Thursday, October 22, 2009

Do what you fear most.

So often the things we dread turn out to be either not so bad, or in fact even a joy. It's a lesson I've learned many times over the years, so why I need to keep revisiting it I don't know ~ but it's also a wonderfully easy lesson to learn, so I welcome the review.

This week it came in the form of my first week of yoga classes at the nedi neswi, or women's center.

I was really dragging my feet at first, even though the young women were clamoring for "sport" and I truly want to help them practice healthy habits. But ... I'm no yogi, not by a long shot; I'm still a beginner myself. I'm a long shot from memorizing the necessary vocabulary. I really, really, really hate being "on stage" ~ and never more so than when I'm exercising.

Yet far from the disaster I was sure it would be, after only two classes I can easily see our twice weekly yoga sessions becoming the highlight of my week.

Working off a vocab list and a very simple flow of positions offered by another volunteer, I tried to explain the basic concepts ~ that yoga is good for strength, flexibility and tranquility ~ a good overall workout. Then, we began, me mostly saying "do like me" and "breathe" as we did some very simple stretches and a few basic yoga poses.

There was quite a bit of giggling, which I always dread because (narcissist that I am) I'm always sure it's directed at me ~ my pathetic vocabulary, my oversimplified idea of "exercise." Maybe to some extent it was, but I could also sense that most of the women were just so glad to be using their bodies. And while I was afraid my program would be too simple for them, many of them were struggling after only half an hour. Downward dog just about killed a couple of them. A good opportunity for us to talk about starting small and building as they get stronger. Just like English class ~ or, for me, Arabic.

I know they were expecting aerobics, but they seemed satisfied when I explained that yoga may seem simple but is a good whole-body regimen. I also suggested that if anyone wants to go walking and/or running with me in the mornings, or after yoga, we could also get an aerobic workout that way. Several are game ~ even eagerly suggesting that we start Sunday. (Alas, I leave town again Sunday for a few days in Rabat, meeting with the Gender and Development Committee. I've charged them with keeping the class going while I'm gone.)

The best part of my week was the 20 minutes or so spent saying goodbye as we rolled up our mats. Those young women are just so glad to have something new to do (and, I think, a new mascot to do it with). Their ebullient thanks, their reluctance to leave, their hugs and cell-phone snapshots ... this afternoon, I felt welcomed into a group after a long time watching, yearning, from the sidelines.

The other highlight of my week.

Pomegranates! So much trouble, so totally worth it.

Donkey talk.

One of my favorite writers, Susan Orlean, has a delightful piece in September's Smithsonian about the ubiquitous Moroccan donkey. Gorgeous photos, too.

Donkeys are the workhorses of this country, so to speak. Moroccans don't anthropomorphize their animals. No such thing as pets or cuddly creatures, and donkeys get the worst of it here ~ to the point that one is supposed to say the equivalent of "excuse me" if they even say the word "donkey" (also after "garbage" and other topics we Americans are slightly less ashamed of). They carry loads that would sag an automobile trunk, working long, hard days in glaring sun, surrounded by flies, on little water and occasional scraps of food. The bray of a balking donkey is like nothing you've ever heard ~ and it usually breaks the silence right around sunrise, just after you've drifted back to sleep after hearing the morning call to prayer. They're a constant on the modern Moroccan highway, plodding along unperturbed by crazy taxis and lumbering semis. As Orlean describes better than I can, they can go places no motorized vehicle can go.

Tagine, tea and donkeys ~ there's far more to Moroccan daily life than these three stereotypes, but they're not at all far from reality, either.

Photo op.
Yeah, my eyes are closed (so what else is new?), but I couldn't resist sharing this image. Anny needed passport photos for a job application, so we visited a photo studio in Taroudant. Note the classy combination of desert, waterfall, camel and giraffe ~ and just how did that ceramic tiled floor get into this abundance of authentic Moroccan nature?

Quotes of the day.

