi, or women's center)

There is one dumpster, as far as I can tell, in my village. Luckily for me, it is near my apartment, just across the main road. I carry a mika (plastic bag, about the size of a Target bag, sometimes better quality, sometimes flimsier) of trash over there once or twice a week.

Ostensibly serving some 7,000-10,000 people, and emptied maybe weekly, the town dumpster is smaller than one you’d find at a small apartment building back home. And most people wouldn’t even think of taking the trouble to bag their trash and carry it through town to this green plastic box on the side of the highway.

Garbage is everywhere. Mika bags are strewn along the roadside, ground into the dirt/stone paths, stuck in the trees like puffy black blossoms. Plastic wrappings and paper cartons grow in piles outside front doors, part of the landscape. No one thinks twice about dropping a wrapper wherever they happen to be when they’re finished with it … in the stairwell of my building, in the classroom of the public school, at my dar chebab, in the grocery store …

Those who know me here already know what I will say if they toss a mika, or a wad of paper, or an empty milk carton, or even a gum wrapper, in the street or out the front door. They do it anyway, shrugging me off. Crazy American! Where else is it supposed to go?

Before you start feeling all superior back in the States, where our garbage is well hidden in clean white kitchen cans, in garages or alleyways, until it can be removed completely from our sight … just remember, out of sight does not mean out of existence. The United States produces far, far more waste than countries like Morocco. It’s simply more visible here. Most of the world co-exists with its waste rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. Which is the more honorable, hiding it or living with it?

What if I could interest the kids in my dar chebab in organizing a drive to set up more garbage cans or dumpsters in town? What then? Creating more garbage cans in my village would not create the regional or national infrastructure to haul/condense/“dispose” of the waste.

Still, I’m proud to find I produce far less waste than I did back home, a combination of consuming far less (that Peace Corps salary doesn’t go far!) and far fewer goods coming in any kind of packaging. The veggies aren’t shrink-wrapped, the legumes aren’t in cans, the fresh-baked bread is stacked, unwrapped, on the top of the counter. Where there is packaging, it can often be saved and reused (I have high hopes for the towering stack of round, flat cheese boxes I’m amassing … some kind of art project for the girls at the dar chebab, maybe covering them in wrapping paper to use as memory boxes?).

Even the ubiquitous plastic bags I can usually convince the mul hanut (storekeeper) to forego – Look, I have my own bag that I brought with me! – much to his amusement. I accept them only when I need a new garbage sack.

But there’s still far more I could reduce – or reuse. I could eat a lot less yogurt – a couple of cartons a day makes up most of my garbage, not to mention a lot of my hips.

And the rest is food scraps – which I shouldn’t be throwing away at all. Plan A is to go to the Mika Palace down the street, home of all things plastic, for a bucket to keep food waste in until I can (a) take it to my host family for the sheep and chickens, or (b) figure out a mini-compost system for my future rooftop pot garden.

Sigh … I really want to start some plants up there. But the idea of learning/memorizing gardening vocabulary so I can ask where to find seeds, soil, pots, supplies, etc … then to negotiate the lack of comprehension between me and my interlocuters … then to figure out how to haul the soil from wherever I might find it … then to get it all up to the roof … I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

One step at a time. For now, today, maybe just a bike ride out into the countryside.

Arab women’s poetry, Part I

My friend Anny, a Small Business volunteer a couple hours away, is also chairwoman of the Gender and Development Committee for PC Morocco. Among the many wonderful resources she sends out is a regular taste of women in Islamic literature. Check out Anny's own blog for more examples; her own writing is quite elegant as well (and, for those of you so inclined, she’s a foodie and offers lots of recipes, many of which I can vouch for!).

Here are a couple of her offerings that have spoken to me recently.

The following is a song composed and performed by a courtesan in Azilal towards the end of the French colonial era. It describes an encounter between a Moroccan courtesan and a soldier, exploring themes of love, sexual attitudes and power. The speaker inverts a traditional power dynamic through her words: although her place in society means she has less power than a man in material or conventional terms, she leverages what influence she does hold over men to assert what authority and independence she can.

The Bad Lover

By Mririda N'ait Attik

Leave me, soldier without sense or manners!
I can see that you are full of contempt,
Your hand raised, insults on your lips,
Now that you've had what you want from me.
And you leave, calling me a dog!
Sated with my pleasures,
You'd have me blush for my trade,
But you, were you ashamed
When you pushed gently at my door,
Up like a bull?
Were you coming to play cards?
You turned yourself into something humble
Agreeing right off to my demands,
To losing all your pay in advance.
And the more your eyes undressed me,
The more your rough desire put you in my power.

When you finally took off my clothes
I could have had your soul for the asking!
I could have cursed your mother
And you father, and their ancestors!
Toward what paradise were you flying?

