Friday, April 25, 2008

Site Announcement

Site Announcement

Last night we had our site announcements – so we found out a little about what our lives are going to be like for the next two years.
I can’t say the exact name of my town, but the nearest biggish town is called Tounfite. For those of you too lazy to Google Earth Tounfite (which I recommend) it’s in the Eastern High Atlas.
What do I know about my site? Well it’s isolated. The closest big city is Fes, which is maybe 800 km north as the crow flies from my site. It will probably take me all day long to travel there.
The nearest volunteers are a married couple about 28 km away. They’re environment volunteers, which I am very excited about. I think that the environment sector does cool work, so hopefully I will be able to coordinate with them on projects. Also, all environment volunteers are placed close to national parks, so I will be near one. The nearest health volunteers are two of my close friends here at training, so that’s nice. However, close is a relative term – I’m guessing it will take 5 or 6 hours to travel to their sites.
My site is also pretty cold. One of the PC staff had photos from my site, taken in October. There was quite a bit of snow on the ground. I’m up in the mountains, so there will be snow a couple feet deep for much of the winter.
My host family is just a husband and wife, so much different from my previous host family. They’re farmers and relatives of one of the PC staff. She says that they’re nice people and that my host mom is an excellent cook.
How do I feel? I’m excited. It’s pretty much what I asked for. There’s a lot of work to do at the sites (in particular installing latrines) and it’s a beautiful place where I can do lots of hiking. It’s a site that’s never had a volunteer, so that will be a little challenging, but a good kind of challenging. I’m pretty isolated from other volunteers, which will definitely make life difficult at times. But that will just give me more incentive to get to know my community really well.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Su Attayj, Tsh Arom and Gender According to the PC

Su Attayj, Tsh Arom! (Drink Tea, Eat Bread!)

Peace be upon you. Is everything well? I am well, thanks to God.
“Su attayj” and “tsh arom” are the four words that I hear more than any other from my host family, God bless them. When I’m at their house, I eat constantly, as God has provided for us. Breakfast is at 7 and it consists of bread, jam, olive oil, coffee and/or tea and this soup called askif, which is a delicious barley-based concoction. I go to school and we have a snack break at 10 o’clock where we get bread, jam, olive oil, and tea. Lunch is around 12:30 and is normally the best meal of the day, thanks to God. There’s a more variety at lunch, and my favorite dish is a tajine with some potatoes, carrots, zucchini and apricots. Four o’clock rolls around and we get served more bread, tea, and some peanuts.
We get out of language class at around 6:30 or 7 and I go home and hang out with my host family. I normally chill with my host mom, may God bless her parents, and she always serves me tea and maybe some eggs or lentils (accompanied by bread, of course). There’s another pre-dinner serving of tea at around 9 o’clock, God providing. Dinner is almost always couscous, topped with unripened figs, green beans, and some meat. The most typical meat that we get is this cow stomach/intestine, which is not my favorite. Dinner’s normally accompanied by this really sour buttermilk, which they call aro. The first time I had it I really didn’t like it, but it’s grown on me. We normally have a fresh fruit desert: oranges, melons, apples, or bananas.
The point I’m trying to get across is that my host family, may God help them, feeds me a lot. I’m always full, but there’s always more food in front of me. I’m getting better at declining food, but my host mom, God bless her, always guilts me when I turn stuff down. It’s definitely a point of pride for my family to feed me well; they tell me that I’m eating better than the volunteers in other houses.
Another issue is the tea. Moroccan tea is extremely sweet and caffeinated. Constant tea breaks are a part of the culture, which leads to some dental hygiene issues. Another problem is that it really affects my energy level. Some days I can feel myself crashing half an hour after drinking tea. So I need to get better at turning it down, God willing.