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” - Maria Robinson

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” - Chinese Proverb

"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." - the Dalai Lama

Currently mourning: My favorite jammy pants, which finally bit the dust this week. I've mended them three times now; they're just plain worn through in the seat. They were good to me for at least eight years. RIP.
Currently reading: "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau
Currently listening to: "World Cafe" on NPR/WXPIN

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Waiting for The Man.

Waiting along the 'toroute, hoping for a glimpse of Mohammed VI,
with my hostmothersister* and some of my favorite little girls.

The king has been in our neck of the woods recently, visiting various projects in the Agadir-Taroudant region. I knew something was up a couple of weeks ago, when all of the sidewalks and medians and dirt paths along the 'touroute -- the highway that passes through our village -- were suddenly torn up, along with several patches of road. The king would be stopping, I was told, and we had to make improvements to welcome him.

The appointed day came and went, with a few new palms hurriedly planted in the medians, a few bricks laid in the dirt, some red and white stripes freshly painted along the roadway. No king, though ~ he took the road several kilometers north instead. I wondered to myself, sarcastically, how long before all of the piles of concrete rubble might be hauled away and the piles of bricks actually laid into walking paths.

On Saturday I started hearing that the king once again was expected to pass through on Tuesday ~ and that, this time, he was even going to stop and give a little speech. He's never visited the village before, at least not in the memory of anyone I asked. Moroccan flags and banners started going up along the length of the village, along with barriers along the highway route. No, the construction work is far from done, but even I have to admit they made a valiant effort.

Things in fact looked pretty festive when my hostmothersister* stopped by to pick me up and we walked to the center of town. School was let out for the day, and kids were already milling about the length of the route. Rakya and I picked out a prime viewing spot on the shady side of the street, squatting on an empty concrete planter where a palm tree should stand. Some of my little girl friends came to hang out with us. We took some photos. The gendarmes (local police) told us we couldn't take photos of the king. They were happy to let us take photos of them, however. Women hauling babies and toddlers nodded in greeting as they passed. Boys trying to look smart made sassy comments about the gowria (foreigner) as they skidded past on their bicycles, sliding dangerously through the growing crowd. My girls offered me water and sunflower seeds. We counted together in English.

A couple of hours of this and even my hostmothersister was bored. Why don't we go have lunch and return later, she suggested. I agreed but parted ways when we reached my house, remembering I had a lesson to arrange for my first English class at the women's center later that afternoon.

Another couple of hours after that and I heard the tree-stiffening rumble of helicopters overhead, and I knew the king was on the highway. Lying in my salon in my post-lunch stupor, I had little desire to jump up, get appropriately dressed and rush out to see the fuss. Turns out I hadn't missed a thing ~ the King waved from his limo but didn't stop. "Oh, but he was zwin (handsome)," one of my little girls sighed, in all the seriousness with which an 11-year-old can sigh.

So that's the news around here this week.

This is my first week of English classes. First class at the nedi neswi (women's center) this afternoon was hilarious ~ this class is going to be much more laughing and chatting than anything else, but I think that's the point. Next week we add "Sport" ~ yoga lessons twice a week. At the dar chebab, where slowly we are seeing more students visiting every day, I expect to have to really cajole the younger students but already have several dedicated (I hope) young women interested in my Friday conversation classes for bac (high school seniors).

For National Women's Day last week, I screened a fabulous Moroccan film at the nedi and the dar chebab. "Number One" is a comedy (in Moroccan Arabic, with French subtitles) about Aziz, a husband and supervisor who isn't the world's nicest guy ~ until his wife slips him a tainted tagine and he suddenly becomes the most empathetic guy around. I won't spoil it for anyone who might watch it; suffice to say it was the best Moroccan film I've seen yet, not only in production value and entertainment, but in the positive message it enforced about the moudawana, the laws that govern marriage, divorce and family. Revised several years ago now on Oct. 10 ~ hence the inauguration of National Women's Day ~ the moudawana now gives women far more rights and equality at home and in the workplace.

