Saturday, March 28, 2009


My previous post discussed Berber tales. In my quest to find more stories, I stumbled into another cultural niche that I was unaware of: riddles. The following are riddles that people have told me.

A big truck, filled with watermelons, is driving down the road. Little by little, it comes upon a stretch in the road where there is lots of ice and snow. The driver is afraid to pass for fear that the truck will crash, ruining the watermelons. What does he do? (There are no watermelons during winter).

It is the evening before the day of l-Eid, so everyone is on the lookout for the new moon setting in the Western horizon (the new moon will signify that the next day is l-Eid). A man says that he saw the new moon while praying. How do we know he is lying? (The moon sets in the West. Muslims all over the world face Medina while they pray, which is to the East for Moroccans).

A man is walking down the road and he sees a dog in the middle of the road laying an egg. He is afraid to pass. What does he do? (Dogs don’t lay eggs).

There is an island that is close to the mainland. On the mainland sits a man. On the island there is a banana tree full of bananas. On the top of the tree there is a monkey. The man on the mainland wants to eat bananas. What does he do? (The man throws rocks at the monkey. The monkey will retaliate by throwing monkeys back).

A man is driving a truck very fast. Some cloth covering the bed of the truck suddenly comes forward on top of the windshield, blocking his view. What does he do? (The cloth couldn’t come forward if he was driving fast).

There is a wife and husband. The wife tells her husband to go bake bread. He does it. Why? (He is afraid that she will hit him with a stick).

A man is picking grapes from a grapevine above his head. Melting snow on the grapes is getting in his eyes, making it hard for him to work. What does he do? (There isn’t snow during grape harvest time).

There is a wife and husband. The husband is a midget and the wife is very tall. The husband is thirsty, so he asks his wife to pick him up and put him on top of the sink. Once on the sink, he drinks until he quenches his thirst. Then he picks up a pan and hits his wife with it, killing her. He cries. Why is he upset? (Because he can’t get down from the sink).

A man is driving down the road in a truck. The road winds along next to a large mountain. The man looks towards the mountain and sees a large rockslide falling down the mountainside, coming towards his truck. What does he do? (You only look forward while you are driving, so he couldn’t have seen the rockslide).

When you put water in the freezer, it turns solid, into ice. This is true for all liquids. What is the one thing that turns from liquid into solid when you put it in the oven? (An egg).

There is something that eats and eats and eats. It will eat anything. The more it eats, the bigger it gets. It cannot be satiated. However, if it drinks water, it will die. What is it? (Fire).

There is a river that a man wants to cross. However, he can’t because something will be ashamed. What will be ashamed? (His shoes, because they will get wet).

What is the one thing that can cross a river without getting wet? (A shadow).

Three people traveling come upon a river that they must cross. When they cross, one person sees the river and gets wet. One person sees the river, but does not get wet. And one does not see the river and does not get wet. How is this possible? (The first person is a pregnant woman who crosses the river. The second is the child the woman is carrying on her back. And the third is her unborn child).

What can send words without talking? (A letter).

A man is traveling with a fox, a sheep, and some grass. They come upon a river that they must cross. There is a boat, but it will only fit the man and one of his objects at a time. If the man leaves the fox with the sheep, it will eat the sheep. If the man leaves the sheep with the grass, it will eat the grass. What does he do? (He accompanies the sheep across the river. Leaves it there and returns. Next he takes the fox across, when he returns, he brings the sheep back. Then he takes the grass over, leaving it with the fox. He returns for the sheep).

There are three men and three women who want to cross a river. The boat can only fit two people at once. A woman cannot be in the presence of another man unless her husband is present (because the man will take advantage of her – this tidbit is unspoken, but assumed to be common knowledge). What is the solution? (Too complicated to explain. You need rocks or some objects to represent the men and women in order to figure out the puzzle).

A man is crossing the ocean with all of his things, animals, clothes, etc. The boat is filled to capacity; if the weight increases just the slightest bit, it will sink. His chicken lays an egg. Does the boat sink? Why or why not? (It doesn’t sink because the egg was already in the chicken, so the weight of the load doesn’t increase).

As you see, there is a wide variety of riddles. Some of them are legitimately difficult. Some are really easy. Some make no sense. I’ve been told others, but couldn’t remember them. Learning these riddles and telling them to other people once I’ve learned them is so much fun. People love them and the stories. I’m going to work on songs next, but those are harder. The song post might not be until summer, when wedding season is (and everyone sings songs).


I’m in the midst of my busiest time as a Peace Corps volunteer. I’ve had an activity every day for the past week and a half. And this coming week I’m going to Fes to help with an English camp. Every year the Youth Development volunteers put on week-long camps for junior high kids all over the country. Other volunteers come for the week to help with English and teach some lessons on their own. I’m going to be doing a HIV/AIDS club. It’s an English intensive class, so we only speak English, which will be nice.

I’m happy to have the work. Doing work with the Traditional Birth Attendants, HIV/AIDS education in schools, and a workshop for hammam (public bath) owners to convince them to convert to more efficient stoves. The only bummer is that a lot of the work takes me out of my site, so I haven’t been here as much as I like to be.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Berber Tall Tales

I’ve recently learned a number of Berber folk stories that I think you might enjoy. Please excuse the lewdness of some of the later stories. Also, let me say that it is impossible to capture that manner that these stories are told in spoken English, let alone written.

