Stalking God, Well Kind Of…

I just finished a book called Stalking God: My Unorthodox Search for Something to Believe In by Anjali Kumar. A great choice for my inquisitive yet jaded self of year 2 in Morocco. Kumar goes on a spiritual quest around the world, essentially “stalking God” through a diverse variety of spiritual practices. From wickens, laughing yoga gurus, mediums, and Burning Man “Burners”, she dips her feet into communities a lawyer for Google never thought one would. In my little world over here, I’m not necessarily stalking God but rather existing in a community that’s already found him.51hJYB0F8gL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Where I live, religion is present, very blatantly, in every day life. It starts at dawn, around 5:30am, as the first call to prayer echoes through the village. If any of you have ever traveled to Muslim countries you’ve probably heard the adhan…or if you’ve ever watched American spy TV shows like Homeland or 24 that more often than not highlight scenes in the Islamic world, I’m sure you became familiar with it as well. I too, had watched the shows and walked past the mosques, but what were they actually saying in those spiritual, unfamiliar, and rhythmic word patterns? Below is what is repeated, 5x a day, the Arabic transliteration and English.

Allahu Akbar
God is Great
(said four times)
Ashhadu an la ilaha illa Allah
I bear witness that there is no god except the One God.
(said two times)
Ashadu anna Muhammadan Rasool Allah
I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.
(said two times)
Hayya ‘ala-s-Salah
Hurry to the prayer (Rise up for prayer)
(said two times)
Hayya ‘ala-l-Falah
Hurry to success (Rise up for Salvation)
(said two times)
Allahu Akbar
God is Great
[said two times]
La ilaha illa Allah
There is no god except the One God
For the pre-dawn (fajr) prayer, the following phrase is inserted after the fifth part above, towards the end:
As-salatu Khayrun Minan-nawm
Prayer is better than sleep
(said two times)

If you came here and just observed, just watched, without speaking to anyone, I’m sure the word some variation of the word “religion” would pop into your head. It’s noticeable through the amplified prayer calls, the clothes people choose to wear, and the Quranic calligraphy stickers stuck on the back of parked cars and busses. There are also more subtle, intimate, aspects of devotion and religion through language, food, and behavior which take a little longer to pick up. Learning Darija has given me front-row access to many of these channels, some of which I now even participate in. I now inherently say “inshallah” (God willing) instead of “hopefully”, “lay 3wnk” (may God help you) instead of “goodbye” and “Hamdullah” (thanks be to God) instead of I’m fine, thanks. Phenomenal learning opportunity but kinda confusing, right? I’m not Muslim. Should I be saying these things?

DSC_4128

Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca

I grew up going to Catholic church on Sundays (most of the time in which brunch was involved after), kneeling down and repeating the Apostles Creed (holding back giggles from my little sisters playing footsies on the pew), and making my confirmation in 8th grade (‘grats, the Church thought my awkward 13 year old tomboy self was now becoming an adult). As I grew up, religion became separate from my everyday life. It existed in the peripheral. Holidays, family gatherings, and unfortunately, funerals of my peers that had passed all reminded me of that religion I grew up associated with. I started traveling and it was upon studying in Turkey for 6 months, where I started becoming friends with people that felt really connected to their religions, mostly Islam. I remember not knowing all the answers to the questions they had for me, brushing off my beliefs but curious about their fulfilled relationship with theirs. It was a refreshing reminder to me there are still young people who feel a strong connection to God and are able to explain and educate me about the faith they practice. Me, I still hadn’t felt that connection.

10873441_685193421599055_7534834016553057428_o.jpg

Istanbul, Turkey 2014

A few years later, I find myself in Morocco where Islam is practiced by 99% of the population. I see it and I’m reminded of it every day. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about religion so much in my life until I came here. It’s become normalized, yet exhausting. Sometimes the words “inshallah” come out of my mouth and I think back to myself, “Do I really mean ‘if God wills it’, this meeting will happen tomorrow?” Probably not, but its become apart of Moroccan language and culture here to say “inshallah” after making plans, so naturally, it grew on me.

I started reading parts of the Quran last week. I know what some of you are thinking after reading that sentence. Wait, she’s reading the Quran? Is she like Muslim now or something? I see it as a learning opportunity and what better time to do it than a place where I have the whole community to ask for clarification. I’m sure there’d be many willing faces to sit me down and answer my questions about how modesty is written about in the Quran.  For example, Chapter (Surah) 24 “The light”, Lines (Ayat) 30 & 31:

30.  Tell the believing men to restrain their looks, and to guard their privates. That is purer for them. God is cognizant of what they do.
31. And tell the believing women to restrain their looks, and to guard their privates, and not display their beauty except what is apparent thereof, and to draw their coverings over their breasts, and not expose their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, what their right hands possess, their male attendants who have no sexual desires, or children who are not yet aware of the nakedness of women. And they should not strike their feet to draw attention to their hidden beauty. And repent to God, all of you believers, so that you may succeed.

The words “headscarf” or “burqa” or “veil” aren’t even written in the Quran, as I just assumed they would be. In addition, modesty isn’t just asked of women, its requested upon men as well. I want to be able to go back home, inshallah, and do my best to clarify situations of confusion or even ignorance towards Islam and its teachings given this unique opportunity I have.

The other day I was driving back to my site with a friend from my community and I told him I had a question about Islam. It was Friday and the prayer had just been called. I asked if he would go to mosque when we arrived back home. He replied, “Darouri” (Absolutely). I then asked how much significance Friday prayers had in Islam. Here I was asking about prayer times and what would happen if you can’t make it because work ran late but more importantly, there was something he responded with that stuck with me. He said, “Islam isn’t a religion that says go to mosque every day and study the Quran page by page. It’s about how you live your every day life. Be good to people, respect your family and community, take care of animals and nature, don’t steal or say bad words, help those in need. Those people that read the Quran during the day but lie, steal and inflict harm upon others aren’t true Muslims. People say one thing and they do another. It’s a problem that unfortunately distorts the true meaning of our religion.”

The more time I spend here, the more I learn and develop an open mind to understanding the religion that is at all times in front of me. But at the same time, I still feel confused about my personal connection to religion and question my own beliefs. That’s why I picked up Kumar’s book, the story of a lawyer who goes on a spiritual pilgrimage to answer the questions she knows her 3 year old daughter will ask one day:

Why are we here?
What happens when we die?
Is there a God? 

Each chapter tells the story of a new discovery. Whether its talking to her dead friend through a “Vogue-looking” medium in a Tribeca coffee shop, having a spiritual epiphany while experimenting with the Andes hallucinogenic drug “Ayahuasca” in Peru, sharing sweat spinning to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” as a collective cult at Soul Cycle, or joining a “laughing yoga” community via Skype in Mumbai. Kumar searches for the answers to these pivotal questions for over 3 years, hoping to experience some grand spiritual enlightenment. What she learns is that there are all these unconventional spiritual channels to worship through but the three human needs: health, happiness, and love are desired by everyone. Back to this common theme of Peace Corps service and understanding humans in general, we’re all more similar than we are different.

