Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A day at the fair.

Earlier this week, a few of us Taroudant-area volunteers stopped in at the moussem for Sidi M’bark. A moussem is a local festival for a favored saint. That's pretty much all I know about the event.

In certain ways, it felt as if I were back home in central Nebraska, whooping it up at the county fair. Tent after tent of steaming barbecued meat; purveyors rolling carts of popcorn or ice cream, crowds of people out mostly to watch each other, children running the maze amid the legs of the crowd, the afternoon heat verging on oppressive.

The two main features of the moussem were the fantasia, in which horsemen charge across a field firing their rifles, and an open-air slaughterhouse for the camels whose meat served as the featured delicacy. That was especially hard to witness. Camels awaiting their turn stood or sat near the killing site, looking blissfully placid as camels do – until we realized their legs were tethered so they wouldn’t get away.

I never have been a county fair kinda gal.

The world of Islam.

Once in awhile, a friend or relative will email me, after reading about the latest atrocities in Iraq or Afghanistan, concerned about the dangers of living in “the world of Islam.” Case in point: Last week’s daring protest in Kabul by Afghan women outraged over new laws that, for one thing, sanction marital rape. They faced beatings, stones, spitting from men in the streets, and possibly worse upon their return home.

The assumption is that life here mimics the violently oppressive culture of a handful of Muslim countries – think Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, and to a less violent but still tyrannical extent Saudi Arabia, where, for example, it is illegal for a woman to drive, to appear in public without a veil, or to leave the house unescorted by a male relative.

The “world of Islam,” incidentally, encompasses more than half the globe. Not only all of the Middle East (most of which countries are not in fact mired in war or violence), but all of North Africa, perhaps half of sub-Saharan Africa, most of Eastern Europe, huge numbers in India and Indochine countries … not to mention ever-growing numbers in Europe and North America. To lump all of Islam into a few wartorn, politicized crises is short-sighted at best. (Then there’s the fact that Peace Corps operates only in politically secure countries, at the invitation of those countries; we would never be positioned in areas the U.S. government deems even slightly unstable, much less dangerous.)

The implication in my friends’ fears is that Islam is a faith intrinsically based on violence and hatred. Nothing could be further from the truth, despite what much western media would have us believe. It has, in certain desperate regions, simply been co-opted by hate-filled individuals looking using religion in the name of furthering their cause, in countries where conditions make the residents amenable to angry political messages.

The reasons for the crises in certain regions of the Mideast have everything to do with constant war, drought, famine and desperate need. Powerful factions who crave control use the people's desperation for their own political gain. Western invasions of those countries only push more people to the cause of local warlords, who promise not only freedom from occupation but the basic human needs of food and shelter.

Morocco has its problems, to be sure, but desperation over daily life is not among them, not on the whole at least. Those conditions that allow warlords to gain power are not in evidence here. To the contrary, most people seem optimistic that development will continue to improve their lives.

As for the treatment of women: Certainly there are differences in culturally appropriate behavior, for men and women, compared with the U.S., but this is not Afghanistan. Women are allowed to move about freely, and while most do cover their heads, it is by choice and custom rather than by force or law. New legal changes give women far more equality in marriage and divorce. Women can work and drive and travel and get the educations that will help them improve their futures.

While there are certainly aspects of the Koran regarding equality of women, for example, with which I might disagree, they do not involve literal physical oppression. And, in fact, I am given allowances for my behavior because it is known that I am not Muslim; aside from the occasional half-joking attempt to convert me, I am never, ever castigated for not being of the faith.

And, much as with the Bible, there are plenty of passages in the Koran that contradict each other, especially regarding the status of women. (In fact, many westerners don’t seem to realize that much of the Koran tells the same stories as in the Old Testament or the Torah: Abraham and Isaac are major players, and Jesus is acknowledged as a prophet, if not the prophet.)
Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran are indeed dangerous places, and especially so for women who dare to claim equality. But it has to do with politics and control, not with Islam – even though they claim to be doing their evil work in the name of religion, much as Christianity has been so used over the millenia.

Those Afghan women who dared to protest in the face of violence and repercussions are brave indeed; here in my Moroccan village, I am far from the only woman cheering them on.


