Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The women's room.

Sneaking in a real picture before the "official" group picture ... aren't these women beautiful?

I've misspent a good deal of energy over the past months worrying about how little work I'm doing. Somehow my brain has linked the closure of the dar chebab with my insecurities about my language and my abilities ... that somehow the closure was subconsciously, psychically, karmically, my fault. Yeah, yeah, I know ... but who ever accused me of being logical?

Anyway, in the heat of summer everything tends to shut down, so I'm not alone in facing a lot of lazy days. My mind races with all the things I "could/should" be doing ... preparing future lesson plans, creating on a resource kit for gender issues, reconnecting with the Flickr site that I've sadly neglected since arriving in Morocco, perfecting my yoga practice, finally learning to meditate ... and cook ... and write ...

Instead, the stifling 110-degrees-plus heat of this past week has left me nearly catatonic. Lying atop my bed, the fan trained directly on me, listening to podcasts instead of reading in order to avoid even the movement of turning a page ... still I found myself reclining in a pool of sweat. Dry heat, my ass.

I've spent more than a few days in just this way lately, entire days and nights with no energy even to read. Now that's lethargy.

But ... a recent surge of activity in my social calendar has not only brought some much-needed energy into my days, it's also snuck some psychic energy into my soul.

Take just the past couple of days.

Yesterday Soumaia, my favorite advanced student who recently passed her graduate exams, invited me to her home in a duoar (little farm village) just outside of town. Yesterday was the hottest day yet -- I heard 117 degrees -- and I spent the morning moaning quietly to myself about the moment I would have to leave my beloved fan and enter the furnace outside, walk a quarter-mile in blazing sun, then press myself into a crowded, un-air-conditioned transit van.

But once I got there ... well, I won't say I forgot all about the heat, because it was impossible to ignore. Every couple of minutes someone says the equivalent of "Hooo, it's hot," and unwraps her veil in order to fan herself with it, whipping it around like the hair of an '80s headbanger.

But beyond the heat, there was great warmth. After quickly finishing off the cake Soumaia had baked -- strawberry filling and chocolate icing with sprinkles -- we crossed the highway to visit her friend Rachida across the road. Four chatty, laughing daughters and their welcoming Tashelheit mom who proclaimed herself my twin, letting down her veil to show her own twin braids to match my own.

One by one the other women in Soumaia's family appeared as well, friends and neighbors who naturally congregate on a daily basis. Soumaia and Rachida's is a second-generation friendship; their mothers are close as sisters, finishing each other's sentences, fiddling with each others' clothes, scolding each others' daughters.

We talked about Soumaia's plans to go to computer school. We talked about differences, and similarities, between Moroccans and Americans. We talked about Oprah's newly straight hair. We talked about the heat. We laughed, a lot -- the kind of laughter I could feel was not pointed at me but meant to include me.

There's absolutely nothing better here than spending time with a group of women who obviously enjoy each others' company -- unless it's the feeling that they welcome me as one of them.

Friends for life.

Today, if possible, was even better. First, lunch with my host family, at which I learned the birthmark on my right shin is a result of my mother having looked at a strawberry when she was pregnant with me. Then a two-hour nap with Rakya and Khadija, fading in and out to "The Lizzie Maguire Movie" without missing a single beat in the less-than-complicated plot.

From there I met my friend Sihem, who had asked me home to meet her mother. Another dearly warm and hysterically funny woman -- really, she's missing her calling as a stand-up comedian. She was doing everything but pratfalls to keep me entertained -- making faces, doing impersonations, deadpan lying through her teeth ... then cracking herself up. I haven't laughed so hard in ages. Comedy and good intentions, both persevere through cultural and language barriers. I can't wait to go back.

Plus, I learned that darling independent Sihem, besides riding a motor scooter and working as a compliance officer in a local dairy co-op, has a black belt in karate. And bingo! I have another counterpart for positive activities for girls come fall.

Best of all, once home I finally had energy to do something besides lie in a pool of my own sweat. Made a big batch of my favorite salad -- rice, diced tomatoes and peppers, chopped green olives, cilantro, tuna and cashews -- and one of green melon, cucumbers and fresh mint. Made some notes on advanced English lessons for the summer language immersion camp I'll be working next month. Settled in to write this update. I've done more in the past couple of hours than I've managed in a week.

A year ago I was without a job and without a home (having cut ties with both before my original Peace Corps invitation got messed up at the last minute) and feeling rather weightless, centerless. I've spent much of the past months in the same disconcerting place. I know I'll continue to float back and forth between confidence and angst, but lately I have to admit that I'm not just *trying* to feel as if I fit in here ... I have moments when I actually do.

Masala al fresco.
Dinner on Vish's rooftop.

My social outings aren't limited to my little neighborhood. On Saturday several of us gathered at the home of a volunteer in a neighboring village. Vish treated us to amazing homemade Indian cuisine, bottles of perhaps incongruous but no less satisfying sangria, and an evening of laughter punctuated by comfortable stillness, or perhaps it was the other way 'round. Several of us laid blankets on Vish's roof and slept under the stars and a refreshingly cool breeze.