Resources 

  • Here’s a great TED talk about what the Quran really says about the women’s hijab:

Advertisements

Spaces

I’m kind of like a weird kid grown-up. By that I don’t mean my maturity is questioned here or my physical appearance is confusing to people (well sometimes it is), but my access to spaces, both public and private, is pretty across-the-board. The reason for this is a blend of things: gender, identity, my job. Gender. I could write a whole post about this but I’ll keep it simple until I’m able to organize my thoughts on it all. There are pros and cons to being a female volunteer in Morocco. I remember my first month, I was attached to my host mom at the hip, allowing me the chance to be in the house with her and learn all the responsibilities of caring for the house and her family, attend kaskrouts (I’ll describe this as 5pm decadent social snack-times) and visit other women’s homes with her, ultimately allowing me to integrate and get to know people in my community. If I was a boy, I wouldn’t have had this same type of intense integration experience with her, allowing me to see the private spaces women occupy where men aren’t really present. On the the flip side, harassment and unwanted attention have unfortunately become normalized for me at one year of being here. I’m lucky that in my site I barely receive harassment and people do respect my presence but there are the occasional times I’ll walk to class and hear “I want to marry with you!” or “Bring me to America”, yelled by a group of boys. Just the other day my host brother and I walked past 2 boys sitting on the side of the street and he heard “take care of that bitch” whispered behind us. There are so many ways I could react but unless I feel physically threatened, I’ve chosen to just ignore it. Unfortunately, this is reality for not just me but all Moroccan girls and women and something they live with on a daily basis. IMG_E3270.jpg

I find myself having access to different spaces because of this unique identity I’m capable of interchanging. Yes, we’re volunteers but we’re also teachers, mentors, average community members, sons/daughters, friends, brothers/sisters, and guests. I always joke that all my friends are kids or people a good 10 years older than me because its kind of true. I’m all over the place. I’ve chatted about everything from the new candy they have at the hanut to the soaring price of oranges these days at souk now that they’re out of season. So since honorary “Mean Girls Oct. 3rd Day” has passed I might as well treat this little introduction of neighborhood sub-groups like Cady Heron’s guide to the cafeteria.

You have your neighborhood kids. Just the other day I came back from the gym and sat on my doorstep with a group of 8 little kids surrounding me. I was scrolling through @NewForkCity’s Instagram (priorities) to catch up on all the new food fads in NY these days and after each click of a picture we let out a collective “Whoaaa” together. I sure wanted that 5 scoop ice cream covered in peanut butter and chocolate and they sure as hell did too. We bond over that mindless feel good stuff. Don’t get me wrong though, they’re exhausting. Around 6:30pm everyone has returned from school and thats their cue to occupy the streets. There’s soccer games, jazzy hand shakes, rocks and sticks, and chants. They’re also great hanut (bodega)-runners. My host brother and I had a pizza/movie night at my house and noticing we forgot to buy olives, just a holler out the window to Hamza and a drop of 2DH in plastic, we have olives in 5 minutes. If I leave my house around this time, I know i’m not just passing through the courtyard joining our little cluster of houses unnoticed. I’ll get pulled into a hand game, a lollipop put in my pocket, or 10 questions about the new nail polish I put on that morning. Patience, I repeat in my head. I opened my door and sat out on my doorstep that day and I think that meant open invitation to cross the boundary of in my culture I define as privacy. To knock on my door from 6:30-8:30, sit with me in my house to keep me company because being alone is loneliness, and do it again the next day. I’ve quickly learned that something I need to work on personally is setting boundaries for my own peace of mind. But for now, they’re harmless. They listen to my half-assed Arabic without a blink, make me smile on a particularly workless day and bring me flowers on my birthday.

IMG_3171Processed with VSCO with k3 presetIMG_E2720RZVQE0214

A step up from the kiddos are the drari (this word in Arabic means kids but PCVs use it to identify the boys & girls we most likely work with). I walk the road up to the high school and its mobbed with teenagers blasting beats from their cellphones, groups of girls and their giggles as I walk by, tables of boys and their wacky Ronaldo-like haircuts hanging out in the qhwa (coffee shop) in between breaks, and then there’s me. This kind of teacher/friend/neighbor/American girl strolling through battling the culturally appropriate balance of smiling at everyone or just keeping my professional gaze straight ahead through a wave of energized teenagers. I’ve taught some of them English in the Dar Chebab, been invited to some of their houses for meals, and some I’ve never talked to before but still shoot a smile and hello so I feel approachable at any time. I’ve met some really intelligent students that shock me with their goals for the future, their determination to succeed, and curiosity to learn about other cultures. I’ve also met some students who just hang around and stare at me when I walk by, and thats okay too. We’re in the process of writing a proposal to start an English Club at the high school to accommodate the older students (since mostly younger students come to the Dar Chebab), where we can have debates, film discussions, reading circles, and exchange ideas on a variety of topics all in English, so inshallah we’ll begin one day.

Did I mention I joined a gym? Well its women’s aerobics class 3x a week that is taught by a male community member, which in Morocco culture is a very uncommon concept, but at the same time it’s kind of awesome and I applaud my site for being accepting of this practice. Mohamad is trained in karate, probably all other different types of sport, and an avid hiker. He’s a well known community member, spearheaded a multitude of projects on sports and the environment, and just loves what he does. The past few weeks we’ve gone out to nearby spots on Sundays discussing some ideas of developing a hiking/outdoor leadership group of about 10-12 kids that will eventually climb Mt. Toubkal together (the highest peak in North Africa), Inshallah. A group of women approached him because they wanted to do aerobics/lose that bread weight we all gain over here so he created a workout program as well as a diet plan for the women who don’t have a problem working out alongside a male. There’s about 12 of us now. Its honestly the highlight of my days. Workout classes are always a little intimidating to walk into, and that first day I wore my “step out of your comfort zone” mindset like a boss and opened the door to a place I’d never entered with no idea what to expect. All I heard was “join the gym with the women, come at 6 on Tuesday. Very specific, but it was awesome and I legitimately sweat through my shirt because it was so intense. Now it’s my routine. The first 10 minutes is chat time, catching up on the kids (I just sit there and smile), what we cooked for lunch, swapping each others weight loss amount so casually (I was shook the first time this happened). Then we jump into cardio for 20 minutes, a mix of aerobics and kickboxing, break for a second, then begin ab/arm/leg/workouts. After an hour, I’m feeling better about myself already. Maybe its the adrenaline pumping through me or the mere fact that it never takes me just an hour to feel so productive in Morocco but I feel like I got this whole IRBing thing (a term PC uses to refer to intentional relationship building), I can schmooze with anyone, crack jokes in Darija, and end my day on a positive note. So hamdullah for endorphins and still stepping out of your comfort zone a year into site.

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-15 at 12.29.31 PM

Workout schedule (left) & food plan Mon-Sun (right)

DSC04715.jpg

What an experience this all is. I sit down on a stoop with a 8 year old girl and hear about how her teacher hit them today for not paying attention, or go on a walk with a 14 year old boy who talks to me about those confusing times in middle school we all felt, or sit in a cafe with a male teacher to talk about starting a project as the smoke swirls around the room and the TV blares the latest soccer highlights, and sit on a gym mat with ladies before their jellabas get slipped back on and we part ways after class, to talk about healthy recipes to incorporate into our routines. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not always feeling enthused by this versatility.

Sometimes I feel lost and I’m unsure of which category I fall in. At the end of the day the neighborhood kids get rallied up for bed, the drari go out with their friends, and the women return to their houses to prepare dinner and make sure everything’s in place for the next day.  Sometimes I wish I could have my 20-something year old friends next to me, to talk about whatever 20 something year olds in America talk about these days and do what they do. Or to come home to my family sitting around the dining room table immersed in a new discussion every night. Instead, I walk up the hill, say my hellos and goodnights, and slide the key into my own house. I walk up the stairs, turn on whatever Spotify mood of music i’m feeling that night, and cook dinner for myself. Sometimes I get all fancy and put a face mask on and scroll around the NY Times for different topics to talk about with people (or just process in my own head if my Darija skills can’t cover sexual harassment scandals in the U.S. Supreme Court) or browse around Pinterest for different recipes I can improvise with in my spare time. This is what 24 looks like and I’m okay with it at the moment.

So for now, I’m navigating spaces and learning how to navigate my versatility in all of them.

WhatsApp Image 2018-10-15 at 12.34.51 PM.jpeg

Next on my reading list with all this being said, “Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in the Modern Muslim Society” by Fatima Mernissi, a famous Moroccan feminist writer and sociologist.

