Monday, August 24, 2009

Camp was a beach.

my advanced English class at English immersion camp in El Jadida.

It's 4:30 a.m. here, and I'm listening to the muezzin sing the morning's first call to prayer (and, as it's Ramadan, the last chance to eat until sundown this evening). Have to get going in an hour or so to begin my next adventure, but I'm already wide awake.

So, before I take off again for a couple of weeks, might as well finally get around to telling you about the summer camp where I recently spent two weeks with about 80 Moroccan kids and 15 other Peace Corps volunteers.

With the four scholarship kids I brought from my village.

For the past several summers, Peace Corps has worked with the Moroccan Ministry of Youth and Sports to create four two-week English immersion camps in the northern beach town of El Jadida. The U.S. embassy generously funds much of the camp, as well as scholarships for each volunteer to bring four kids from his or her village, at no cost to the students.

To tell you the truth, I was kind of dreading the camp experience. Large groups really aren't my thing ~ especially large groups of teenagers, in any culture, any language. And as it's been so long since I've done any formal teaching, I was kind of afraid I'd lost whatever small ability I'd had.

But you know what? Camp was great ~ one of my best experiences so far. It felt good to be really working again, for one thing. My students were smart, funny and totally into learning English ~ a far cry from my spring camp experience. And the four young kids I brought from my hometown, despite having nearly no English experience, were thrilled to be a part of it all; more than likely a summer camp experience would not have been within their grasp without the scholarship program. Three of my four kids earned "Star of the Day" honors!

I taught advanced English for an hour and a half every morning. With the camp's target age of 13-16, and English not taught in public schools until the second year of middle school, I wasn't even sure what "advanced" would mean. To my surprise, I had 10 nearly fluent teenagers on my hands. Most ~ but not all ~ of them were from the larger cities of Rabat and Casablanca, and from families with the means to give them private schooling and supplementary lessons. But, in another marked difference from spring camp, the rural-urban divide didn't rear its ugly head and all of the kids seemed to get along just fine.

I developed a curriculum based on leadership and teamwork skills, values, communication and other GGLOW (Girls and Guys Leading Our World) concepts, and I was amazed at how enthusiastically my students participated in the discussions and activities, not to mention how easily they could speak ~ extemporaneously! in English! ~ about some fairly advanced concepts.

After class, the students went to the beach. One of my most fulfilling moments was the hour and a half I spent in the water with a young girl named Zenib. It wasn't her first time in the ocean; she obviously knew how to swim. But she spent the first half of the morning clinging to me like a toddler, sometimes with all four limbs wrapped around me, begging me not to let go, afraid to approach her friends, afraid to wade in past her hips. By the time we had to leave, though, it was she who was waving me into the deep end, abandoning me for her friends, waiting for the next big wave to jump into. I was so proud of her.

After lunch, we separated into "country clubs" ~ with volunteers leading activities focused on a variety of countries where English is a dominant language (thus also teaching that English does not automatically equal "American"). Friendship bracelets and chants gave each club an identity as Jamaica, Kenya, New Zealand, Guyana, Canada, India ( ... and, oh dear, I can't remember the other two!). They learned songs, dances, artwork, food, slang and other cultural aspects of their adopted nations, while competing against other clubs for points.

Library/free time and sports rounded out the afternoons, with evenings devoted to a variety of fun activities. A talent show proved Moroccan kids love to be on stage, whether it's rapping, performing skits, singing or displaying such oddities as the ability to walk in a full backbend. The kids really seemed to enjoy Halloween night, but I'm embarrassed to say a bout of claustrophobia forced me to walk out on my job in the haunted house.

The final night's "spectac" show ~ my camera does not do night photos!

The last night was devoted to a very Andy Hardy-like "spectacle" ~ a big show featuring performances by English classes and country clubs. The "spectac" was a source of some frustration in the final days of camp; the Moroccan counselors seemed to view it not as a fun activity for the kids, but as an opportunity to show off for the ministry staff who would be attending. Some of the kids' activities were canceled, including the last beach opportunity, in order to practice, and a sense of anxiety pervaded.

In the end, though, the spectac was truly spectacular. Outdoors on a beautiful evening, before cabaret-style seating, the kids put on quite a show of song, dance and theater. My village student Meriam shone in a duet featuring her as an outspoken housewife. My advanced kids handed out copies of the camp newsletter we'd created in class. Three of them also had a moment of panic when they learned the DJ didn't have the music for the song they'd rehearsed; but in a matter of minutes other volunteers rallied to our cause, and the show did indeed go on. The finale to a fulfilling week.

My village kids and I on a field trip to "the cistern" ~ an ancient gift
to the city from Portugal, which controlled the city from 1502 to 1769.

Halloween night was a big hit with the kids ~ Christa did an amazing job of makeup
on So-Youn, but I didn't really feel like I looked any different from normal.

Now I'm home and already penpals with one of my students, another opportunity to help with her English. (I draw the line, however, at accepting their Facebook requests.) It was 12 exhausting, long days, but I find myself missing my campers and my fellow volunteers. I certainly miss the beachside weather, with its cool breezes off the water. Back in the village it's as hot as ever.

