Monday, October 31, 2011

Amazing Moments in Stupidity

Part of being a foreigner somewhere is putting up with unwanted attention because you’re different. People stare, children shout things as you walk by in what they think is your native language (in Morocco, they all shout in French) and sometimes, you don’t get the same treatment that a native would receive because you’re different. It can also work the other way, and expats get away with all sorts of cultural faux pas because they’re foreign and people assume they don’t know any better. Either way, it can feel like people only react to the fact that you’re different and not to you as an individual, and it can be difficult to remind myself that sometimes it’s my actions that are causing the commotion, not my nationality, ethnicity or inability to speak the language.

Case in point: Last night, one of the innumerable cousins (I assume, I never did get a straight answer to who this guy was) came over. He spent the evening on the computer, which is in the living room and has a direct line of sight to my bedroom, where I was sitting on my bed, trying (unsuccessfully) to memorize adjectives. Every time I looked up, the cousin was staring at me, and after a bit, I started to get hostile. Why’s he looking at me? I fumed mentally. Hasn’t he seen a foreigner before?! I’m dressed appropriately, I’m minding my own business and I’m in the safety of my home. I’m not Moroccan, woop-di-freaking-do. I have to put up with enough attention all day. I shouldn’t have to deal with this at home too! What a creep! I spent the better part of the evening annoyed at the guy and sending him a covert stink-eye whenever I caught his glance.

And then, hours later when I got up for dinner, I realized that hanging right above me head, in plain view to the entire house, were a row of underwear that had still been damp when I took them off the line this afternoon.

Dude wasn’t looking at me. He was trying to figure out why I was displaying my undergarments so wantonly, especially when there was a male guest present. This had nothing to do with me being foreign and everything to do with me being kinda dumb. If I hadn’t immediately jumped to the conclusion that his attention was because I’m American and not because of something I had done, I would have looked around and noticed my laundry and could have saved myself some embarrassment when I had to sit down, red-faced, next to him for dinner.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


Fkkr (Sorry Mom, there's a bunch of swearing in this entry. In my defense, it's most as a pronunciation guide.)

Darija can be an incredible dirty sounding language to an English speaking. I know there are examples in every language of perfectly innocent words being dirty or offensive in another (my college Latin professor loved to remind us that we can’t decline sex in Latin), but in all the languages I’ve studied, Darija is the worst (or best).

“I ate” is klit. “Please” is afak, which sounds a lot like “oh fuck” and promptly became a swear word around Hub. (I left my notebook in my 5th floor room, afak!) We’ve started threatening to cut a bnt (girl) instead of bitch and last week, I asked Jenn the name of her hooha (brother). (That one was mistake. Hooha means "her brother" and I should have asked about the name of her non-dirty sounding hook (your brother).) If you woke up this morning, you fqt (which sounds very similar to fucked), but my favorite work is “to think,” which is fkkr, pronounced exactly like you think it is. (There are actually two works for “to think, dnn and fkkr, which has lead to us saying dnn-fkkr a lot.) We’re not exactly mature about it, and poor Fatima spends a lot of time rolling her eyes as we titter over things like Kat-fkkr (you think). The best moment came when Kelly, frustrated over forgetting a word, tapped her head and said, “Fkkr, fkkr, fkkr,” in a horribly obscene reference to Winne the Poo.

I really love my CBT group sometimes.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

f l-mgrib: Month One

Friday was my one-month anniversary in Morocco. My staj arrived in Morocco early on the morning of September 14th, after an overnight flight from JFK. We were met right off the plane by Peace Corps staff, whisked through the diplomatic line at immigration and loaded onto a bus for the four hour bus ride to Fes by 8:00. The first day was long, busy and exhausting, especially since I didn’t sleep on the plane or the bus. We met Peace Corps training staff, had the first of many immunizations and dealt with reams of paperwork that goes along with entering government service. Siad, the assistant training director, took a picture of each of us that afternoon, then printed them out and gave them to us as a memento shortly before we left for CBT. In my photo, I’m tired, unwashed and giving the camera a bitch face, but things have only gone uphill from there.

It’s been a busy month, and one unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The first week was spent in Fes, which only barely felt like living in Morocco. I was surrounded by Americans, the Moroccan staff all spoke excellent English and I rarely left the training center for more than a quick run to a hanut, the small convenience stores that abound on every street corner.

Then, after week, we moved to our CBT sites, which was a jarringly different experience and I was suddenly living by myself with a Moroccan family who spoke little English (at a time when my Darija was pretty much limited to telling people my name, where I was from and my marital status). My stomach was in knots all morning the day we left for CBT, and I had to make a fist to keep my hands from shaking as I entered my home for the next two months. That evening, I was sitting alone on the couch of my new home, nervous, clueless about how to start a conversation and dreading the long evening in front of me. Then Soukayna, my 17-year-old host sister, drug me over to the family computer so she could show me her Facebook page and took me outside, where I met the neighbors and we sat on the steps and listened to Barbie Girl on Soukayna’s phone. During dinner, Simo, my 11-year-old brother, made sure to find an American movie (Twister) subtitled in Arabic to watch, so that I would be included. All evening, my host family went out of their way to made sure I felt included and welcomed. I had anticipated a long and lonely evening, but instead went to bed feeling hopeful and optimistic about the next two months.