The highlight of my week has been finding someone to build and install a shelf over my kitchen counter. For the low, low price of 120 dirhams, my kuzina is phenomenally better organized … and you know how satisfying organization is to me. I was even inspired to go out and buy some plastic shelves to organize the mess under the counter as well. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll even be inspired enough to cook.

Cleaning up Casa … and the country.

Here’s an interesting article on the nation’s efforts to clean up slum areas of Morocco and help residents into better low-income housing. I don’t know anything at all about this issue; the costs to the residents seems prohibitive to me.

Quotes of the day.

“… for you are never so smart again in a language learned in middle age nor so romantic or brave or kind.” – Garrison Keillor, “Lake Wobegon Days”

“Once you are outside a place you can never go back. Not really.” – from “Sweetness in the Belly” by Camilla Gibb

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Dirt road blues.

The other day I was summoned to see the besha, the official responsible for the local police force. He gave me a little lecture on venturing too far from home on my morning bicycle rides and walk/runs. Apparently I’ve been spotted out on the rugged, open trails that meander around the orange groves and villages linking this region.

Not that I’d be hard to spot; besides my blonde hair and strange Western getups, there’s a clear view from the highway and villages into the bled, or countryside. While it feels blissfully rural, in truth I’m never far from civilization.

Though I felt a little like a 4-year-old chastised for crossing the street alone, I’m not as angry about this infringement on my independence as I’d expect myself to be – mostly because I’m not taking it overly seriously. I nodded my head and left the besha’s office with absolutely no intention of changing my behavior. My morning routine of surrounding myself with nature, of breathing air free of exhaust and incomprehensible noise, of moving and stretching my limbs and testing my limits – all this is critical to my well-being, especially when so little feels familiar.

I am doing nothing wrong, merely going about my daily life – admittedly, a life lived in an independent manner that is unusual for most women here. The police, for their part, are just doing their job; they are held responsible for my safety. (That they would not worry about a local womans safety is a separate frustration; that I am constantly being spied upon is yet another.)

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not thumbing my nose at personal safety. I make sure I have a clear view of civilization at all times, whether it’s the nearby highway, the next village or the women gathered in a field. I am always fully aware of who and what is around me; my cell phone is always at hand. I am never really out of sight.

The truth is, I feel even safer and more welcome in the country than I do in my town. The few people I meet, men and women alike, greet me enthusiastically – none of the suspicious, sullen stares I often encounter in the urban crowd.

From time to time, I do worry about What Might Happen. Usually my worries center more on flat tires and long walks home (and, indeed, my phenomenally good luck, testing the limits of these thorn-strewn trails, did in fact run out on me last weekend). But sometimes my thoughts to turn to What Might Happen vis a vis Some Strange Man coming upon me, alone, with no one around to see. We all occasionally think these thoughts, whether we’re in a foreign land or in our own comfortable hometowns.

And, just as back home, I am determined not to live in fear but to continue to live the life I wish to lead. I do not behave recklessly, but neither do I succumb to a vague notion that the world is an essentially unsafe place. It is, sometimes, but mostly it is not. (For those of us with the luxury of living in a country untorn by war, that is.)

What frustrates me is the bigger picture of which this incident is just a part – the larger sense, not just here but in most of the world, that women must be kept veiled, secluded, at home, for two reasons: 1) to avoid enticing men (the implication being men can neither control nor bear responsibility for their own behavior) and b) to keep them safe (the implication being, again, that the world is a dangerous place, and also that it is the potential victim’s responsibility to avoid danger rather than the potential perpetrator’s responsibility to avoid committing it.

Women do bear part of the responsibility here, for going along with the charade. As long as society continues to treat women as second-class citizens, and as long as women accept that status.

To that end, read Nicholas Kristof’s blog post this week linking women’s inequality globally with the “greater” problems of poverty, environmental instability and war. It’s all linked. A society in which women are equal participants is, quite simply, more stable. Apparently Kristof and his wife have a new book coming out on this very subject; I’ll be eager for a copy when it comes out. But he was referring to a new book also featured on “Fresh Air” this week. Michelle Goldberg’s “The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World” goes straight to the top of my wish list.

The good news.

Eleven days later, the nationwide transit strike is over. Funny how agitated one can be when one knows one can’t go anywhere … even if there’s nowhere one particularly needs to go. For more than a week, all I could think of were the succulent, plump, juicy strawberries waiting for me in Taroudant, a mere half-hour’s drive away. And all the other things I “need” and can’t procure here in the village: a fan for the looming summer heat, lettuce, cashews, avocadoes, a Diet Coke in the zwin café.