Gender and Morocco, According to the Peace Corps

We get a lot of “cross cultural” sessions during training where Peace Corps staff (who are Moroccan), tell us about what to expect from Moroccan culture. For some reason, the staff exaggerates some of the negative aspects of the culture, specifically gender roles.
For instance, we were told that Moroccan girls in the countryside would be very lucky to go to school past elementary school. Since small towns frequently don’t have a middle school or high school in them, advancing a kid past elementary school means putting him/her up another village, which is costly. So families tend to only spend money on boys. But a girl in my family, who is about 14, lives with her aunt in the nearby city so that she can go to school. Also, one of my host sisters is studying at the university in Rabat.
We were also told that girls would never be allowed to support the family by earning money in a paid job. Supposedly it’s some sort of pride thing on the part of the males: that they must be the breadwinners in the house. It also has to do with not allowing the women any independence. However, three of my host sisters work in big cities: two in Casablanca and one in Marrakech. They send money home to support the family. Also, my other host sisters who are living at home help run the family business: a teleboutique.
Peace Corps staff aren’t the only ones who exaggerate gender differences. A favorite refrain among volunteers is that Moroccan men don’t do any work. The women work in the fields and take care of the household while the men just sit around. It’s definitely true that there are some older men who don’t do much. They sit at the wall of waloo (wall of nothing) and just hang out.
On the other hand, there are men who do a lot of work. Five of the men in my family are living in Casablanca and Marrakech, working and sending money home. Men that don’t go work in the big city are often day laborers. They go to the closest big city everyday and do construction or other manual labor jobs. But from listening to volunteers, you would think that the men do nothing. One girl in my training group is especially vocal about how her host family does nothing. It’s true that her Dad sits around for most of the day. But what she doesn’t notice is that three of her host brothers go to K’lah everyday and work in construction.
So we hear a lot of these false generalizations about Morocco. I’m not trying to say that Morocco is a place of gender equality – it’s not. All the women in my family wear the headscarf and show deference to the men. And there’s no denying that they do work hard. But why do staff and volunteers exaggerate the gender inequalities? I think that there is a desire to paint a picture of Morocco as a backwards country. Maybe (and I’m guessing here) by thinking of Morocco as a broken country, volunteers legitimize their two-year commitment to trying to fix it.

Update and Pics
I just got back from another week with my host family. I’m getting a little more comfortable with the language, which means I’m able to have less superficial interactions with the family. They’re great.
The other big news is that we find out our site (where we’ll be living and working for the next two years) tomorrow, which is pretty exciting. Then on Saturday we go and have a week long visit at our site. I’ll write another entry before I go.

Cutest Kid Ever? If only he didnt sneeze and cough all over me.

My training group in native garb.

Town river valley and two brothers.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Quick Update and Photos


Reading over my last entry, I realized that it gives a negative impression of my experience with my host family. I’d like to correct that. Other than the one issue, it’s been an amazing time. The family is extremely generous and welcoming to me. They’re also very understanding of my language and cultural deficiencies. They like to spend time with me and engage me in conversation, even if it mostly involves hand gestures and other charades. And they always make a point of saying that I am not just a guest, but a member of the family.

I’ve finally gotten around to uploading my pictures. Unfortunately, the connection at the Internet cafes is very slow, so it takes a long time to get them up, which is why I didn’t post more. Hopefully they dont look as bad on your computer as they do on mine. Let me know about the quality.

This is a picture of us on our field trip, near Tata. As you can tell, it’s the desert.

My host family in the “living room/dining room,” where we spend most of our time. A lot of the family was missing for the picture.

My CBT group in our site, near Klah. As you can tell, it’s very beautiful.

Near our site.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Call Me Ishmael