 

Summer’s Over and I Got Myself a Guitar

IMG_3035.jpgSometimes you just can’t avoid cliches. My door is propped open with a dusty Chaco to keep it from slamming shut by the faintest bit of newly arrived September breeze. We’re sitting on the front steps with my creaky door open for those still intrigued by what’s above the stairs that peek out from the doorway. We’ve learned probably 3 chords at this point and barely have down the opening to Morocco’s most cliche ballad, “Zina”, but that stuff doesn’t really matter because in 2 minutes…there’s a 3 year old boy mesmerized by the strings move, a 10 year old girl listening near my door but still keeping her distance by sitting on her sparkly pink bike, and a 19 year old student playing remixes to Drake’s “Kiki” song that everyone seems to have memorized here.

Summer was long and I was fortunate enough to travel quite a bit but summer’s over and it’s back into the swing of things. This “swing of things” seems like a lot to figure out and organize in my head at the moment. New students, new relationships, new projects, and finding my place in those turning gears of the town. Some mornings I wake up with 20 new ideas and top notch confidence to accomplish what I want to get started and then the next morning I tell myself I’m not leaving my house, bqi wqt (there’s still time), things will fall into place. Its even easy to do the latter because I don’t have someone giving me tasks or projects to complete by the end of the day, we’re on a very self-driven work schedule here. And in times when you need to leap out of your comfort zone and start up what you want to get done, thats really hard to get behind. Everyone gets those back to school jitters, but it’s definitely harder when you’re away from those sweet spots you’ve become acquainted with. Like returning back to my little K-12 school every year, knowing 99% of the people around me because we probably shared crayons together in 2nd grade. Or the group of college friends I saw repetitively in my classes for four years and knew we’d share the feeling together of becoming big kids after graduation one day. I knew we were all in it simultaneously. Here, I naturally feel more disconnected from those routines a community goes through together. With that said, I’m telling myself I’m way more connected than I was last year and there’s still potential for so much good work.

So, summer’s over and I got myself a guitar. Maybe I’m feeling bold or PCV cliche or just really bored but why not channel some jittery energy into something that’ll bring 3 different humans around me in a matter of 2 minutes. There’s a dull day turned into a bubbly evening. Plus, I have a pretty motivated host brother who says to me after our fingers are hurting all too much, “We’re off to a great start Adriana, we’ll be legends.” How can I argue with that? To the start of year two…keeping my door open, bringing people together, continuously learning, and leaping not stepping out of my comfort zone.

IMG_3022.jpg

Plus, a guitar is like a pet dog here, its an easy conversation starter and something not all that ordinary. All you have to do is hold it and people think you’re some sort of weird rock star or something.

Count your Blessings: Ramadan Mubarak

“Are you fasting?”

…said the guy at the post office who handed me my overstuffed care package full of guilty pleasure peanut butter, said the mul hanut (neighborhood corner store guy) who has been preparing his food supply for the influx of ramadan grocers, said the teenage girls I work with every week eagerly asking if I’d be breaking fast with them, and said my taxi driver to Marrakech as I stunned him with the fact that I look kind of Moroccan, but I’m not, but I speak Darija?

Everyone in my town for the most part knows I’m not Muslim, but I’m sure there’s a little curiosity to know if the American is going to try fasting with everyone. The decision to fast is one that every PCV makes based on their own individual preference. 

I admit, before experiencing Ramadan here in Morocco I didn’t know too much about it. I knew that Muslims fasted from food, drink, and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset and there was a spiritual meaning to the month but that’s about it.

The night before Ramadan my host brother came over and like always we chat about stuff but tonight of course, Ramadan was the topic of conversation. I was totally ready to pick his brain about what Ramadan means to him and the many Muslims around the world, and I knew after learning I wanted to share it with all of you to give you a very personal meaning to what Ramadan really is.   

What’s Ramadan?

It’s the holiest month in Islam, believed to be the time the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Fasting is one the 5 pillars of Islam that influence a Muslim’s life and everyone shall fast, excluding kids before puberty, the sick, elderly, and women on their periods. Not only do Muslims refrain from eating or drinking during the day but the fast is more than just this. It’s a fast from all things haram (forbidden) and a month to purify the soul and refocus your mind and attention to God, through self-discipline and self-sacrifice. During Ramadan you’ll see people dressed more conservatively, women who may not wear scarves will cover their hair, and a lot more people pray the five prayers in the day. The 27th night of Ramadan also called “Laylat al-Qadr” or “Night of Power” is believed to be the night that the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. The blessings and acts of forgiveness during this night are stronger than 1000 months of worship and it is reported that the Prophet said: “Whoever stays up (in prayer and remembrance of Allah) on the Night of Power, fully believing (in Allah’s promise of reward) and hoping to seek reward, he shall be forgiven for his past sins.” (Bukhari & Muslim) My host family and most of my community went to the mosque and they spend the whole night praying or reciting the Quran.

IMG_0997.jpg

 

IMG_0629.jpg

racing to get a spot before taraweh prayer at Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh. The influx of people is so large they set up floor mats outside and everyone prays together.

The rhythm changes

Ramadan for me has been an interesting time to learn more about Islam and the traditions surrounding this month in Morocco. My day to day schedule has definitely shifted and I’ve noticed there is a different feeling in the air among people, more spiritual and communal.

I guess you could say my day starts at around 3-4pm. Usually I’ll head over to my host family’s house and start to help my host mom prepare ftur (the meal to break fast). The spread of food varies from fish to eggs to fresh juices to briwat to tagines but you’ll always find a small bowl of dates on the table, as the Prophet said if available, you should break your fast with dates. You’ll also find a famous Moroccan sweet called shbekia, fried dough coated and dipped in honey, and the popular tomato-based Moroccan soup called harira that has lentils, chickpeas, tomatoes, and cilantro in it. Around 5 or 6pm lingerers start to wake up and emerge from their houses. The hanut  has a line onto the street with kids grabbing last minute groceries for their parents, dads with their sons bringing fish from the village and local venders selling fruit and fresh bread. Around 6:30pm the drari (kids) are all out and the scents of kitchen preparation fill the air. The boys are playing their last minute soccer matches, working up the appetite I thought would already be there coming on the last hour of fasting, and everyones awaiting the adhan (call to prayer). The time of the adhan changes every day based on the sunset but usually happens around 7:30pm. The table is set and the door is open as we wait to listen for “Allah Akbar” which means the fast is now over and you can eat. As soon as you hear the prayer, its fair game…the feast begins. 

IMG_0611.jpg

neighborhood hanut I buy my necessities in

IMG_0955.jpg

learning how to make shbekia

IMG_0584.jpg

the ftur table

Staying up ’till 3am is normal 

Ramadan TV weirdly reminds me of ABC’s 25 Days of Christmas or Superbowl commercials for a straight month. The same series play every night and now I’ve watched my fair share of corny comedy sketches which always happen to be on the TV no matter what house or town I eat ftur in. At around 9pm, it’s time to go to the mosque to pray asha (night prayer). An additional prayer called “taraweeh” is added during Ramadan where long sections of the Quran are recited. I stay back with my host mom and sister while my host brothers go to mosque and we usually watch movies or rest or start preparing dinner. In larger cities like Essaouira and Marrakesh, everyone is out in the streets at night during Ramadan…families are walking around, boys are sitting in coffee shops, girls are strolling the streets with their friends at like 1am. In my town there’s not too much to do but from what I’ve noticed the boys usually leave and I can imagine the cafes are filled, sometimes there are soccer matches, and people will try and stay busy until suhur (the final meal before the fast begins again, usually around 3 or 3:30am). I’m usually chugging water and eating until my belly is stuffed but when you hear “Allah Akbar”, the fast begins again, the fajr prayer is prayed, and then we all go to sleep. I’ve had the cool opportunity to spend most of Ramadan with my host family and I’ve totally claimed my ponj (couch) spot in the salon to sleep on when I’m too lazy to walk the 2 minutes back to my house after suhur, which is basically every night. By 4:30 or 5am everyone’s in their spots and if you’ve ever been to my house in New York it’s a playroom situation. Falling asleep together with your siblings was always something that was exciting and comfortable. This felt the same and that first night was a really special moment for me. I couldn’t help but teach them the word “sleepover” in English and fully embrace thats what we were having every night. We sleep until 11 or 12 in the afternoon and then we do it all over again.