It's also Ramadan, the month in which Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown. A lot of Peace Corps volunteers participate in the fast, or try to. I'm not, though of course I do not eat or drink in public. I've enjoyed participating in lftur, the breaking of the fast, with my host family each evening. Ramadan evenings are a time for celebration, for gathering together for a very traditional meal of harira (a minestrone-like soup, tomato-based, with rice and chickpeas), hard-boiled eggs sprinkled with cumin, dates, fresh juices, and a sticky-sweet pastry called shebekyia. I love harira and could eat it every night year-round. My host sister Kabira, meanwhile, is trying to branch out with pizza and other alternatives.

Ramadan evenings may be celebratory, but the days are long and monotonous. Most people are sleeping or doing as little activity as possible, having little energy during their fasts. The added burden this year of the blistering summer heat (based on the lunar calendar, Ramadan comes 10 days earlier every year) makes this an especially difficult month for Moroccans. There is little opportunity for work; dar chebabs across the country are closed during August, anyway.

And so ... I'm getting out, temporarily, on a long-overdue vacation. Today I start making my way north to Spain, flying out of Marrakech tomorrow morning. I'll spend a few days at a yoga retreat in Andalucia, followed by a few days in Madrid. I won't have my computer with me, and while I may check email once or twice, I'll likely be out of touch for a couple of weeks. I'll let you know when I return.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

"I'm somebody now!"

-- Steve Martin in "The Jerk," on seeing his name in print ... in the phone book

Eight months after filling out my application, then getting my receipt stamped month after month ... after month ... at the gendarmerie, I finally have my carte de sejour. This is my official work card, similar to Moroccans' carte nationale, except that of course I am not a citizen.

I'll miss the authority with which the local gendarme would faithfully stamp my little piece of paper each month, but I can still get a taste of that whenever I pick up a package at the post office.

As if my work card weren't enough, I also finally received a stack of 100 very official-looking business cards -- English (above) on one side, Arabic (below) on the other. Spiffy, no?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The way home.

There are days I love the transit bus and days I detest it -- for the exact same reasons. Today was one of the good days. Standing around waiting for the white van to appear, seemingly the only one anticipating its arrival -- until it actually noses its way into the parking lot and my fellow villagers somehow materialize to lunge upon it, 40-some people jockeying for a vehicle that should seat 15 and won't leave with less than 22 (not counting toddlers, watermelons and the occasional poultry), still stopping to pick up stragglers along the way.

I've learned that if I want a ride home I have to shed any sense of decorum and so I do as the Moroccans do, maneuvering for position, throwing elbows and staking a claim by getting one limb, any limb, in past the sliding door. The women are the worst; more than once I've seen a veil torn off by the mob. My muttering hayawanat! ("animals!") amid the ensuing hoopla wasn't quite under my breath; the young man next to me laughed and shared it with the young man in front of him. Next thing I know a woman with perfectly kohled eyes has snatched away the plastic bag I'm holding over my head (so as not to crush my precious kilo of pears), and before I can protest she's also commandeered my arm and hurled me into the window seat next to her.

Behind me is a substantial Berber woman with flashing gold teeth, a baby strapped to her bosom and three toddlers in tow. I in turn grab the youngest and plop him into my lap so she can maneuver the rest of her brood into place. She promptly forgets about us and attempts to sit on top of us both, crushing the little one's legs. My kohl-eyed friend shoves her away, laughing. We're all laughing, through all of it, and this is what I love about the transit van, how laughing at me seems to bring us all together into solidarity. Look how the poor thing's sweating, someone says; I've adapted to Morocco but not to the heat, I reply as someone hands me a tissue, and we all laugh again.

Then the Q&A session begins: Yes, I'm learning Arabic. No, I don't speak it very well, not yet, but I'm trying. Yes, I live in (our village). Because I'm a volunteer at the dar chebab. Volunteer. Volunteer. I work without being paid. Yes, there's a dar chebab in (our village). Yes, I live alone. No, I'm not married. If God wills it. Yes, I'll try to fast during Ramadan. No, I'm not Muslim, but I respect your religion. No, don't close the window. Yes, there's a dar chebab in (our village). It's next to the new taxi stand. Yes, there's a new taxi stand. Yes, I live alone. No, I'm not married.


There are days when the exact same scenario can exhaust/infuriate/humiliate me. This was not one of those days. This was one of those days when I feel wholly alive and more in the moment than I've ever been before, wind in my face, sweat pooling in the small of my back, all eyes on me, and I'm myself in this strange country, and I am happy.

Back from camp.

I do mean to write about summer camp, from which I've just returned, but this is what came out instead tonight. Maybe tomorrow. Meanwhile, here's an email I just received from one of my (female) campers:

to my sweet heart rebecca

hi Beccy, i am fati from the el jadida camp, i miss you so mush and i hope that you are ok

i really miss your teaching and every thnik in the camp, i hope that you read my email and you send me , i love you so much Bbeccy i really do

take curre and don't forget your student fati please ans please say hi to said , tim , chris and said

by by kissssss

Tonight's bedtime reading:

Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's long piece in the New York Times Magazine, excerpted from their forthcoming book "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide" -- a book officially at the top of my wish list.