Call Me Ishmael

My host family had a difficult time saying my name, so they renamed me “Sma3een.” Apparently it is the Arabic equivalent of Ishmael.
I just got back from my second week with my host family. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the first time I was there they were very busy with l-3id holiday and a celebration for the recovery of my host brother. This time, there were fewer people in the house (15-18) and it wasn’t as hectic. (By the way, the character “3” represents an “A” sound that is similar to the sound you make when you imitate sheep).
Overall, it was a very positive experience, but there was one uncomfortable aspect. I have two host sisters, who are anywhere between 16 and 25 years old. They’re both very nice and they’re about the only ones in the family who understand that I’ll comprehend more of what they’re saying if they speak slower. The only problem is that my host mom wants me to marry one of them – either one, she doesn’t care. She was pretty insistent one night and it was difficult to politely, but firmly, say “no,” especially since my language is so limited. “Nttat uttma” (she is my sister). I think they eventually got the message and I had no problems after that night.
The ongoing saga led to an interesting discussion about gender roles and sending the wrong messages. Generally speaking, my impression is that much more subtle behaviors are interpreted as expressions of romantic interest in Morocco. For example, our language teacher suggested that the mother thought that I was interested in marrying her daughters because I was speaking to them. Also, we were told by Moroccan Peace Corps staff that it is considered very scandalous for an unmarried man and woman to be alone in a room together.
On the other hand, these generalizations about the conservative nature of Moroccan culture aren’t always apt. My host family, for instance, is very relaxed about all kinds of social interactions. Every evening after class, my host mom invites me up to the living space by her room where I hang out with her and maybe one or two others. We have tea while she quizzes me on the names of my host family members and the names of objects in the room. It’s a very informal atmosphere. We were told that women would very rarely pray in front of men and especially not a guest, but her and others in my family don’t hesitate to break out their prayer rugs and pray in front of me. The younger girls in my family (8-12 years old) wear headscarves like all the other girls in the village, but in the home they are very casual about taking them on and off in front of me and other men. My speculation is that my host family is more informal about this kind of stuff because my host dad is so relaxed. My feeling is that the patriarch of the family sets the tone about what is and isn’t acceptable and he is pretty cool about what goes on in his family.
So it’s an interesting challenge to try and figure out what is appropriate and what isn’t. If I went by Peace Corps generalizations about Moroccan culture, I would be way too uptight and limited in my interactions. But if I use my American standards, I’m sure to offend someone. Given the narrow line I’m trying to walk, I’m sure I’ve made some mistakes that I’m unaware of. (For example, I had been putting on chapstick in front of my family until someone told me that doing so was sexually suggestive). But luckily, humdulillah, (thanks to God) I think my host family is pretty understanding and forgiving. They’re pretty much amazed when I successfully make a pot of tea.
Language and General Update

Other than that, the other big issue is, unsurprisingly, learning the language. It’s tough. I think I know somewhere between 500-800 words now, which is pretty good. But just because I know those words when I look at them on a flashcard doesn’t mean I understand when my host mom spits them out at a hundred miles per hour. So it’s a process. Luckily, Tamazight is a relatively simple language in terms of grammatical structure. To quickly explain, you conjugate verbs almost identically no matter the tense of the verb, with a word before the verb to signify the tense. For example, “he went:” “ntta iddu,” “he goes:” “ntta da itddu,” and “he will go:” “ntta ad iddu.” The big obstacle is the sounds that unfamiliar to my ear.
Other news is that I’m able to make a good guess about where I’m going to be placed once I start my service. I’m probably going to be in the mid or high atlas in a remote (even for Peace Corps) village. I’ll probably be the first health volunteer in my village (there is normally a three volunteer cycle in each village). If I’m lucky, I’ll be in the same site as an environment volunteer, which would be nice because we could collaborate on projects. Another benefit to being placed with an environment volunteer is that they are all placed nearby national parks, so I’d be in a beautiful place. I’ll get final word on my placement on April 25th, inshalllah (God willing).
Alright, I’m signing off, hope all is well back home.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Handicapped People In Morocco

Handicapped People In Morocco

One health issue in Morocco is the prevalence of handicapped people, both mental and physical. Amongst some Moroccans, it is believed that the disability is a punishment from God. Some say that if the people are sinful, their children will be handicapped. Thus, (not unlike the States) there is a lot of stigma attached to being handicapped. Disabled people are often treated poorly and ignored. As a health education volunteer, its something that I hope to address. Recently, a current volunteer came to our training to tell about her experience with the handicapped in her village. Her story is amazing:
After a few months in her village, one family asked “Laura” to come to their house to help them. When she arrived at the house, Laura was ushered down into the basement, where there was a door locked from the outside. The mother of the house opened the door, which exposed a dark room. Laura couldn’t see anything inside the room, but the mother was motioning for her to go inside. She was a little afraid, so she stayed outside the room. As her eyes adjusted to the light, she noticed a head move inside the room. Eventually, she realized that there was a person in the room who was chained to a pillar in the center. Scared, Laura immediately left the house.
Laura spoke to the family a couple days later after she’d recovered from the shock. It turned out that the family had put their brother down into the basement because he had been uncontrollably violent. At one time, he had prescription medicine that controlled his violence, but the prescription ran out and the family was unable to afford more medicine. So, fifteen years ago, they chained the brother to a pillar in the basement, where he remained until Laura saw him.
Hoping to do something about the situation, Laura talked to the regional delegué of the Ministry of Health and told him what she had seen and heard. The delegué said that the Ministry could provide the medicine free of charge, but that someone would have to pick it up. Laura organized the delivery and the brother has been getting medication for the past six months. He is now walking around the village with no problems. Talk about going above and beyond the call of duty.