IMG_0856.jpg

my amazing family

A time of self-reflection and spirituality

It’s been quite an amazing month to experience Ramadan in a place where everyone is observing. There are definitely sleepy moments, I’ve barely worked but if I do teach for an hour or 2 I’m exhausted after and just want to sleep. But the moments of sharing time and food with family have been the highlight of this past month. There’s something about knowing that no one is eating or drinking for 16 hours then breaking fast together that fosters a beautiful, powerful connection when you sit down at the table together. That is one of the reasons I fasted, to experience a similar connection my community was feeling and also as many Muslims believe, to step into the shoes of the poor and the hungry and to be grateful for your blessings. Fasting is one of the 5 pillars of Islam but the practice of charity or zakat, is another. Muslims are encouraged to give a certain percent of their income or a charitable gift to someone they know in their family or community who may be poor or homeless. This gift can be given directly or distributed through the community mosques.

Without a doubt, Ramadan is an important and special time in Morocco. From what I’ve learned its a time to step out of your day to day routine and reconnect with your spirituality and your connection to God. It’s also a time to spend time gathering with family and practice self-discipline. Fasting gives the opportunity to teach endurance, strength, and patience and the chance to appreciate what you have, which is a angle I would have never considered before coming to Morocco and experiencing daily life in Ramadan first hand. Describing the feeling of Ramadan can be difficult, especially as a non-Muslim but these accounts have personal reflections of friends and family in them and the opportunity to experience these reflections in such a open, welcoming, and peaceful community of Morocco has been a blessing in itself. 

Count your blessings, my friends.

Productivity

Productivity is a pretty weird concept. If you’re reading this, just for a minute think about how you define productivity. Is it commuting an hour and back in order to show up to work, is it teaching a day of classes that mentally exhaust your brain, is it a meaningful conversation where you have that light-bulb moment and realize something you didn’t know before? A year ago my definition of productivity looked a lot different than it does now. A year ago, it was a full day of work in the cafe I worked at, plus fitting in a trip to the gym and sending emails or applications to important people selling myself as some extra qualified college graduate who was worthy of a $40,000 entry level office job. Back in New York you all know that’s barely enough to support yourself, which is pretty crazy to me because I now make nearly a 1/10th of that salary.

I’ve been in country for around 7 months. The way I define productivity has visibly shifted, prompting me to think about that classic “to-do list” mentality I came here with 7 months ago. I now have a job description with only 3 bullets (not as easy as it sounds, I swear), the three goals every Peace Corps volunteer is placed in site to carry out. 

1) To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

2) To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

3) To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Goal one encompasses most of those projects that jump to our minds first. The projects we may see from start to finish and can easily evaluate results from. The English classes that prepare kids for the national BAC exam, the soccer camp you spend months planning, or the life skills curriculum you may teach to a group of youth. Yes, these projects are critical but there are still two other goals of Peace Corps that are just as important and in my opinion, have even more sustainable impacts. Goals 2 & 3, a form of people-to-people diplomacy. Taking the time to understand and promote a better understanding of each others cultures and values, acting as a positive ambassador for America, which is more important than ever these days. I’m sure some of you are thinking what does that even mean? Eating couscous and talking to people, that’s work? If eating couscous and pretending to laugh at some grandma’s jokes you didn’t understand one word of makes that family think of Americans differently, I think us PCV’s are doing a far better job at diplomacy than some of those powerful people in America at the moment (not naming names). 

IMG_9226.jpg

The big communal clay bowl couscous is served in. And no I definitely didn’t make this.

This week was a school holiday in site, similar to Spring Break. It’s a one week breather before exam preparations start, before Ramadan, and before summer vacation. Lots of kids travel back home if they live in another village and just attend school in my site, they visit family, work in a family restaurant, or maybe just sleep through the holiday. It’s not all that different from school vacations back home. Holidays are a time when I don’t feel all that productive. I don’t teach and I’m not talking with as many people as I usually do on a daily basis. Today I took some time to reflect on my week and maybe I didn’t clock in the amount of hours taught, but worked on Peace Corps goals in another way possible. 

This week I spent a lot of time with my older host brother. I finally cooked a meal that we didn’t have to eat with bread, don’t get all that excited it wasn’t a plate of homestyle lasagna or dad’s legendary skirt steak (TBA), just some sauteed chicken and zucchini eaten off a real individual plate! We joked around about proper table etiquette in America and Europe for the most part. Holding your fork or knife like this and not like that, asking to be excused in a certain way from the table, or folding your napkin on your lap. He got a kick out of the fact that there are some people out there who pay hundreds of dollars (thousands of DH, the local currency here) in order to learn “etiquette”. In Morocco it goes more like say “Bismillah” (In the name of God) and dig in with your hands. There is etiquette here, don’t get me wrong but it’s not all those “stuffy-napkin dabbing” rules some families take so damn seriously. When you sit at a table, usually in a circle, you only eat from the communal bowl/plate with your right hand. You also only eat out of the section in front of you. It’s rude to start using your piece of bread to pick up the food in someone else’s triangle. Really, don’t do that. You also shouldn’t lick your hand/fingers then dig in again. For example, the way you eat couscous. You’re making a ball and tossing it in your mouth, which can get pretty messy and I still have yet to master the art. I won’t forget this one couscous Friday I saw all these women licking their hands and the littlest part of germaphobe in me was shook if they were going back in for seconds. I was wrong, it meant they were finished. We also watched Forrest Gump, I taught him how to play the card game “Spit”, throwback to Italy villa tournaments shoutout Curto Fam, we talk about our big families, share music (I now have a playlist of Darja/French songs on Spotify if anyone’s interested), he attempts to teach me about the soccer obsession that exists here in Morocco, and we spent the day exploring Essaouira.

IMG_9402.jpg

IMG_9386.jpg

IMG_9483.jpg

IMG_9442.jpg

Our time together is really special to me. It’s always a mix of English and Arabic, helping each other out and teaching each other new things. It’s laughing together and creating a safe space to talk about anything in addition to supporting each other. Something as small as a day trip to Essaouira really switched up the normal day to day routine that gets somewhat repetitive in site and was something really enjoyable, freeing in a weird way. Walking along the beach, learning about the history of Jews in Morocco as we walked through the Melah, the Jewish quarter of the city, or coming back at the end of the day and exchanging new words we learned in English/Arabic and challenging each other to talk about the day in that language. Yes, all of these moments took place outside of the classroom but they’re part of my job, the part which I think is the most impactful and that I love the most. Peace Corps Volunteers love this kinda stuff. Goals 2 & 3, baby. 

IMG_E9507.jpg

I also had the chance to meet the whole family of one of my good friends here, Hisham. His family is well-known and very respected in the community and some of them came back to visit. We always joke around, Hisham legitimately knows everyone and everyone knows him. Hanging out with him is probably half the reason people know who I am and Dad, he’ll be your Moroccan PR guy rocking a Yonkers Tennis t-shirt all the way over here in Talmest. Getting to know Hisham and his family, talking about each others backgrounds, and sharing a meal with them was another great moment. To observe the role of family on a personal level and its value of importance in society is something I really enjoy about serving with PC in Morocco. It’s one thing to read about family dynamics in Morocco and it’s another thing to be immersed in it. It’s hard to not see some similarities that families in Morocco have with my big Italian-American family back at home. When you gather with the extended family, you have the kids running around, the one sister or aunt whose always joking, the scent of home cooked food coming from the kitchen, and the warm hospitality and welcoming nature towards your guests. I think we could both agree, there’s always room for one more head at the table.