For the most part, living with a host family has been a positive experience. As my Darija abilities have developed, I’ve been able to start to actually talk with them, and one of my favorite times of the day is sitting around the dinner at table and trying to chat with my host mom and sisters. My host sisters and I have jokes, and my host brother and I play computer games and soccer together. They always introduce me as their sister, and last night, I told Simo I had three brothers. One was 23, one was 20 and one was 11.

“I’m 11!” he told me.

“I know,” I told him. “You’re my 11 year old brother.”

They’ve also been helpful when I’m studying. Ranya, my 13-year-old host sister, sits with me in the afternoon and helps me review my vocab flashcards and corrects my pronunciation. My host mom in particular is good at correcting me when I talk when her, but not correcting me beyond what I’m suppose to know. We learned present tense last week, and as soon as I started using it in conversation, she started correcting my mistakes, but last week when all I knew was the past tense and would attach deba (now) to any statement I wanted to be in present tense, she let it slide.

Not that living with a host family is always perfect. I miss the privacy and autonomy I had when I was living at home. My host mother decides everything, from when we eat dinner (answer: always later than I want, the latest has been 11:30) to when I can take a shower. While in theory I have my own room (a Peace Corp requirement), my host siblings are constantly in and out, the door I make sure to shut when I leave is always open when I return and after the first week, I realized that when people visit the house, my host mother immediately takes then to see my room.

I spend most of my day at school. I leave the house at 8:00 in the morning, and if I’m lucky, I’m home by 6:00. We study language all morning, and it’s amazing how fast I’m progressing. A month ago, I didn’t know a word of Moroccan, and now I have conversations. I’m comfortable, if not always adept, talking to shopkeepers and the neighbors, and yesterday I had my first program at the local dar chebab entirely in Darija, and it didn’t end in tears or fire or confusion. (Granted, I did write out the directions ahead of time and read from my notebook, but I also answered questions and talked with the kids and understood at least a large percentage of what was said, so I call it a success.) We’ve learned the entire Arabic alphabet, and I can slowly sound out street signs and write out simple notes.

I’m busier than I’ve ever been. In addition to being at school for ten hours a day, I have homework, grammar to study and vocabulary to learn, and when I’m not studying, I’m spending time with my host family, which is it’s own form of studying. There’s a stack of Peace Corp books on procedure and methods that I’m suppose to read before I swear in sitting on my desk, and every few weeks, I have reports on my progress to turn in. I live in a constant state of being behind on blogging and uploading photos and all my grand ideas of visiting other CBT sites during my one day off a week have gone out the window. I’m starting to feel a little frayed around the edges, but everyone I’ve talked to says that the pace slows down once you get to your site, and I can last another month.

Last Monday was National Woman’s Day, and the Peace Corps provided us with You Can Dream: Stories of Moroccan Women Who Do, a documentary about female leadership in Morocco, and one of the women featured lives in my town. Ten years ago, a Peace Corps volunteer had the idea of turning l3qad, the buttons from jellabas, a traditional Moroccan dress, into beads and using them to make jewelry. They applied for a loan and started a local artisans co-op for hand-made crafts. A decade later, the l3qad buttons and the co-op are still around. My host mother runs a shop at the co-op and sells jellabasand other traditional outfits. l3qad jewelry are now sold around Morocco and the women in my neighborhood sit on the front stoop and make beads while they gossip and watch their children play. I’m inherently skeptical of how much of a lasting impact I can make in only two years, but this co-op and the industry has made a real impact in the lives of the women here. Watching the video made me think that I have a chance of also making a real impact on my community, and reminded me of why I applied to the Peace Corps in the first place.

Mosque Medina of Fes-el-Bali
Usteda u Xti
(Top Left: Entrance to a mosque near the Medina Fes-el-Bali (Old Medina); Top Right: Beautiful saqiya, public water fountain, in the Fes medina. Saqiya are all over the medina, and are still in use; Bottom: (from l to r) Fatima(my teacher) and Soukayna (my oldest host-sister)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Moroccan Hamam

I went to the hamam, a public steam bath, for the first time yesterday, and it was wonderful. (Okay, so I almost passed out, but that was due to user error, and I fully expect my next trip to be fine. Turns out, exhaustion and health related dehydration [remember that gastrointestinal distress I mentioned before] plus extreme temperatures isn’t the best combination, though honestly, I could have passed out and it would still have worth it to be this clean.)