Quick Update

We’ve been back in Ouarzazate since Saturday, getting lectured at a lot and doing some language training. The conference room setting, where we have most of our sessions, is getting quite frustrating. We sit in this room for hours a day, listening to power point presentations. Some of the talking points are useful, but anything important is diluted by tons of extraneous information and always delivered with the help of oft-repeated buzzwords. Patience and flexibility.
Fortunately, we’re going back to CBT on Saturday. My Tamazight skills are coming a long little by little, so I’m excited to see how well I can communicate with my family. At this point, I “know” a few hundred words when I see them on a flashcard, but who knows if I’ll be able to recognize the words when they are spoken to me by a local. I’m looking forward to it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Nations Without States and One Month Down, Only 26 To Go (But Who’s Counting?)

Instead of simply recounting my adventures, I’m going to try and write some entries that are a bit more analytical and not just about me. I’m in academic withdrawal right now, so this is my coping strategy. Unfortunately, Peace Corps censors what I can and can’t write, so I can’t be completely honest. If you find these posts boring and verbose, you can always skip down to the next sub-topic, as I’ll try to include the typical journal sort of entry as well.

Nations Without States

I’ll preface this post by saying that I just read an article in Foreign Affairs (thanks Dad) by Jerry Muller called “The Clash of Peoples.” Essentially, Muller’s argument is that the violence of World War II ethnically homogenized states within Europe (especially Western Europe). Through emigration and genocide, each European state developed its own ethnic identity. Muller argues that this homogeneity is the reason for the peace on the continent in the past 60 years. Then Muller says that this time of peace and prosperity will be threatened in the near future by immigrant communities (from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, etc), which will degrade this vital homogeneity. I found the article to be simplistic and kind of obvious. Immigration from the Middle East and Africa into Europe is going to cause ethnic tension? Really? Nonetheless, it got me thinking about ethnic heterogeneity within a state and what it means. In the States, we sort of take it for granted and don’t (or at least I don’t) think of the United States as having multiple “nations.” But it’s interesting and important elsewhere.
For the non-political scientists, let me quickly define my terms. In Benedict Anderson’s words, a nation is an “imagined community.” Basically a group of people that feel a common connection based upon ethnicity, language, religion, culture, history or whatever. A state is the actual governmental structure and institutions. There are many places in the world where multiple nations (united groups of people) exist within a single state.
As many of you know, before I came to Morocco I spent three months in Spain. Towards the end of my time in Spain, I spent about a week in the Basque country in the North of the country and five days in Catalonia. When I was in Barcelona (Catalonia), I saw a huge Catalonia independence parade. Some people in Catalonia feel that they have a distinct history and culture from the rest of Spain and that, because of this unique identity, they deserve their own governmental institutions; they deserve their own state.
In the Basque country, there is a similar sentiment. Although the movement is not as likely to succeed in the Basque country, it is still very strong. I was fortunate enough to spend much of my time with a Basque family who were very open about their feelings on Basque identity.
The Basque people have recorded history that dates back to somewhere around 1000 A.D. Prior to the Castillan Empire (what we think of as Spanish); the Basque people developed their own governmental structures. They have unique history, culture, traditions and language. One note on the language: it’s actually the oldest language in Europe and is completely distinct from Spanish. Sometime ago (don’t really know when and can’t Wikipedia it right now) the Basques were conquered by the Castillans. The Castillan Empire became what we know to day as Spain.
When I was staying with the Basque family, they took me to a Basque history museum. The museum (coincidentally, it was located in Guernica, the site of Nazi WWII air raids and the subject of Picasso’s famous painting) was situated on the site of the first meeting of Basque leaders of different clans. They met regularly under an Oak tree, which is preserved. Within the museum, there are many examples of Basque culture from sports to music to dancing. The message of the museum is obvious: we formed our own government and culture 1000 years ago – we’re not Spanish.
I realize this is dragging on, so I’ll move on and try to be more succinct. Here in Morocco, there is a similar situation. The Amazigh (commonly known as Berbers) people have been here for thousands of years. They’ve persisted despite invasions by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, the French and others. Like the Basque people, they have a unique culture, history and language. Like the Basque people, they are ruled by people of a different ethnic heritage. Yet there are many differences between the two situations.
Like I said, the Basque language is completely different from Spanish. However, the Amazigh people use many Arabic (and French) words in their vocabulary. Most evident to someone who barely speaks the language are the greetings and god phrases, which are peppered with the same “salaam walakums, bi heirs, and bismillahs” that you hear throughout the Arab world. Much of the everyday vocabulary, particularly food, is also the same. One interesting side note: although it is not commonly used, there is a unique Tamazight (the language of the Amazigh people) alphabet. Tamazight is almost entirely a spoken language and even in places where Tamazight is the primary language, you won’t find any signs in the Tamazight alphabet. However, there is a sort of Amazigh pride movement that tries to increase awareness of Amazigh uniqueness by teaching the Tamazight alphabet.
Another important difference is the Amazigh attitude towards the Moroccan state. Nearly every household that I enter has a picture of the King. The King visited the small village that I visited this past weekend and apparently everyone waited hours for a glimpse of his motorcade as he drove by. As far as I can tell in my one month in Morocco, there is no Amazigh independence movement. This is a stark contrast to the independence movement within the Basque country, made notorious by ETA.
One final difference is the concentration of the indigenous population. In Spain, the Basque people virtually all live in one province (as far as I know). In Morocco, however, the Amazigh people live throughout the country. Although there are higher concentrations in the rural mountain and desert areas, many live and work in the big cities as well. I can’t cite this statistic and it might be completely wrong, but someone told me that 80% of Moroccans have some Amazigh heritage, due to this diffusion of the people throughout the country. Perhaps this lack of concentration is one explanation for the different attitudes towards the state between the Basque and Amazigh peoples.
That’s all I’ve got for now – I’m not going to draw any conclusions. In fact, I’d probably be in trouble with the Peace Corps if I did. I wanted to layout this parallel because I find it interesting and hopefully informative. The issue of national identity and representation within the state has always been important, but perhaps more so now. Will interaction between different nations within the same state cause conflict? What lessons can we learn from success stories of different ethnic groups living within the same state? If this topic interests you, feel free to respond and ask questions. I’m sure I got some things wrong; so don’t be afraid to correct me. Finally, I want to say that my experiences in the Basque country and in Morocco are very limited, so I’m by no means an expert and my opinions are subject to change.