This weekend, maybe escaping the heat with a trip to Tagazout, Morocco's surfing capital but also supposedly a tranquil beach community.

Turns out being out of work isn't such a chore after all.

In the news.

Here's a short video on the ubiquitous Moroccan djellaba, produced by a young American journalist I met last month in Rabat (her husband and fellow journalist has Nebraska ties). It only scratches the surface of women's wear in Morocco -- for one thing, western garb handily competes with the djellaba in Rabat, the capital; for another, the traditional full-body wrap referred to here as the haik is, far from being obsolete, at least as common as the djellaba here in the conservative south. Still, this offers a look at the variety and fashion of the modern djellaba.

Next, an amusing short piece by a Moroccan-American author on seeing local customs through an expat's eyes. I hadn't before heard of Laila Lalami, but her two novels sound fascinating, and I can't wait to hunt them down.

Finally, a blog post by another American in Morocco who captures quite perfectly the feelings of being an outsider here.

Currently listening to: "Trouble in Mind," Janis Joplin

Trouble in mind, babe, I'm blue,
but I won't be blue always
Yes, the sun gonna shine,
in my back door someday

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Insects I have known, and not loved, and occasionally killed, in Morocco.


* Mosquitoes. I just counted ... currently logging at least 30 bites, in every place you can imagine, despite the newly installed screen on my bedroom window.

Flies. They're ubiquitous. My house isn't too bad, even with open doors and windows. I keep my kitchen and my clothes clean, and it seems to cut down on my attraction to them. In my host family's house, I often wish I had a tail to swish at them with, they're so overwhelming. My least favorite are the tiny white ones that like to hang out in the bathroom; I assume the moisture attracts them? Well, they aren't attracted to me, so I leave them be.

Crickets. I am actually one of those who love the sound late at night ... unless they're in the room with you. Then they have to die. This happens nightly. Being, previously, one of those who tries to take the bugs outside rather than kill them when they dare to cross my threshold, I'm a little disturbed by the glee I take in catching one in the act. "Tell your friends," I whisper to them as I toss them down the Turkish toilet. I've considered leaving the corpses where they fall, as a warning to the others, but that's just ... icky.

Cockroaches. I was logging about one of these a day as well until the past week or so. I'm afraid to jinx myself by mentioning that I haven't seen a single one in at least a week. So I won't. They're big mothers here, too.

Ants. The little ones like to congregate around my toilet. Bigger ones occasionally can be seen scurrying down my hallway, bearing more than their weights' worth of some treasure or another. These I leave alone. And not just because they are protected in the Koran.

* Scorpions. Are these insects? Probably not. And I've only seen one so far, on the paved street in my little village. How'd he get here? And how'd my host brother manage to spot him in the dark? I'm afraid of them and yet I want one, being's as we're kindred spirits. Anny logs her kills in "Scorpion Death Match" on her blog; last weekend she was mentioning how she hadn't seen a single one yet this summer. Lamenting might be too strong a word, but I think it's fair to say she sounded just a wee bit wistful.

And one I have yet to know in Morocco:

Giant camel spiders. Again, I know, not really insects -- especially not when they're this big. Matt claims to have seen one at a recent summer camp. I think that would exceed my freak-out levels.

Really, as with most everything else, the creepy crawly situation here (scorpions and camel spiders aside) is no different than that back home. The difference seems to be in how I deal with them. I can't imagine the earlier versions of me managing to sleep knowing there's a giant cockroach in the house. Now, it's like -- meh. Surely this is increasing my fortitude in other areas as well.

News on Peace Corps and Morocco.

There's been plenty of it lately, and I'm behind on most of this. Also too lazy/tired to write -- killing bugs is hard work! -- so just the links if you're interested in learning more.

* President Obama this week finally announced his nominee for director of the Peace Corps. Sounds like a career do-gooder; what's not to like?

* It's been a month now since Obama appointed his ambassador to Morocco. Wonder if he'll continue his predecessor's "tradition" of rewriting "Twas the Night Before Christmas" for Peace Corps volunteers' swearing-in ceremony.

* It's also been about a month (I told you I'm behind) since Sen. Chris Dodd a former PCV himself, introduced legislation to gradually double Peace Corps' budget. Here's a good site for tracking the bill's progress and media references.

On Independence Day (America's), Obama and Morocco's king traded love letters about their common goal of Middle East peace.

* If you're really, really interested in Peace Corps, the agency has a new YouTube channel and a Twitter page.

Guest writer: Rumi.

A Moroccan friend posted this on Facebook. It's really speaking to me today.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Quotes of the day.

“I must govern the clock, not be governed by it.” – Golda Meir

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” – M.K. Gandhi

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Summer slowdown.

Well, we’re deep into the summer doldrums here in the village. Looks like the dar chebab will be closed all summer, as is the women’s center. In this heat, people just don’t go out during the day if they can help it. It’s only been in the high 90s so far, for the most part; as people here love to remind me, machft walu mazal: I haven’t seen anything yet.

Accepting that it’s not my fault nothing’s going on, that indeed it’s out of my control, has been a struggle. But I’m learning to adjust to having even more free time than is usual for me here. Trying to write more, trying to practice my yoga more, trying to arrange an August vacation to a yoga/meditation/reiki retreat in Spain.

