Saturday, June 26, 2010

A high point.

At the summit. 'Twas my hippie-chick idea to summit the morning of the solstice.

Four other volunteers and I hiked Mount Toubkal last week. An hour or so up a winding mountain road from Marrakech, Jbel Toubkal is the highest peak in North Africa, 4,167 meters or just shy of 14,000 feet.

We hiked a pleasant trail from the mountain village of Imlil several hours up to a refuge at the foot of Toubkal, where we spent the night. With the sun rising the next morning, we set off over craggy black rocks and a formidable, moonscape-like trek of thick, loose, gravelly rock that later made the descent even more difficult than the climb. Only one brief slot of snow to pass through; though there were plenty of white patches to be seen, most of it was dissolving into the cold, clear streams we could hear rushing past us at various points.

The summit, topped by a bizarre metal graffiti-covered pyramid, offered dizzying views straight down the other side of the peak. No photograph can do justice to our journey, as the mountain cannot be viewed in full, but here are a few snapshots of our experience; if you want to see more, go here.

Sunrise at the refuge.

The trek up Toubkal starts with a scramble via large rocks over a rushing waterfall.

Toubkal's moonscape surface.

As we neared the summit, Eric's pants buzzed: We have cell reception!

Snow, and mountains as far as the eye can see.

A guide at the top.

Beginning the trek. (Damn, I really am short, ain't I?)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Benign Girl ~ Absolutely No Superpowers!

I'll explain in a sec. Promise.

First, I wanted to link to a few readworthy items:

* Peace Corps volunteer Raul Moreno gave NPR a fascinating, if very scary, account of the violence outside his front door in Osh, Krygyzstan. All PCVs in the region have been evacuated safely. I cannot even imagine what it would be to witness such violence ... much less have to leave behind my host country loved ones.

* Did you know the Appalachian Trail extends beyond U.S. borders? Neither did I, until I read about hopes for extending the International Appalachian Trail south to Morocco. Oh, tectonics ... and no, I don't mean tektonic ... that's already plenty popular here.

* Fellow PCV Faye has a good take on the Moroccan school system and how it practically sets our students up for failure.

Little things that amuse me.
My dear new friend Laila visited this week from her site a couple hours away. We giggled our asses off at the following:

* Searching the Web for confirmation of the toy she and Nicole saw recently: the above-pictured Benign Girl! Battery operated! Press any button! Don't worry, she'd never hurt you ~ in fact, she's incapable of causing harm!

* The warnings on the back of our bootleg copy of "Happy Feet" weren't quite accurate, either. I thought it was far more than mildly comic.

* Best of all is the "Career Resource Manual," circa 1997, Peace Corps sent me last week as I prepare to close out my service a few months from now. A whole page devoted to explaining this crazy World Wide Web thing. I'm not too concerned ... I'm sure it's just a fad ...

Quote of the Day:
"Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn't arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I'm going to be happy in it."~ Groucho Marx

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Wedding in the Souss.

The mother of the groom (right) and a friend dancing for the couple (video below).

Wedding season is in full force here on the Souss plains. On Sunday, well into the wee hours of Monday, I accompanied my friend Malika to a wedding in a nearby village. This ceremony was traditional in most ways, with here and there a modern twist I wasn't expecting.

Malika picked me up in the early afternoon, and we walked the two kilometers or so to the duoar where Malika and her friend, the bride, live. We spent the rest of the afternoon chatting and sharing a tagine with the bride and her family, having pancake makeup slathered on our faces, and making the rounds of other friends' homes. We returned to Malika's house to rest a bit and have some dinner ~ her teenage brother made the fries, while her father told me about serving with American soldiers in Kosovo in the '90s.

After dressing up, me in a used caftan and Malika in a modern, vividly patterened maxi sundress with a turtleneck and leggings underneath, we finally made our way to the wedding tent around 10 p.m. This is usually around the time I'm winding up my evening and making my way to bed, but here the festivities were just getting started.

