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


Krista said...

Oh...the garbage issue. Overwhelming, in so many ways. That pizza looks amazing, and I enjoyed the poetry. I'm off to check out Anny's blog. Besos!

Melissa said...

Ah, the mobile dumpster. We had one of those in my quad at college. It kept moving in the dead of night. Not the same, I know.

I heard a review on NPR of the latest offerings Ms. Case released on cd. It reminded me of your fabulous taste in music. I delighted to imagine the i-pod soundtrack to your Moroccan adventure.