IMG_9505.jpg

30714754_10216735875015149_2516754941721182208_n.jpg

Hisham, his niece, nephew, and I exploring some beautiful hidden spots

It’s already mid-April and these holidays are a small test of what Ramadan, the month-long Islamic holiday, and following that, what the summer may feel like for me. Less teaching and more opportunities for experiences like these. Reaching out to people and sharing an understanding of each other. An understanding of our culture and the things that are most important to us, things that we feel proud and are excited to share with others.

These special relationships I’ve come to build, at the end of the day, have helped me look past pretty large surface level differences that may have prevented me from breaking through that line of comfort with someone before. I know dominant aspects like language and religion in a different culture can be intimidating to look past and can sometimes be difficult to have access to & understand in a candid way. Peace Corps gives me the chance to spend real time cultivating these connections and sharing them with you all.

I’m hoping that if you had to choose something to get out of these blog posts, one goal is for you all is to feel a connection to the people i’m interacting with on a daily basis and to develop a better understanding of a community of Moroccans not many Americans get the chance to live among. I’ll be that bridge for the next year a half so any questions are welcome unless any one of you has that urge to come learn Darija with me and ditch the utensils… If so, mar7ba (welcome)!

IMG_9504.jpg

Beautiful sunset right outside of Talmest

Cheers to Organic Vegetables and Splurging on Craft Supplies

There’s something quite pleasant about a silver teapot placed in the middle of a group of people, with its brewing technique so distinct and its cultural significance rather fundamental. There’s a teapot wedged on top of two rocks and the amber blend of tea leaves, mint, and sugar starts to bubble over. Safi. Pouring and returning the tea from the teapot into small, simple clear glasses happens 3 times in order to circulate the flavors. The tea leaves are swirling and your arm is holding the pot rather high in the air, to generate a foam of bubbles on top of the glass. You pour a sips worth into the glass in order to taste. That is now your glass. Once all the glasses are equally poured, a soft “Bismillah” (in the name of God) is repeated and you drink.   

IMG_7554.jpg

It’s 9am on the dot. We’re meeting at the corner that i’d say marks the middle of my new town. Backpacks full of fresh vegetables, charcoal, blankets, and our silver teapot. Were headed up to the mountains to hike and eventually find a promising spot to cook a tagine and enjoy the beautiful landscapes. That day I learned 1) its fully possible to cook a tagine for an hour and a half using a cheap lighter, rocks, and 3 able minded people 2) you should always pay attention in Morocco because when you see a large moving object in the corner of your eye, it could be a camel passing by and lastly 3) my life here was starting to feel more like my life. I’m not sure if i’ll ever say “comfortable” because asking for comfort in Peace Corps is like asking for a genie to appear in front of you with 3 wishes. Pretty unrealistic.

IMG_7494.jpg

IMG_7533.jpg

Since I last wrote, a lot has happened in the past few months. I’ve been a part of lots of amazing moments and accomplished quite a bit, so here’s a little update, I’m sorry I can’t tell you guys about every single one. I’ll start serious and then share some of the laughs I’ve had because as every PCV knows, you can’t finish 2 years of service without laughing at yourself quite a bit:

-Moved out of my host family’s house (don’t worry I see them almost every day) and have my own apartment, furnished and all, l7mdullah

IMG_0012.jpg

IMG_6975.jpg

IMG_6974.jpg

IMG_7330.jpg

-Frequent souq (weekly market) every Saturday morning to buy my weeks worth of vegetables, fruit, chicken, spices, never rising over 50DH ($5), those are the days I don’t buy a whole chicken

IMG_7567.jpg

-Started teaching English at the Dar Taliba 3x a week (a place for girls to be housed and fed during the week while they attend the high school here because they live far away in rural areas). I’m teaching an English class for women, mostly teachers from the area 2x a week, and next week I’ll start at the Dar Chebab (youth center) 2x a week for boys and girls. Still figuring out how I’ll organize them because I’ve gotten interest from ages 9-40 so that’ll be fun…

IMG_7232.jpg

-Have met for 20+ tutoring sessions in Darija with a English teacher at the local high school. These meetings are such a rich part of my learning process here. They provide me an outlet to ask questions about anything including language, culture/religion in Morocco, things I find challenging or intriguing, a space to share ideas about projects, or even just a place to share my humor and some laughs to someone who will understand it. 

-Successfully learning to manage a salary that is drastically different than what I’m used to (40DH ($4) a day for walk around food/incidentals + rent + a small allocation for travel). Now I walk down the aisles of Carrefour (a French/Western style grocery store) in Essaouira and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s is waaay out of my budget (90DH), but I still walk down that aisle anyway just to satisfy that small part of myself that still craves super American things like Ben & Jerrys “Half Baked” or Jif peanut butter. 

-Attended an Arabic lesson for women that are illiterate, wanted to learn how to read and write, in one of the mosques here, entered inside with a jellaba and headscarf, and heard the muadhin (guy who calls the prayer) call the adhan from inside the mosque

28383263_10216284164562670_1020929643_n.jpg

-Traveled back and forth to explore Essaouira, the closest city to me, which is an hour by taxi and so incredibly beautiful. To anyone thinking about visiting me, google Essaouira, and I guarantee your decision will be made for you.

IMG_7219 (1).jpg

DMRW0847.jpg

-Organized a creative writing competition with my tudor and the help of the high school, where we had 60 kids participate and write on a topic given to them that day, all in English! PS..English is their 3rd language learned in school so I think this is incredibly impressive.  My next task this week is to read them all, type them up and send them to Peace Corps for judging.

AHJY3918.jpg

ERVK8776.jpg

WSGJ8454.jpg

Now for those haha memories:

-Dragging my overweight suitcase through a monsoon in Essaouira looking for transportation back to my site before dark because the taxi station had closed and taxi drivers just don’t drive in the rain I guess

-Rode with a horse up the hill of my town carrying a new mattress, fridge, and stove we had just aggressively bargained for (shoutout host mama) because I’m inept at bargaining in the 2 currencies they decide to use here in Morocco

-Went to hammam (public bath house) and bathed with women in my community for 4 hours while managing to explain to them over the echo of a 100 degree room in Darija why the heck there’s an American in a local hammam getting scrubbed from head to toe (Maya/Mais/Anna our summer decision gave it away, so I thought of you guys in this rather awkward experience)

-Watching the chicken I wanted to buy get snatched by the neck, put on an old fashioned scale weighing a little over 2 kilos, slaughtered, feathered and wrapped up for me to take home and prepare, still warm…

IMG_7614.jpg

Sorry for the vegetarians out there…

-Realizing I couldn’t even make tea correctly, something that’s a right of passage for being a Moroccan…another reason why I’m at the same level of learning as a child.

-Accidentally bought my mom the mint that the goats eat instead of the mint you put in tea

-Had no work for 2 weeks (legitimately nothing) so my brother and I watched the whole Breaking Bad series during the school holiday and cooked lots of tagines

IMG_8342.jpg

-Met some man in a qhwa (coffee shop) and had a whole conversation in Arabic with him, even though he had no teeth and was still managing to puff his cigarette and speak to us, about how I could connect his friend’s argan business to a potential buyer in America

-Was gifted a Quran from my local gendarmes (authorities whose responsibility is to make sure i’m safe, mom & dad they do quite the job, do not worry…)

-Somehow ended up at a student award ceremony and had my hands hennaed by one of my student’s sisters (definitely not a verb but you get the point)

IMG_7957.jpg

-Spent 5 hours hand washing my clothes and actually cut my fingers for rubbing my clothes too hard together

-Boil 3 teapots of water and pour that hot water into a bucket in order to shower over the turk, for those of you who don’t know is basically just a hole in the ground

IMG_7450.jpg

From a few months ago, when I was dropped off in a village where I knew no one and had no idea what I would be doing for work, let alone that first hour in a new place with all new people and a new language, I’ve slowly started building a life here. I have students who continuously teach me and motivate me by their knowledge and passions. There is so much eagerness to learn, an eagerness in kids I’ve never seen before. I have a family that took in some random American girl and has helped me with everything from carrying my new dresser to my house over a rock wall to knocking on my door and bringing me warm harira (Moroccan soup) when the week got extra cold. They’ve taken such good care of me and I always feel a little at home when I’m with them, so thinking about how I’ll leave them makes me a little teary eyed because they’ve truly become my best friends. I have friends and community members who are looking out for me and other PCVs who I can call and talk to for hours about anything, sometimes just to justify the fact that they’ve also freaked out when they saw the chicken get killed in front of them and that I’m not crazy.