I’m also trying to accept that my every interaction is some kind of progress.

Take this afternoon, for example: I agreed to meet a possible counterpart at the appliance repair shop where he works. Ayoub also leads a local theater troupe, and we’ve been talking about ways to create some theater activities at the dar chebab. I had some trepidations about hanging out in such a male-centric environment, but Ayoub has a well-deserved reputation for being nishan – straight, a good, honest young man – and I got a great deal out of the hour I spent sitting among ailing refrigerators. Not only did he teach me an intricate new method of making mint tea, he told me about some women’s organizations in Taroudant, the nearest city, that might be able to help me organize some educational sessions when the women’s center does reopen this fall. I learned about some girls in a village not too far away who could use some positive activities. And we agreed to launch a schedule of theater and music events this fall, when the dar chebab – inchallah! – is open again. Frankly, a lot of networking got done in one afternoon.

On my way to meet Ayoub, I was accosted by a brazen gang of elementary-age boys, all clamoring to be the most brazen in daring to converse with me, all rushing to hide behind each other the second I met their gaze and answered their questions. Typical boys of that age, trying so hard to be naughty but frankly unable to hide their ebullient goodheartedness behind dimpled laughter.

Later, walking home, I made my usual rounds of “Salam, labas 3lik?” (“Hello, how are you?”) with women and kids I meet in the street. Sometimes people, especially women from the country, look at me suspiciously; more often, I get the reward of a broad smile, a handshake followed by a kiss of the fingertips, and enthusiastic inquiries after myself and my family. I carry those moments with me all day.

As I rounded the corner into my neighborhood on this afternoon, laden with a bag of vegetables and a round of bread, I heard giggles and “Allo, Becki!” Three elementary-age girls came bounding out of a courtyard to greet me, a toddler sister trailing behind. After kissing each others’ cheeks, we just kind of stood there for a few moments. We still don’t have much to say to each other, beyond: “What are you doing this summer?” “Walu” (nothing), but they always seem as happy to see me as I am to be called out. As I said goodbye and headed off again, I heard one of them say, in practiced English: “I love you, Becki, very much.” I know the limitations of such a statement, but how can you not tear up hearing that, so far from home?

Having no work to rush off to, no lessons to plan, frees me in my mind to spend more time simply being with people. Yesterday I went to my host family’s for lunch. I spent a couple of hours sitting on the ground with Rakya, cleaning wheat –sifting through it, looking for rocks and dirt. That's all we did, just sift wheat and talk. I didn't feel like rushing off; I had nowhere else I had to be. I learned some new vocabulary. Lunch meant the homemade flat wheat bread I love so much, freshly baked on a charcoal fire on the roof, still warm when we sat down to eat. And then, when everyone else laid down for their post-lunch nap, I didn't feel at all uncomfortable lying down alongside them. It felt communal. I slept.

Speaking of sleep, I’m finally sleeping in a big-girl bed! It was delivered on the Fourth of July. Just two twin-size frames with slats, shoved together under a thin foam mattress, but you have no idea how happy it makes me after camping out in my living room these past six months or so. That Independence Day evening, I fell asleep not to blasts of neighborhood fireworks, but to the rhythmic drumming of a wedding ceremony just outside my front door. I couldn’t have felt more at home.

Other recent news.

1. One of my favorite students passed the final exam that meant her graduation from high school. She sent the good news in a text message: “hi becki I am somaia how are you. Im sucssed in bacalorea.” Somaia worked so hard in English, as in all her subjects. Many students drop out of high school before reaching bac level; of those who stuck it out this year, only 27 percent passed the bac exam. With more than 60 percent of Morocco’s females still illiterate, Soumaia shines as a local role model; I hope this means she’ll continue her education at the university level.

(A girl in Rabat earned the nation’s highest baccalaureate score. In this interview, she encourages other girls to stay in school and work hard to better their futures.)

2. In local elections last month, two women won seats at the belladia, equivalent to a city council. One is a local nurse with whom I hope to coordinate some health classes at the women’s center this fall. There’ve never been women on the council before; a nationwide drive to recruit more females to office earmarked 12 percent of local seats for women.

Thanks to those quotas, women have made political inroads across the country. Marrakech has its first female mayor in history; a young woman in Tata province, south of here, is the youngest person ever elected in the country.

If you want to read more about the recent elections and what they mean for democracy in a Muslim country, here’s a good article on Slate.com. And here’s some inspiring news about women and government in other Muslim countries.

Quotes of the day.

“When you have compassion in your heart, you will suffer much less.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

“There’s an intrinsic value in doing something without being the best at it.” – Susie Gephardt (don’t ask me who she is, but I love the quote)

The only people who find what they are looking for in life are the fault finders. – Foster's Law (via Miz K)

"The most wasted of all days is one without laughter." – e.e. cummings (via Joy)

Currently reading: “Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America,” Natalie Goldberg

Currently listening to: A variety of legitimate free downloads from the Team Love Library.

Currently loving: The rice-stuffed, cheese-topped, broiled tomatoes I made for dinner.

More house photos.