The couple, bride in Costume Change #1, and the ever-present photographer.

The large, open tent eventually filled with perhaps 250 or so celebrants; women and children sat on the ground in the center, for the best view of the bride in all her finery, while men and boys lined the sides of the tent. This was a change from other weddings I've attended, where there are separate rooms for men and women, and while the genders didn't exactly mingle here either, it was nice to not feel as if I was missing any aspect of the celebration.

Five processionals were required for the bride and groom to make their entrance, each time the bride wearing a different, elaborately embroidered gown and stunning jewelry. The women of their families escorted them into the tent, carrying the bride's train and singing the glories of marriage. The two were guided up the steps of a giant "silver" (plastic) throne, where they held court with all the regal comportment that implies. The couple are encouraged not to smile but to look as elegant as possible. The bride occasionally made eye contact with a friendly face in the crowd and made a slight nod of acknowledgement.

The groom, however, often couldn't hold back his wide, blushing grin, and I felt a surge of affection for them both for that. For that and for the fact that they held hands the entire time, something else I hadn't seen before, and a symbol of affection that looked entirely mutual and heartfelt. I don't know the couple, and I don't know how they met, only that she is here in this very southern rural village, and he is from Casablanca and will be bringing his bride back north with him, far from her family. But I like to think that they might have a truly warm and reciprocal relationship ahead of them.

Howara drummers and little girls.
The music was spectacular, with two "bands" ~ a traditional Soussian troupe from nearby Howara, wearing beige and gold striped djellabas and pounding a variety of drums while chanting, singing, twirling and leaping, plus a strange but effective combination of fiddle, drum set and electronic keyboard, all connected to a speaker system that would have been right at home in a Miami nightclub.

As the couple sat regarding the crowd and being regarded back, his mother got up to make an amazing dance in their honor. She's a large woman who looks like she's used to a life of hard work, but she can shake her hips better than I ever have. She was soon joined by another older woman, later the mother of the bride, and here and there for the rest of the evening, substantial, maternal-looking women occasionally rose to pay their respects in dance.

This opened the floor for a crowd of eager little girls to take to the dance floor. Some in miniature caftans, some in jeans, they too could sway and shimmy with natural abandon. Young boys on the perimeter leapt around, chased occasionally by men wielding heavy sticks. Older boys tried their best to look too cool for the whole thing, but after a few hours they too were circling and stomping. Women dance with women, men with men, all much more naturally than the self-conscious swaying I for one grew up with.

Malika photographing the final costume change as the milk and dates are presented.

Near the end, the crowd vibe changed somewhat as older women cleared out with the early morning hours. A trio of young women joined the girls on the dance floor, to the whispers and consternation of many older women in the crowd. It was evident that some of the young men had been drinking, and fights threatened to break out but never actually did. Some of the young children started to nod off wherever they dropped, while others seemed to have just as much energy as when they started.

Finally, around 4 a.m., the happy couple entered for the last time, exchanged rings, and shared a cup of milk and an offering of dates to seal their union. We said our goodbyes and made our way through the dark lanes, guided by stars, and within an hour were fast asleep in Malika's salon. I don't think I've stayed up that late in decades, but I didn't really notice I was tired until I lay down, ears buzzing as if I'd been to a death metal concert.

I've added a few videos below; more photos and videos are on my Flickr page.

Groom's mother dancing in the couple's honor.

Little girl dancing.

Howara musicians.

Processional for third costume change: Red caftan.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Where have you been all my life?

Or, at least, all this past school year?

The baccalaureate exams, which high school seniors must pass to graduate, are next week; the English portion is Tuesday afternoon. I've been expecting this to lead to a rash of students coming to the dar chebab begging for review lessons at the last possible minute. With one exception (a 23-year-old who plans to retake the test he failed two years ago and has no chance of passing at least the English portion, his English definitely at a beginner's level at best), that hasn't happened.