Not that many of those things would’ve been available to me had I managed to get into the city. Besides freedom of movement, food availability was another casualty of the strike; stores ran out of goods, farmers couldn’t get their produce to market, and prices skyrocketed as a result. A bagful of veggies that usually would’ve cost me about 5 dirhams (about 60 cents) left me 10 dirhams lighter in the pocket today. That’s not a hardship for me, but imagine if the average American family’s food costs suddenly doubled without warning. When you’re already living on the edge of poverty, a jolt like this can mean literally going hungry. Now that the strikes over, will we see prices drop back to normal?

As far as the strike itself, I was luckier than some of my colleagues, who were stuck in Marrakech or some other crossroads for days on end, on their way home from spring camps or to Rabat for mid-service medical exams. I would not have been smart enough to bring enough cash (or credit cards) for such an emergency.

The bad news.

Today my mudhir informed me that the dar chebab will be closed for at least a month while this new building goes up. Where the money came from to tear down a perfectly good building and put an identical one in its place is beyond me, but I can think of about a hundred ways I’d have chosen to use that money to actually benefit the kids we’re supposedly serving. Kids I’m worried will forget the dar chebab is an option for them if it’s never available. Things were slow enough even when it was open.

In the meantime, I’m tutoring a couple of my older female students privately, at my home and theirs. I hope to find a new place for my women’s class to meet three evenings a week. I’ll make the rounds of the schools again to drum up new business. I’ll visit the nedi neswi again with some project ideas, and I’ll finally venture over to the dar taliba, a boardinghouse for rural girls who attend school here in town. And I’m hoping to pull together some people power to do a SIDA (AIDS) awareness event in May.

I’m getting plenty of reading done. And I’ve watched the entire run (two seasons) of “Sports Night,” in which (especially once he dropped the laugh track) Aaron Sorkin foreshadows “The West Wing” with snappy dialogue and fast laps around the office.

Wish the construction workers at the dar chebab were as dedicated as those working right next door to my apartment building. It’s almost midnight, and the persistent pounding of a destruction mallet shows no sign of stopping. It’s a symphony of noises here on Main Street Morocco, that’s for sure.

Just finished reading:Sweetness in the Belly,” Camilla Gibb

Currently reading: “Lake Wobegon Days,” Garrison Keillor

Currently listening to: “Dirt Road Blues,” Bob Dylan; “Sky Blue Sky,” Wilco

Quote of the day: “Anything you lose comes round in another form.” – Rumi

Heroines of the day: Afghan Women Protest New Law on Home Life (subject of a future blog post)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

To camp ... and back.

With spring campers dressed for a mock Berber wedding.


Really, I am constantly writing blog posts in my head, much like the voiceover narrative that was my personal soundtrack in childhood. I just somehow never get around to channeling them from brain to fingers to the innerwebs. It’s not as if I’ve nothing new to report – nor, on the other hand, that I’ve been too busy to write.

More than a week has passed since I returned from the extravaganza that was Spring Camp. Morocco’s Ministry of Youth and Sports, for whom those of us in the Youth Development sector work, stages regional camps around the country during the spring break from public schools. They are intended to be English immersion experiences for teens 14 to 17. In reality, the English concentration isn’t exactly serious, and a plethora of kids as old as 19-20 make things difficult to control. We had a few problems, of the nature you might have with teenagers anywhere in the world, but we had a fantastic camp director and a fun group of Peace Corps volunteers.