Here's one of many looks back at the moudawana changes, their effects on reality, and what remains to be done:

* This is what I've decided to call the wonderful woman who normally would be considered my host mother but who in fact is likely several years younger than me. She insists she's my Moroccan mother, I insist that if anything, she's my little sister; the one thing we agree on is a great deal of affection for each other.

And in other news ...

Because I'm a lazy blogger ~ because these give a very accurate flavor of my daily Morocco life without me lifting a finger ~ I am linking to several other bloggers today. There's good stuff here if you have time to take a look.

First, my friend Faye writes beautifully about the sounds of her nearby town here in the Souss, our southern Morocco desert region:

Next, our stajmate Duncan gives a hilarious account of some of the cultural "exchanges" that often have us Americans laughing, cringing, or both:

This YouTube video is a couple of years old, and barely scratches the surface, but it gives a good overview of the various lives and challenges of Moroccan youths. It also shows the gamut of female attire, typical Moroccan homes, architecture, streets, foods and music (and, warning for those sensitive of stomach, a fairly grisly but entirely typical scene of a sheep slaughtered for L3id Kbir, the biggest holiday of the year).

My dear friend Kari linked me to this blog post about the perspective Peace Corps service bestows on us, about the world and about ourselves:

Finally, the Pew Center has released a major study on global Muslim populations. Muslims make up nearly a quarter of the world's population. Contrary to popular belief the Middle East is synonymous with "the Muslim world," more than 60 percent of all Muslims live in Asia. Lots of interesting facts and perspective here, if you're interested.

Word of the day.
"Moroccracy" ~ Morocco plus bureaucracy (nicked from Anny's blog)

Quote of the day.
"That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet." -- Emily Dickinson

Currently reading: "African Visas: A Novella and Stories," Maria Thomas
Currently listening to: Leonard Cohen and Neko Case (not together ~ but wouldn't that be a duet!?)
Currently loving: Peanut butter and Hot Tamales sent from the States (again, not simultaneously ... chokran bzzf 3la mma u bba u sahabti Jenny!)

More photos of Waiting for the King.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Getting the ball rolling.

Aicha (one of my favorite "little girls") shows me a thing or two about playing jacks.

The good news (and it's really good news): My dar chebab did, indeed, finally open this week. Hamdulilah! Nearly six months we've been closed. It felt so good to slide open the rusty bolt that latches the metal gate and throw the doors open to welcome the village children.

The bad news: If a rusty bolt squeaks in the vast desert and no one's around to hear it, is it really open?

In the four days we've been open so far, I've seen a total of seven youths ~ and two were repeats. We have some work to do in getting the word out that kids can finally come back. I have a few of my devoted regulars acting as town criers, charged with bringing me warm bodies. I'm also posting announcements around town, promoting the dar chebab's opening and the schedule of English classes I've arranged with the help of my regulars.

This week, I'm visiting the schools to meet with the principals and English teachers. One cannot just make arrangements with a teacher, accompany her to school and speak to her class. One first must meet with the school director and have tea. Then one must ask for a letter of reference to the regional minister of education in Taroudant. Then one must take the letter to the ministry and get it stamped. Then one must return to the school director with the letter. Then, and only then, can any arrangements long ago struck between Moroccan public school teacher and Peace Corps volunteer be carried on as planned.

Shwiya b shwiya.

I spent some time at the lycee (high school) this morning to that effect, assisted by an English teacher named Halim. We had a good conversation about ways I might participate in his class occasionally throughout the school year, doing some activities that force listening comprehension and spontaneous conversation ~ in a fun way, we hope.

I'm really impressed by Halim's approach to his classes. You hear a lot about Moroccan schools focusing solely on repetition and rote memorization. Halim has all kinds of ideas about theater and games and an activity he calls the "hot seat," in which students will take turns peppering me with questions and then I'll lob questions back at them. I'm excited to try some of my leadership/teamwork/communication exercises that are part of our Gender and Development curriculum.