Quote of the day:

"I am exactly where I need to be, I need to be exactly where I am …” Amy Steinberg, "Exactly"

Monday, August 3, 2009

News roundup.


Bright and early tomorrow, I start making my way up north to El Jadida, where I'll spend two weeks teaching English at a language immersion camp on the beach for ages 13-16. Not a bad gig, eh? It should be much cooler there ... although today has been a balmy 85 degrees (F), quite a break from the 118+ temperatures of last week.

I leave you with a roundup of interesting news items I've read or heard lately about Islam, Morocco, and Islam in Morocco:

* NPR's "Here on Earth: Radio Without Borders" aired a great piece last week as part of its"Inside Islam: Dialogues and Debates." The entire series and accompanying blog are worth reading in order to gain a better understanding of modern Islam. This week's piece was on Aicha, the third and youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad. Aicha is celebrated for being both a dedicated scholar of the Koran and for being a strong female leader -- a feminist, even. You can listen to the story of Aicha here. A fascinating woman who will give you a whole new outlook on what it means to be female and Muslim.

* More public radio: PRI's the World aired several pieces from Morocco last week. From a report on the human rights of child maids to the country's fight against Muslim extremists, plus Morocco's role in increasing solar power in Africa and in the global food crisis, you'll learn a lot more than I could've told you about Morocco's place in the world. You candownload the MP3s or read the transcripts from here.

* International Press Service published a great article on how far the mudawana laws have to go in protecting women's rights in Morocco. Mudawana are the family laws revised in 1999 and again in 2004, giving women greater equality and rights in marriage and divorce. Trouble is, the laws only work if (a) the people know about them, (b) the courts recognize them, and (c) women have the support and courage to use them.

Quotes of the day.

"We can't change the world except insofar as we change the way we look at the world -- and, in fact, any one of us can make that change, in any direction, at any moment." -- Pico Iyer

"If you're walking down the right path and you're willing to keep walking, eventually you'll make progress." -- Barack Obama

"We do no benevolences whose first benefit is not for ourselves." -- Mark Twain

Currently reading: "The Best American Travel Writing 2008, Anthony Bourdain, editor

Currently listening to: "Veneer," Jose Gonzalez (thanks, Miz J!); Folk at Newport 50 years free download (thanks, NPR!)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Escape to the beach.

Fishing boats at Taghazout.

It's hot here.

No, I mean it's hot. The clock on the bank in Taroudant on Wednesday read 52°. That's Celsius -- take it times 1.8, add 32 and you get Fahrenheit ... 125°. I don't know how that could be possible, actually. But it really has been in the 118° range all this week.

Everything is hot. Every surface. My pillow. My toothpaste and saline solution. Water out of the tap. The air blown around by my lonely fan.

I've spent my afternoons trying to nap to make up for hours rolling around in the middle of the night, getting up for yet another bottle of frozen water to run along my legs and feet. Take several cooldown showers a day. Try to just not move very much. It's still hot after the sun goes down, but it's at least bearable, and I'm able to summon the energy to do a few things, like turn the pages of a book.

We were able to temporarily escape the heat last weekend with a brief trip to Taghazout, a pretty little village on the coast north of Agadir, renowned for both fishing and surfing. Oh, it was hot there, too, alright -- but the water was blissfully cold. I'm usually more of a lie on the beach and read rather than catch the waves kind of gal, but I spent most of my afternoons in the water with the young'uns, tossing the Frisbee around. We ate quite well, thanks to Anny and Vish, and had plenty of liquid refreshment thanks to a bus trip back to Agadir for supplies.

Best of all (besides the cold water), we were able to be dress lightly for a couple of days. No problem wearing skimpy swimsuits on the beach or even while walking through the village -- even for women, westerners and Moroccans alike. Back home, I'm still worrie about whether I have too much arm or collarbone or ankle showing when I dare to brave the heat and venture out.

Oh, how I wish I could've brought a little Taghazout back home with me! But I return to the coast next week. Work-related this time: I'll be teaching at a two-week English immersion camp in El Jadida, just south of Casablanca. But I'm told that in between the hard labor of being a camp counselor, we'll have time to visit the beach.

The lethargy-inducing heat has at least given me time to finally update my Flickr account -- I hadn't touched it since arriving in Morocco nearly 11 months ago now. I'll do a better job of organizing and visually archiving my life here from now on, I promise, so check back often.

Here are just a few more images from Taghazout:

Extremes in swimwear: Matt and a djellaba-clad sunbather.

The village of Taghazout.

I love the blue shutters and doors against the white and terra-cotta buildings.

Camel rides: The camels are kept muzzled and tethered; I hate seeing them approach.

Vish and friend.

Sunset in Morocco.