Somedays are harder than others. I’m living in a culture that’s really different than my own and that takes time, a really open mind and patience to adapt to. “Meskina” (poor thing) was just a normal response in the first month from people after I told them what I was doing, volunteering and living alone, away from my family for two years. Not meant to be rude of course, but I just wanted to respond, “Imma a strong, independent, woman…I’m fully capable of living alone in another country despite my 23 year old girl face!” But of course I responded with an awkward smile and “nice to meet you”, to spare the Ilana from Broad City “Yaas Queen” rant about “girls doing whatever the f*** they want in 2018”. I know during my service, parts of my identity will be tested, and at points they have been. Whether that be gender, values, beliefs, or decisions I’ve made, some of those aspects of my identity may need to be put on the back burner for my protection. I am navigating how to express my opinions and be true to myself while respecting others opinions and ways of life.

But I also know these challenges I’ve faced from the beginning and challenges in the future will have a positive effect on me. They help me grow into a stronger, more confident person each day. I’m learning to get rid of the fear of asking for help, realizing that I can’t do everything on my own and that’s totally okay. To go with the flow in an unstructured environment with answers that most of the time aren’t always there and accepting things aren’t always going to go the way I planned. Not caring about what people think and that making mistakes is okay. Work does not always have to be tangible, like the 100 page report you type for your boss or the grant you got approved, it can be a new relationship you’ve worked to build which then gives you access to a new space or a meaningful conversation you had which then gives a girl a new perspective on her future.

It’s kind of nice to step away from the concept of productivity and work environment in America, especially from what I’ve experienced and seen growing up around New York. I’m spending my time learning things I would feel “unproductive” doing back at home. My new thing is to try and do yoga every day for 30 minutes, I’m learning how to cook (not just boiling pasta from a box, but really cooking), I’m journaling, reading new books, learning how to clean a house without a vacuum or swiffer aka dumping buckets of water on the ground and at the walls and squeeging it out the front door, studying new language, getting nifty aka using cardboard boxes to make cool DIY house things, and maybe during Ramadan since there’s ample amounts of free time, picking up a new hobby like sketching or calligraphy. I’m really getting creative over here without a nightlife, which I’m actually kind of enjoying. Cheers to fresh organic vegetables and splurging on craft supplies!

IMG_8350.jpg

The main room, the salon, in my house where I do just about everything

28499875_10216281456934981_1088213993_o.jpg

rice

Now I pick rocks out of my rice!

I was just reading off a blog called “Girls Night In”, (that’s life now), check it out if you want a new funky book list, self care ideas, or a little justification for taking some time away from participating in the work hard play hard life in America.

“Your worth isn’t measured by your productivity”.

So shoutout to all of the PCVs in Morocco and even around the world who are working a 24/7 job, slowly yet surely, to promote such an important type of work the world could really use, especially for 2018.

PS. I’m working on a mini video clip about my last month in Morocco I’ll post in March!

Journals through CBT

So my writing has fallen behind and just like that, I’m an official PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer)! There are memories and stories I’ve written in different places that I still want to share so here they are piece by piece, to recap all that lost time I’ve been dying to share.

October 26: Had a dance party with broken speakers and a room that smells like drari. Looked through old pictures of my host family with them and for a split second in my mind, compared this moment to many I’ve had at home. Watching old videos, laughing at how awkward we were in those rather unfortunate phases of our youth. Enough to make me shwiya emotional but was a really powerful moment with my family here in Azrou. I also gave my sisters bracelets that my mom mailed from the States. They freaked out of excitement and before you knew it, my aunt was knocking on my door asking where her bracelet was. Word travels fast, so if you’re gifting, make sure you have enough for your crew and beyond. We had interviews with RMs (regional managers) and they observed us teaching in the Dar Chebab. Luke, Brad, and I taught a lesson on the environment that went pretty great. But it’s not Peace Corps unless in the middle of your lesson, 15 little children come running in and make the room rowdier. We adjusted and pulled even the 7-8 year olds at the back table into the lesson, quickly cut more paper for our “draw a desert, mountains, or forest” activity, and figured it out. If you haven’t figured it out already, to be good at this job, it’s essential to be able to “go with the flow”. It has made all the difference to get to know the kids we’ve been teaching over these last few weeks and seeing those familiar faces show up at the dar chebab makes our job easier.

IMG_6532

Malak, Shayma, and little Noura

IMG_5979

Community mapping at the Dar Chebab: the kids were asked to draw their community and the places they frequent the most (1), sometimes (2), rarely/never (3)

Processed with VSCO with m5 preset

Environment lesson at the Dar Chebab

November 1: Spent our Halloween doing face masks and watching the Conjuring and Stranger Things. Yes even over here in Morocco we’re aware Season 2 just came out and need to binge. I couldn’t be more lucky to have my CBT group to do things like this, but also of course experience all the feels of Morocco and Peace Corps together in our first few months. The connection we’ve made is something I could spend paragraphs explaining…but I’ll spare you the gushy words about how Peace Corps friends find this unique connection within each other and feel it to the extreme. I did one PACA (Participatory Analysis for Community Action) activity this week, which is a tool PCVs all over the world use to get to know their communities for better integration. Today, I sat down with my host sister and had a pretty big task ahead of me (of course in Darija): ask her about her values, places she spends time, things she hopes to achieve in the future, and things she feels she excels at. From what I could tell, and from other volunteer interactions with other Moroccans, youth here aren’t used to being asked questions like this. It took her a little while to process her thoughts, but after the first few minutes she was teaching me more about herself than I would have ever known. Some of the values she identified herself to have were tolerance, solidarity, and independence. I learned she wants to travel the world to visit all the museums in Europe. Most of her time is spent at school, in the library, or at home. She also expressed that she is good at languages like French and Arabic, but now wants to learn English too, which is why I was begged to go with her to photocopy my whole PC Darija textbook because its one of the only English-Darija resources out there. I left this conversation feeling closely connected to her, as some of her goals and interests were b7l b7l as mine. The confidence she carries around, especially at this moment, was glowing in her face. Site assignments are in a week and I’m picturing a culturally modified version of sorority bid day. There was a terrorist attack in New York and I feel super disconnected from the stream of news following it. Calling my sister a day later with minimal details on the incident gave us both a hard dose of perspective that we are so far away from each other operating in different circles of life.

IMG_6188.JPG

The greatest people you’ll ever meet.

IMG_6687.JPG

…again.

 

 

 

img_6202-1

I’m the human “Type to Learn” now

November 15: We found out our final sites yesterday. I tried not to be too dramatic about it, but c’mon, the new life decided for me was about to be projected on a powerpoint with a little picture of my face popping up in any of the regions of Morocco. It’s the beginning of a new start. Life will change drastically in a few weeks and I’ll be on my own without the privilege of comfort and connectivity that comes with just being in the same room as other Americans. I’ll be without my LCF, who has facilitated interactions between us and the dar chebab, made the local authority offices less scary and intimidating, and has taught me everything from how to negotiate an overly expensive water bill in Darija to proper hammam etiquette like not putting your shoes on the bench in the changing room (my 2nd time going I felt like a hammam-ing expert). So shoutout to Hassan, one of the most intelligent, dedicated, hard working, and humble people I’ve met.