Halim also has eyes on the dar chebab's datashow, or screen projector. He wants to show English-language movies that show education can be fun and that teachers and students can have positive relationships. One favorite he mentioned somehow involved a fat man who answered the phone and lied and then became a teacher and the kids loved him and then later the teachers did too ... eventually, I was able to determine that he was referencing "School of Rock." Awesome. I'll be looking for a copy when I come home for the holidays in December. Also "Dead Poets Society." Any other ideas?

When Aicha and I broke out the sidewalk chalk, even my mudhir got into the action.

Meanwhile, the quiet atmosphere around the place Saturday afternoon gave me time to play with Aicha, one of my favorites among the young girls who like to follow me around the neighborhood. I brought out a new package of jacks, realizing as I did that I couldn't even remember how to play, much less explain it in Arabic. I needn't have worried; Aicha was a pro. She even knew how to toss the jacks up in the air and catch them on the back of her hand before letting them drop to the ground.

We also had a good time with some new fat pencils of sidewalk chalk. My effigy is now emblazoned on the basketball court, available for anyone to walk all over.

So, no ~ not much activity at the dar chebab our first week, but we'll get there. I'm also branching out, spending two afternoons a week at the nedi neswi, where I'll be teaching English and yoga. And somehow I've agreed to teach English at a daycare/preschool run by two of my favorite adult students. Somehow, that intimidates me more than anything else. Well, that and the yoga.

As a bigger project, I'm planning to write a grant to stock our new informatique/library with books and other supplies. This is the new building that forced us to close for construction so long ago. I've still no idea why it all happened, but I'm really happy with the results. A clean, brightly lit new room outfitted with desks and eight computers that have been in hiding since I arrived last winter. The computers have Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and even Publisher. (Also, as the mudhir's assistant happily demonstrated for me, a variety of computer games.)

I'd really like to set up a schedule of computer literacy classes for youths, as well as for my nedi women if they'd like. Two problems there: 1) I'm about as literate in computers as I am in Arabic, and 2) a for-profit computer school in town means we probably won't be able to find an instructor who'll do it for free. The grant I hope to write would cover the costs of hiring an instructor, and also to stock our empty bookshelves with a variety of books in Arabic and beginner English.

Fair warning, dear readers: The type of grant I'm planning involves not NGO funds but participation from Peace Corps supporters and especially from friends and family. You'll be hearing from me soon!

Our new "informatique" ~ I'm impressed by the lavender/peach color combo.

For some reason, this morning's visit to the school gave me an unusual burst of domestic energy. I started by defrosting my fridge, which likes to leak icicles. I also did a little refrigerator repair, in the form of duct tape, to close a gap that may be leaking air and contributing to the public.

Once the defrosting was a success, I had quite a puddle of water to clean up. One thing led to another, and next thing I knew I was giving the whole place a good cleaning, top to bottom. Just yesterday one of my favorite Peace Corps neighbors, Matt, was saying that one of the things he'll miss most about Morocco when he finishes his service next month is the way we clean here: Just dump a basin of water on the floor and push water, dirt and debris right out the front door. Pretty dang satisfying.

I've made two of my favorite salads and hard-boiled some eggs and whipped up some iced coffee, all of which, along with the fat, juicy apples that have appeared with the change of season, should get me through at least the next couple of days' worth of meals. I've caught up on the news via at least 10 podcasts. Now I'm ready to curl up with Paul Theroux*. I think I've earned it. Goodnight.

My well-stocked, (temporarily) icicle-free fridge.

Kitchen towels in the courtyard. (My mom makes these ~ aren't they pretty?)

*Currently reading: "Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, Paul Theroux

Currently listening to: Patsy Cline, Portishead, and some Gnaoua music (a Berber/Arabic/Saharan mix that's kind of Morocco's answer to jam bands)

Currently pondering: "Understanding engenders care." -- Natalie Goldberg