So I didn't feel too guilty about letting anyone down when I arrived at the dar chebab this afternoon to find myself locked out once again. Grateful, in fact, for an out, an excuse to go back home and take refuge under my zwin new fan.

No sooner had I tucked into Season 2 of "Weeds" (comfort TV, like comfort food) and a bag of Choco Cracks animal cookies ("but this they are for cheeldren," my English-trying storekeeper chided me) than I heard the knock at my door and three whirlwinds of energy entered my home and my life.

Kabira (not my "sister" Kabira, but another girl), Fatima and ~ oh, dear ... Mejha? Mejda? I don't remember the third's name, only her gorgeous sheer lavender headscarf ~ confidently but respectfully, not to mention fluently, asked whether I might help them practice for the bac.

"We have no concerns about the grammar portion, but we are worried about the comprehension and the written section," Fatima told me.

So we read a couple of sample essays together, and I asked them questions about the text. Whereas my typical student would have difficulty answering the most basic factual questions ("How old is Iman?" "What is her favorite subject?"), searching the text over and over in vain, these three could answer the most difficult questions I posed, backing up their answers with further explanation and linking the hypothetical situation to their own lives.

Same with the sample essays. I posed several possible topics they might come across ~ brain drain's effect on Morocco, global warming and saving the environment, and a letter to a penpal describing a Moroccan wedding. They casually tossed off facts and opinions, in a logically constructed essay, off the tops of their heads. All in English.

After I convinced them that they weren't going to have any problem whatsoever in passing their English test, we turned to casual conversation. Music ~ Kabira sang to me the praises of Nirvana, Chris Brown and James Blunt. She gave a mixed review to Eminem ~ "he has good beats and a strong message, but, you know, I'm not in favor of his language." OK, still not exactly my kind of music ~ but a long way from the Michael Jackson and Celine Dion that usually gets swooned over.

I've simply never come across this level of English before in my village, not with my best students to date. All three love the language, which has everything to do with why they've excelled. Not once was their language stilted, not once did they cock their heads in a lack of comprehension. Not once, in fact, did they switch to Arabic to speak amongst themselves.

It's pretty obvious they didn't need me to help them learn English. But if only they'd known how much I've needed girls like them ~ for assistance in the classroom, and for the comfort of having a real conversation in my familiar language.

Inchallah they'll each be off to university this fall and unavailable to help in the dar chebab. But how I wish we'd met sooner. I hope they take me up on the invitation to visit anytime for American iced tea and Moroccan children's cookies.

PS on English lessons
In contrast to my new girlfriends, I've spent the past couple of weeks teaching a mixed class of beginners and intermediates about the past tense. So many verbs are irregular in past tense, but when we do happen upon a "regular" verb, ~ say, "worked" ~ the kids consistently pronounce it as two syllables ~ "work-ed." Equally consistently, I point out that the pronunciation is more like "workd" or "workt." Finally, yesterday, one exasperated kid raised his hand and said, "but you are wrong ~ Teacher (at his school) says it is 'work-ed.'"


Other bloggers, other posts.
The Center for Global Development has
an interesting piece this week aiming to keep an eye on Secretary Clinton's new women-centered foreign policy aid plan. A laudable aim, but will it simply further fragment both strategy and funding? Stay tuned.

Muslimah Media Watch has a couple of posts, one creatively funny and one depressing, on the "Sex and the City" sequel. I admit to loving the series ~ fashion and hair porn, nothing more ~ but found the movie an embarrassingly bad self-caricature. Would have absolutely no interest in the sequel if much of it hadn't been filmed right here in Morocco; kind of like Omar Sharif, Morocco is the generic ethnic go-to for filmmakers looking to set a scene in any Middle Eastern location (see everything from "Lawrence of Arabia" to "The Mummy 2," but not "Casablanca"). From what little I've read, it is nothing but one offensive Muslim stereotype after another. What a missed opportunity; these were once intelligent, feminist women who might just have found solidarity with equally intelligent, feminist women who happen to have different fashion ideals.