IMG_6410.JPG

Marrakesh-Safi Region of Morocco

November 17: I have 2 pages left in my Darija notebook, which I think is pretty symbolic to my life at the moment. The pages have turned rather quickly and I have less than a week left in Azrou with my family and my CBT group. I didn’t think I could connect so much with a family in just two months, but they made me feel like their fourth Moroccan bnt, protecting me from the cold, cold air (60 degrees) by wrapping my wet hair up after we hammam, feeding me the most delicious food and not stopping until I’ve insisted i’m full at least 5 times, and constantly making sure I was comfortable and happy. In these 10 weeks, I’ve learned more language and culture than I ever have. I can successfully bargain for myself in Darija and throw off peoples perceptions when they look at me and think I’m a French tourist (which is a joke because it took my 8 year old sister an hour to teach me a 6-lined dialogue in French the other day). I can sit around the kaskrout table and finally understand the chatter of the day being tossed around and sometimes even chime in!! I also now know I can wheel my 1 1/2 year old host sister in her stroller through a rocky, chaotic souk which means I can be trusted in my host mom’s book, l7mdullah. Every day is a new day with new conversations and pretty sub-par games I end up playing and actually laughing at. Like hide and seek in the same bedroom with one table to hide under and one bed. You’d think it’d get old after one round, nope, mashi 7nna.

DSC_3186.JPG

My beautiful Azrou family

IMG_6441.jpg

In Morocco, lunch (ghda) is the largest meal. People return home from work and school for a 2-3 hour break, eat, and then go back. This beats 45 minute lunch breaks in America any day.

This brings me to now. December 4th. My last week of CBT in Azrou came to a close with a 4 hour meal cooked for my group by my/Luke’s family, a last night sleepover with my 2 sisters regardless of the fact my alarm would go off at 5:30am to leave and we would all be in the same bed, and Noura (my baby sister) sitting on top of my suitcase from what I tell myself was her way of communicating don’t leave. A few days ago, we were sworn in as Volunteers with an official ceremony consisting of speakers from the Embassy, Ministry of Youth and Sports, and 2 fellow mutatw3in who gave speeches in Darija. I had the opportunity to meet my new supervisor in the association I will be working in and we had a 30 minute conversation about my new site and work opportunities all in Darija. We even took a cheesy, ambassador-like picture shaking hands…so there’s proof we’re off to a good start! Because of an unexpected medical curveball, I’ve been in Rabat for a few days before traveling to my final site (kulshi mzyan daba), so I had some time to finally write this blog post, catch up on WiFi, and sort my suitcase before heading down to my new home tomorrow, which is a small village an hour outside of the beautiful port city in Morocco called Essaouira. Although Thanksgiving has passed, I want to express how thankful I am for my friends and family back at home who are constantly checking up on me, the new friends I’ve made in Morocco who will do zwin, wondrous things in the next two years, and the Starbucks I just located and totally spend 1/3 of my daily allowance on. I’ll try and write once I’m settled into my new home!

Nshufk mn b3d!

DSC_3234.JPG

Azrou.

QXHT3785.jpg

WDFS4903.jpg

IMG_6571

Here’s Noura reminding you that next blog post is coming once I can haul this bag through Morocco to site!


Darija cheat sheet because my English vocabulary is slowly disappearing…

Drari-Boys

Shwiya– A little

Dar chebab– Youth Center (literally house of youth)

Darija– Moroccan dialect of Arabic I’m learning

b7l b7l– The same

7ammam– Public bath house

Bnt– Daughter

Kaskrout– Evening snack usually between 6-7pm before dinner

l7mdullah– Thanking God everything is good

mashi 7nna– Not here

mutatw3in– Volunteers

kulshi mzyan daba– Everything is good now

zwin– Beautiful/great

Nshufk mn b3d– See you later

**Songs that got us through CBT played on repeat way too often** 

Moroccan Alarm Clock

Every morning around 7:15, I wake up to the voice of a woman waking up another man. It’s gentle yet stern and always the same tone. She says, “Yasser, Yasser.” Thats my alarm. I get out of my bed, throw on clothes for the day and slip on my house flip flops to brush my teeth and wash my face. Getting ready takes me about 8 minutes, maybe because its in the dark or because i’ve become super okay with not looking in the mirror before I walk out every morning.  My host family puts breakfast out for me every morning and no lie, the sound of the tea kettle whistling gets me out of bed in the morning. It means i’ll drink at least 2 cups of atay loaded with sugar and fresh mint, one of the most popular drinks in Morocco. Out my door I turn a few corners through the alleys of colorful doors, pass the 7anut (corner store) that sells fresh baguettes every morning, occasionally pretend to be a mother to walk my host cousin to school, and end up in Darija (Morocco’s dialect of Arabic) class by 8:30. 

FullSizeRender 2.jpg

Azrou 

The training site I’ve been placed in for CBT (community based training) is a small city in the mountains called Azrou. It’s a relatively big and amenable site in Peace Corps world. There’s qhwas (coffee shops), commercial shopping, a huge souk on Tuesdays that is 50x the size of the farmers market in Cold Spring, and mountains to hike where monkeys hideaway. I live with a host mother, father, and three sisters: 12, 8, and 16 months. If I could describe Moroccans in one word right now, it’d be hospitable. That first day I arrived at my house, the bag that I wanted to rush and unpack was irrelevant. I was led straight to the salon and poured cups of tea and fed a large platter of lamb tagine that, from observation, was looking like I was eating with my hands. I knew basically no Darija so smiling and nodding was my best friend. They’re an amazing bunch and in no words can I express how much they’ve taught me and the warm feeling of family they’ve shared with me. Each day i’m at site and with my family, I think about how much i’m learning and how it’s always a little bit more than the day before. Shwiya b Shwiya.

IMG_5878.JPG

My host sisters and host cousin 

 

My CBT group is incredible and I owe most of my sanity to them. There are 6 of us plus our LCF (Language & Cultural Facilitator) and we meet for language class from 8:30-12:30, go back home for lunch with our families, then meet again from 2:30 on to discuss tools for youth development and community integration. Together already we’ve conquered 100+ hours of Darija, eaten way to much milwi (bread/crepe like snack with honey and cheese), gone a week without showering only to embrace our greasy hair, watched a whole series on Netflix, and have created a tight, unique support system that perpetually looks out for one another. People say CBT is one of the hardest periods of Peace Corps, but this crew has made it hard to think about ending. I’m sure throughout my posts I’ll reference back to their ability to create a spark in my first few months here and I’m very grateful for all 6 of them. 

 

 

FullSizeRender.jpg

CBT Group

I can predict but I can’t say where I’ll be after we leave Azrou at the end of November and swear in as official Peace Corps volunteers. Maybe in the South two days travel from Meknes, maybe in the North outside of a major city, maybe nestled in the mountains or maybe in the desert. Maybe in six months I’ll be teaching in a Dar Chebab (youth center). Maybe I’ll have my own place where the smell of tomato sauce on the stove will harmonize with the lyrics of Springsteen in the background, just like our kitchen at home. If so, Mom, you’ll be the first to get that text. What I’m trying to communicate is that my life for the next two years is an open book of self discovery, personal and professional rewards yet hardships, rich cultural exchanges, and all the jumble that comes with living in a country at a very different comfort level than I’m used to. It’s observing and participating, not judging because this culture does things differently than my own. These next two years are about listening and leading in a Moroccan context, placing my desires and development standards as an American on the back burner. They’re also here for me to share my Moroccan experience with everyone back home. As the only country left in Peace Corps operating within the MENA (Middle East/North Africa) region, this goal is especially important, maybe now in 2017 more than ever.

Until next time! AKA until I find semi-decent WiFi to upload another post 🙂 

Salaam Morocco

Its been just about one week since I jumped in the car from New York to Phili with 2 suitcases and 1 backpack, to join 112 other Peace Corps volunteers on a flight to Morocco. The past weekend was filled with lots of hugs, cards (most of which I brought so shoutout to ya all) and apple pie. Now I’m sitting in a suburb of Rabat. For those of you who don’t know the Peace Corps is a U.S. volunteer program founded by JFK in 1961 serving in approximately 65 countries all around the world. This is my job description for the next 27 months, pretty nice right?