But now that you've calmed down,
You're back on earth,
Arrogant, rough and coarse as your djellaba.

Guest of mine for the moment, my slave,
Don't you feel my disgust and hate?

One of these days
The memory of tonight will bring you back to me
Conquered and submissive again.
You'll leave your pride at the door
And I'll laugh at your glances and your wishes.
But you'll have to pay three times the price next time!
This will be the cost of your insults and pride.

I'll no more notice your clutching
Than the river notices a drop of rain.

Songs of Mririda, Courtesan of the High Atlas, Greensboro, NC: Unicorn Press, 1974 Rene Euloge, a French soldier, transcribed many of her songs and translated them into French; this one was translated into English by Daniel Halpern and Paula Pale

This woman’s anger speaks to me so strongly. Nope, I’m not a courtesan – and that Peace Corps prohibits volunteers from making any money on the side is the least of the reasons why. But she does say something about the attitude of men toward women here in general … or at least the attitude as I see and often feel it. Women either as objects of desire … or as objects of scorn.

It is often difficult to navigate. It is easy to take on feelings of guilt and shame, simply for existing in this world as a woman. I wish I felt the sense of power that emanates from her rage. I continue trying to navigate, holding onto my pride and my individuality, and keeping myself in solidarity with those who didn’t plop down into this culture by choice.

Arab women’s poetry, Part II

If you’re up for another example, here’s one that speaks to me even more strongly – to all the self-questioning that fills my heart, my days and especially my nights.

Nazik al-Mala'ikah, an Iraqi woman, was the first Arab poet to publish free verse. Traditional Arabic poetry is bound by strict rules of form, meter, and rhyme, so the free verse movement – which started in Baghdad in 1947 with one of al-Mala'ikah's poems – was revolutionary and controversial, challenging centuries of tradition. Born in 1923 to a family of poets, al-Mala'ikah studied at Baghdad University and in the United States before returning to the Arab world to write and teach. Considered one of the most influential female Arab poets, she died in Cairo in 2007.

Who Am I?

By Nazik al-Mala’ikah

The night asks who am I?
I am its secret - anxious, black, profound
I am its rebellious silence
I have veiled my nature, with silence,
wrapped my heart in doubt
and, solemn, remained here
gazing, while the ages ask me,
who am I?

The wind asks who am I?
I am its confused spirit, whom time has disowned
I, like it, never resting
continue to travel without end
continue to pass without pause
Should we reach a bend
we would think it the end of our suffering
and then - void.

Time asks who am I?
I, like it, am a giant, embracing centuries
I return and grant them resurrection
I create the distant past
From the charm of pleasant hope
And I return to bury it
to fashion for myself a new yesterday
whose tomorrow is ice.

The self asks who am I?
I, like it, am bewildered, gazing into shadows
Nothing gives me peace
I continue asking - and the answer
will remain veiled by a mirage
I will keep thinking it has come close
but when I reach it - it has dissolved,
died, disappeared.

From “Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak,” Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and Basima Qattan Bezirgan, eds; University of Texas Press/Austin, 1977

Recently read:The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures,” by Anne Fadiman

Does it seem strange that I would read a 12-year-old book about a 25-year-old case of an epileptic Southeast Asian refugee toddler in California, while I’m living in Morocco as an erstwhile English teacher?

But (besides being a compelling read) the “collision of two cultures” focus gave me plenty to chew on about my own current experience. A few quotes to share:

“Unfortunately, as [the French critic] Tzvetan Todorov reminds us, ‘The first, spontaneous reaction with regard to the stranger is to imagine him as inferior, since he is different from us.”

“The kinds of metaphorical language that we use to describe the (Hmong) say far more about us, and our attachment to our own frame of reerence, than they do about the (Hmong).”

“If you can’t see that your own culture has its own set of interests, emotions, and biases, how can you expect to deal successfully with someone else’s culture?”

Currently reading:

1. The Koran, revised English translation by N.J. Dawood

2. The Best American Essays 2007, David Foster Wallace, editor

Currently listening to: A strange daylong mélange of Jolie Holland, Eleni Mandell, “This American Life,” “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” Jeff Buckley, the New Pornographers and “Aida”

Currently wishing for: New music (new to me, anyway) … especially the new Neko Case due out Tuesday

More photos.

At a recent training event for young adult women in Agadir
(my tutor is to my left, my favorite bac student to my right)

Despite absolutely no previous interest in learning English,
some younger girls at the dar chebab got such a kick out of
"Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" last week that they copied down the vocab

Girls have also been doing their best to paper the classroom walls with their artwork

Anny makes one badass pizza ... can you believe this came out of my kitchen?
Don't worry, I was in the salon skyping with Krista at the time