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.


Mark said...

Duncan, Ishmael was a prophet. It seems they have bestowed an honor on you with the naming. Or perhaps they are just hoping to land a son-in-law! Careful who you talk to, Dad

LizzieD said...

Duncan... It's fascinating reading your blog! Thanks for the window into Moroccan life and into your Peace Corps experience. Hope you can keep writing posts, once you head to site.
Liz D