One Month Down, Only 26 To Go (But Who’s Counting?)
Everyone in my training stage keeps saying, “I can’t believe we’ve been here for only a month – it feels like five months.” I have to keep quiet when I hear this because, for me, the time has been flying by. We’re busy all the time and constantly having new experiences, so I don’t understand where they’re coming from.
For example, the past few days I’ve been on “field trip.” With two other trainees, I spent four days with a PC volunteer named Aaron. I’m not supposed to say exactly where we were, but we were about 1.5 hours west and south of the city of Tata. If you find this area on the map, you may notice that IT’S IN THE DESERT. It’s also very close to the Algerian border. Unsurprisingly, it was hot. We saw a thermometer that read 38 degrees Celsius, which translates to around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And that was on March 27th. Aaron, who has been in his site for about 10 months now, told us that last summer the daytime temperature in July and August would get up to 140 and sometimes 150 degrees. Insane. And they have legit sandstorms there, where everyone just stays in their house for the whole day because you can’t go out.
Before I go any further, many thanks to Aaron for being a good host.
It was really good to go out and get an idea of the sort of work that I’ll be doing once I swear in. Aaron is also a health education volunteer and his main project thus far has been getting a well dug and the water piped into his village. As you might imagine, there is water “issue” at his site. Aaron didn’t do any work on the well while we were there, but he did run a dental hygiene training for 10-12 year olds. The combination of sugary tea and little teeth brushing leads to dental problems for many rural Moroccans, so dental hygiene is a big issue.
Another nice part about the visit was getting to see Aaron interact with his community. First, he’s able to interact because his language is good, which is encouraging. Also, he’s made many strong connections within his community and people genuinely like and respect him. So it was good to see that it is possible to be an effective volunteer.
That’s enough for now. I’ll be amazed if anyone even made it this far. Hope all is well back home and I can’t believe I’m missing March Madness. I think UNC is my pick. Also, I finally started taking pictures. I’ll get around to posting them at some point.