“To promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the U.S. qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.” (Peace Corps Act) 

I will be serving in Morocco as a Youth Development Volunteer. This means being assigned to/living within a local community and working in a dar chebab (youth center), nedi neswi (women’s center) and/or engaging youth in other ways to promote leadership and expressed needs of the Moroccan people. For now, my focus is to learn the local language, Darija, which is the Moroccan dialect of Arabic. We are staying in a rather posh area of Rabat for the next few days finishing up Peace Corps-led training on safety and security, health, and language, ranging from sessions on Moroccan government administrations to diarrhea + food/h20 treatment (yay for reality). On Thursday we then head off to our CBT sites (community-based training) sites outside of Meknes, which is when we move in with our host families for the duration of training. I will be in the same community with around 5-6 volunteers and 1 LCF (Language & Cultural Facilitator) so most of our training will be completed together, and then all 113 of us reunite in Rabat for swearing-in as official Peace Corps volunteers at the end of November.

21640807_959792984159551_1953081798625251480_o.jpg

tips from current volunteers to us, PCT (Peace Corps Trainees)


21706722_10214840438750427_1167154422_o

A group of us PCTs in Rabat with LCF Abderrahim from Agadir

As for now, I’ve been meeting amazing people who I vibe with so well. It’s nice to not have to justify why you’re joining the Peace Corps or why you’re leaving your life in the States for 2 whole years, because these are the people that get it. We’re all here for some reason or unrestrained passion we have and together, have more enthusiasm for a job we’re not even sure how to do. These people are the ones who are going to get me through the tough days, along with of course the peanut butter and Annie’s mac and cheese I stuffed in my already overweight bag. I know there are days ahead of not knowing a single word my host family is going to say to me, no shower or wifi, or trying to understand the rather conservative gender roles that come with living in a Muslim country, but for now it’s one day at a time. We have a beautiful beach 5 minutes away where we watch a killer sunset every night, a shower that drips cold water, lots and lots of couscous, and a group of PCTs who are ready to make moves.

DSC_2793.jpg

Memory for Forgetfulness

“My grandfather died counting sunsets, seasons, and heartbeats on the fingers of his withered hands. He dropped like a fruit forbidden a branch to lean its age against. They destroyed his heart. He wearied of waiting here, in Damur. He said goodbye to friends, water pipe, and children and took me and went back to find what was no longer his to find there. Here the number of aliens increased, and refugee camps got bigger. A war went by, then two, three, and four. The homeland got farther and farther away, and the children got farther and farther from mother’s milk after they had tasted the milk of the UNRWA. So they bought guns to get closer to a homeland flying out of their reach. They brought their identity back into being, re-created the homeland, and followed their path, only to have it blocked by the guardians of civil wars. They defended their steps, but then path parted from path, the orphan lived in the skin of the orphan, and one refugee camp went into another.” (Translated from Arabic)darwish.pngOn the back of a bus, heading south to the border of Lebanon and Historic Palestine (present Israel) on a Saturday morning, I flipped through a passage of Memory for Forgetfulness, a memoir written by Mahmoud Darwish, award-winning Palestinian author and poet. Darwish had written this memoir during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, where he remembers his family’s exile to Beirut in 1948. His village, Birwe, in the Upper Galilee was destroyed. LEAP, the organization I am volunteering through, organized a trip for us [volunteers] to visit the border with our Palestinian co-teachers who we work with in the classroom every day.  I’d never “visited” a border before. I think the image that came to mind was a family trip to Montreal, Canada, where we drove through the U.S.-Canada border with smiles on our faces blasting some girly pop song my Dad was not having. This was not that. This was a border of contestation, conflict, and pain. In order to even access the region around the border, you need a permit, which unfortunately is easier to get when a bus full of ajanibs or “foreigners” want one.

One of the spots we stopped at was Fatima’s Gate, the former border crossing between Lebanon and Israel, closed since 2000 and now known as the “Blue Line” controlled by UNIFL or the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. There were UN tanks and what looked like the Philippines task force standing right in front of us. They stared, we stared, but after a few minutes their presence was ignored as our Palestinian friends took out their kuffiyas [black and white checkered traditional Palestinian scarf] and starting taking pictures in front of their home, just yards away. The whole trip gave me a new perspective on the “Arab-Israeli Conflict” we are drilled facts about in a PSC class. It showed me a real human side to the madness. My Palestinian friends, living in the camps of Lebanon, are unable to ever step foot past this fence. They can look in the direction of their villages and point, which many of them did…from across the border over the blue helmets of the UN, but they can never go there. How can I go there? Or my Jewish friends at home? Did you know you can even get Israeli citizenship if you’re Jewish, from anywhere in the world, and move to Israel? “How can a Polish or Czech person go live in my village but I can’t?” said Mahmoud, the UNRWA director in Rashidieh Camp during a visit to his house. Someone who longs for their grandparents olive trees is forbidden, while we’re taking selfies at Masada or camping in a Kibbutz with our college friends.

In some ways, the situation of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is torture. You can look and point and see the clusters of settlements with your own eyes, everyone else is allowed to enter, except for you. I’m still trying to figure out the reasoning but I’m not too confident that I’ll ever get a logical answer.

13887131_1053468464749404_1331535672840755637_n.jpg

Palestinian & U.S. volunteers in front of Fatima’s Gate

13900543_10210532029362885_473943161_n.jpg

Border fence looking into Palestine

I remembered the words of this particular passage I read on the bus to the border, driving into the camp for work Monday morning. We leave our apartment in Burj el Shemale around 8:00am and the 7 of us are driven about 6 minutes into the camp, past the security entrance, and dropped off near a little corner store next to Beit Atfal Assmoud, the community organization we work through and hold classes at. It was week 4. The drive in the camp is now starting to seem familiar and routine, but at the same time heavy and dreary. We dodge potholes in the road, inhale the fumes of a burning tire or 2 on the left and the scent of an auto-mechanic shop on the right. We pass the same PLO/Fatah (Palestinian political parties who assert dominance in the camp) “headquarters”, right past the Lebanese Army checkpoint, with a man or two sitting outside on a lawn chair locking his eyes on your car, holding a coffee in one hand and a gun in the other. There are endless posters of martyrs faces, those who have died in the name of a party or specific cause, hung up above the bundles of low-hanging electric wires. We drive alongside faded murals of children playing, Handala (the well known cartoon representing the plight of a Palestinian refugee child), and the most noticeable…a quote in English, Arabic, and Hebrew reading “The State of Israel is evanescent”.

Handala.jpg

“Handala” by Naji Al-Ali

The vibe of the camp was starting to get to me. It was Week 4 and just looking at the week ahead made me feel tired and unmotivated to move forward. Imagine 8 years, like some of the kids I teach, or 18 years like the kids graduating high school, or the 30 year old trying to raise a family. It pulls you and sucks you in, where at points you feel like there is no way out. Palestinians did not choose to live like this, it was chosen for them. Rashidieh, the camp I have been working in, was actually built as a refugee camp by the French in 1936 for Armenian refugees. The UNRWA built the “new” section of the camp in 1963 for Palestinians. This camp does not feel temporary, like it was built to be, it feels permanent.

 

rashidieh.png

Rashidieh Camp (LEAP)

Week 3/4 has also been a common time to lose students enrolled in the program. They’ve participated for 1 or 2 weeks, they’ve gone on the “fun fair” trip we reward the kids with on Friday, and maybe an extra English program is just not a priority anymore. To be honest, it has made my class more manageable and I am able to provide more individual attention to students but I wonder about the kids who stopped showing up. A few were newer Syrians to the camp, a few come only once in a while, and some of them still come to class but are exhausted and hot because they woke up at 5:00am with their dad to work. This is the reality and it is frustrating… to know this situation is not something a lot of people can change. The solution is behind bars, locked away at the hands of people in power. These children’s paths have already begun parting from the original path, as Mahmoud Darwish said, and no matter how much they defend their steps, they will find it blocked by the guardians of greed and occupation.