Hamams are common in Morocco and all across North Africa. Almost all Moroccan towns have at least one small hamam, and going to the hamam is common. Most Moroccan homes don’t have showers (or even hot water), so lots of Moroccans make due with bucket baths during the week, and go to the hamam once a week for a good scrub. It’s about more than just bathing though. Going to the hamam is a social event, and friends will go and spend a few hours at the baths the way American teenagers might go to the mall or a café to hang out. (Only, you know, everyone is naked. And people think Muslim cultures are repressed.)

I went to the hamam with Kim (a fellow PCT), Soukayna (my host sister) and Fatima (my Arabic teacher*). When we got the hamam, we paid our fee and Kim and I bought ssabun lbldi (special soap made from olive resin) and l-kiis (the abrasive washcloth used for exfoliating), then went to the changing room, where we stripped down to our underwear (and just underwear, not underwear and bra). Right, the whole naked thing. You’re naked at the hamam. Naked around other ladies (hamams are segregated by gender) and the people you came with. You will see other women naked and other people – total strangers and people from the neighborhood – will see you naked. Some women even go sans-underwear. Nudity is such a non-issue at the hamam, and once I was in the steam room, I almost immediately felt comfortable, but I still had to steal myself (gird my loins, if you will) before taking off my bra in the middle of a crowded changing room, and I spent the past two years going to the Korean public baths, which are also sans-clothes and privacy.

So, once we were properly naked (and possible hiding behind our stools, like Kim), we entered the steam rooms. There were three rooms, ranging from super hot and humid to regular type hot and humid, but all of them were hot enough for my hair to immediately go POOF. We went to the hottest room to fill up our buckets (decent sized buckets, probably as tall as my knee) with water, and then retreated to the medium heat room to claim a corner and wash. First, using small cups, we wet ourselves and rubbed the sabun lbldi, which looks like a thick, black goo, all over our bodies. We let it sit for a few minutes, rinsed it off and then, using the kiis, began exfoliating. I like to think I keep myself fairly clean, but I’ve never done a full body exfoliation before and I was amazed by how much dead skin came off. It reminded me of those deep cleaning pore strips every girl used on their noses in middle school: you’re horrified by how dirty you were, but every pore strip filled with gunk (or in this case, l-kiss covered in a white film of dead skin) makes you feel virtuous and proud, because at least you’re no longer that dirty. Scrubbing took a long time, probably close to an hour, which I didn’t think was possible when Fatima told us about the hamam in class. I just kept scrubbing, and the kiss kept coming back with dead skin on it. Turns out, my armpits were full of dead skin. (Sorry, that’s probably TMI.)

After about an hour at the hamam, I started getting dizzy. I’m sick, sleeping poorly, not eating much and thanks to last weeks bout of gastrointestinal distress, I’m just a little dehydrated, none of which is good when combined with long periods in a hot steam room. I stumbled out of the baths and spent twenty or so minutes sitting on a bench in the changing area until the world stopped spinning around me, and then took the rest of my bath in cold water in an attempt to keep my body temperature down. It felt like such waste, since I’ve missed hot water so much, and when I finally had an unlimited supply of it, I couldn’t use it. Next time I go to the hamam, I’ll make sure to drink plenty of water during the day and eat lunch, and I’m sure I’ll be fine. And there will definitely be a next time. I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so clean, and it was the first time I’ve felt completely clean since arriving in Morocco. Plus, my skin was noticeable softer today, even my elbows, which are normally dry and rough. I want to make going to the hamam a regular part my life here.

  • I’m glad I went with Moroccans, because I would have been a bit lost by myself, and the hamam might be the one place where I don’t feel comfortable looking around to see what other people are doing.

  • Soukayna and Fatima brought stools and a plastic mat so they wouldn’t have to sit on the ground, which was nice.

  • Bring a spare pair of underwear. Most people bring an entire change of clothes (my host mom was horrified that I came home from the hamam in the same clothes I wore there), but the underwear is the essential part, since the underwear you wear to the hamam will be soaked.

  • You can pay more to have an employee scrub you. I opted to scrub myself the first time, but at some point I’d like to experience a true hamam experience.

  • There’s usually a separate area for shaving. Look around and see what other people are doing before you whip out the razor.

  • I’m serious about the water. I bought a liter and a half bottle of water on the way home, killed it in an hour, and still slept through the night without having to wake up and pee. I was pretty seriously dehydrated.

  • *An aside about Fatima. She’s 25, making her the youngest person in our language group. She’s feisty and independent and confident and ambitious and everything America’s perception of women in Islamic country isn’t. She can speak six languages, has absolutely beautiful English that is being corrupted by our horrible American slang (we taught her the proper way usage of duh and the word doohickey today) and just got accepted into a graduate program in Fes. She can wear a pair of purple and green paisley parachute pants and make it work. Yesterday Jenn commented on how cute Fatima was and I agreed, saying that Fatima could hold a baby panda and still not be any cuter, that she has reached maximum cuteness. I’m really glad she’s my teacher.