Among the problems was the painful divide between kids from the region where the camp was held, and those from Rabat, the nation’s capital. Having been to Rabat a few times, I was aware that it’s quite different from my typical southern Moroccan village. Rabat has the generic flavor of any modern international city; besides a plethora of high-fashion (and high-priced) restaurants and shops, it’s not at all unusual to see women in modern clothing, sans veils, driving, socializing in public and working in all sectors. In Rabat’s ministry neighborhood, I ate I spring rolls one afternoon surrounded by teens from a private school across the street, with teased hair, heavy makeup, short skirts and the money and freedom to congregate in an upscale café. None of this is a judgment, just a stratospheric difference from the Morocco I’m used to, the Morocco of dusty, unpaved streets where veiled girls hold hands while riding bicycles on their way to and from school and are generally invisible otherwise.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose, to see how the Rabat kids and those from the countryside formed their own, separate cliques. It wasn’t about socioeconomic status so much; any kids who can afford to go to summer camp are generally from well-off families, and those from both sides were equally eager to display their fashionable clothes (wardrobe changes seemed to be the most important activity of the day). No, the divide was in large part about identity – Arabic versus indigenous Berber, to the extent that those from Berber-speaking villages spoke Tashelheit as a secret code against the Arabic-speaking Rabatis. Sigh. Dark-skinned vs. light-skinned, city vs. country, native versus invasive … all around the globe these distinctions persist as long as we continue to see them as divisive.

My favorite memories of camp center on the individual kids I befriended. Mariam, a shy young girl who started crying at dinner the first night out of fear and homesickness (it was her first trip away from home) … and who started crying again the night she left because she didn’t want to leave. Meryama, a level-headed, tough-talking country girl who’s already wearing a milhalf (the large swath of fabric married Berber women wrap themselves in) and noted proudly that her fiancé supported her desire to go on to college. Ayoub, Hamza, Ali … three young boys who stole my heart with affectionate, unaffected smiles and endless variations on the fist bump.

This camp was just a taste of what’s to come this summer when Peace Corps and the U.S. embassy sponsor a series of two-week camps that are truly an English immersion experience, with more control over how the camp runs. Every volunteer is allotted five scholarships to bring five of his/her students to camp.

Closed for construction.

I returned home to find my workplace closed. Where my dar chebab once had three separate buildings when I left for camp, now there are only two. Why the middle room was torn down, and a new one is supposedly arising in its place, I have no idea. All I know is the surrounding rubble makes it no place for kids to be hanging around, not to mention that it blocks the doorway to my classroom, which currently is serving as storage space anyway.

Being closed for construction has given me a much-needed short break, but I’m kind of itching to get back to work now. I had two little girls over Saturday afternoon to color and play Jenga (and admire the pictures of my niece and nephews scattered around my salon); it was the social highlight of my week. The week’s successes included unclogging my bathroom sink using all-natural remedies (baking soda, vinegar and boiling water, to be precise); getting lost on a bicycle ride that gave me a fantastic, solitary view of rutted trails and golden wheat fields; perfecting the art of iced tea; and watching all two seasons of “Sports Night” (the last of which made me oddly homesick and teary-eyed, which is not really the intended effect of a sitcom). Oh, and getting my Internet connection up and running again, hamdulilah!

I’d have welcomed the dar chebab’s closure as a welcome opportunity to travel around the country and visit some other volunteers, but a nationwide transit strike, with no taxis or buses going in or out of our little villages, is keeping everyone home with no end in sight. And this morning’s offroad adventure finally tested the limits of my bicycle tires, or I’d suggest it’s about time to try biking to Taroudant.

Who knows what this week brings?

News article of the week: America Seeks Bonds to Islam, Obama Insists

Heroes of the week: The Vermont Legislature and Iowa Supreme Court

Podcast of the week: Tuesday’s Democracy Now! featuring the Poynter Institute and a nonprofit model for newspapers

Currently reading: "The_Sheltering_Sky" Paul Bowles; “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” Khaled Hosseini (I love the juxtaposition of these two titles)

Currently listening to:Wait, Wait! Don’t Tell Me!” (this week’s guest, William H. Macy, is almost as funny as Michael Pollan was last week); The Frames (thanks, Katy!)

Currently jonesing for: More Uno decks for my dar chebab; blank CDs; and flavored teabags for iced tea (I’m partial, hint hint, to Constant Comment, Wild Berry Zinger, and anything involving mint or peach)

Quotes of the week:

“The desert’s a big place, but nothing really ever gets lost there.” – from “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles

“Here we say that life is a cliff, and you must never turn around and look back when you’re climbing. It makes you sick.” – ibid

“You can’t see where you are going if you look backward.” – Miz K

More photos.

Field trip to Ourzazete's 700-year-old original medina and casbah.

One of the Moroccan camp counselors hamming it up.

Triple decker (thanks, Trevor!).

Wheat fields.

Turtle crossing.

Passing time in a Ourzazate cafe.