A hedgehog and a wolf go out to plow their field. The wolf is bigger so he makes the hedgehog work. He plows, he plows, he plows. It’s hot and the hedgehog is tired. Somehow (I believe they arranged it ahead of time) the hedgehog gets his brother (who is also a hedgehog) to drop rocks down upon the field from a nearby cliff (the wolf cannot see the brother hedgehog). The hedgehog plowing the field tells the wolf to go over to cliff and see if he can hold the cliff side up and prevent it from falling down. The wolf goes over and supports the cliff with his back, but the rocks keep falling down. So the wolf tells the hedgehog plowing the field to hold the cliff up while he plows the field. When the hedgehog puts his back to the cliff (which is in the shade, mind you), his brother stops dropping the rocks. The hedgehog stays at the side of the cliff while the wolf plows the field.

In another hedgehog story, a hedgehog is playing a hand drum by the side of a well. He plays, he plays, he plays. After a little bit, he falls in the well. But he keeps playing the drum at the bottom of the well and many animals gather at the mouth of the well. The hedgehog tells them all to come in the well so they can play the drum together and have a party. So all the animals jump in the well. After a little while, the animals are hungry and can’t leave the well. They start eating each other. After a few days, all that is left is the hedgehog and a lion. They’re tired and about to go to sleep. The hedgehog tells the lion, “When I was a little boy, my father used to throw me straight up into the air to help me fall asleep. Could you do that?” So the lion throws the hedgehog up in the air. “A little higher” says the hedgehog. The lion throws the hedgehog up again. “Just a little higher?” The third time, the lion throws the hedgehog high enough in the air that he can grab the lip of the well and climb out. The lion dies of hunger.

A hedgehog and a wolf are walking along a path, the hedgehog in front. The hedgehog sees a trap in the path, so he pauses. He tells the wolf, “Uncle wolf, you are bigger. Why don’t you take the lead in case we meet something dangerous?” The wolf says no at first, but then agrees. He walks a little ways and gets caught in the trap. The hedgehog walks on. (After these hedgehog stories, someone invariably says, “hedgehogs are smart, aren’t they?” I don’t argue.)

There is no story behind this, but there is a mythical creature called a “taharir.” It is female and extremely ugly. It has four teeth: two on top and two on bottom. It’s top teeth reach down to its chin and the bottom ones above its eyes. It has the legs of a cow. It eats the flesh of men if they venture into the forest, but is afraid of light. Hilariously, the name of this animal is very similar to a soup that is served commonly during Ramadan. The ignorant foreigner is thus the source of hilarity until someone fills him in on the fact that he isn’t asking for soup.

Blackbirds make their cawing sound because they are trying to throw up money that they have swallowed.

A poor man wants to slaughter something for the coming holiday. An important guest is coming, so he has to have some meat to give him. However, he has no money, so he slaughters a mouse. The mouse is cooked and placed on top of couscous (the normal spot for meat) and served for dinner. When the guest sees the mouse on top of his couscous, he says “Sub” (which is what you say to animals to make them run away). The mouse wakes up and runs away, into the host’s herd of sheep (why he didn’t slaughter one of his sheep I don’t know). The sheep are scared of the mouse, so they scatter and run away, lost forever. The noises you hear at night are the sound of this man vainly calling for his sheep.

A very poor man has no food to eat. He goes to the field every day and eats grass like an animal. However, the King is coming to the community the next day. The Caid (local government official) is worried that the King will see the man and not like the situation. So the Caid goes to the poor man and gives him 1,000 Dhs ($130, a lot of money for a community like ours) and tells him not to eat the grass in the field. The next day the King comes and sees the community and approves. The following day the poor man returns to the field and eats grass.

Now start the sex stories. If you’d like to skip them, consider yourself forewarned. They aren’t explicit.

A male bird and a male frog are lonely. The bird suggests to the frog that they have sex. The frog is skeptical at first, but then gives in. The bird wants to go first, but the frog convinces the frog to let him go first. When they finish, the bird says, “Now it’s my turn.” But the frog jumps in the river and gets away.

A family of three approaches a rich man about buying his cow. The man says, “I have enough money, so there is no amount of money you can give me. Instead, I would like to have sex with you (speaking to the husband/father of the family).” So he has sex with him. Then he says, “If you want me to give you my cow, you will let me have sex with your wife.” So he has sex with the wife/mother. Then he says, “Finally, I will have sex with your son.” So he has sex with the son. Then he tells the family that they cannot have the cow.

A man and his friend stand at the entrance of a prostitution hotel 15 stories high. Each story of the building has a girl in it and a light illuminating the room. The man tells his friend that he will visit every story of the building and when he is finished with each girl, he will turn the light off to let his friend know that he has finished. Little by little, after all the lights have been turned off, the friend sees the man on the roof of the hotel, masturbating. He shouts at him, “What are you doing?” The man says, “I am trying to turn off the moon.”

That’s it. I will continue to ask about these stories because I think they’re interesting. People love telling me these stories and love it even more if I can tell one that I know. The stories probably say something about the culture, but I will let you readers do your own analyses. There are also tons of songs that have interesting lyrics. And people have been telling me riddles too. I will try to collect them and post them.


My updates are starting to get repetitive. Everything is well. Work is going well, but slowly. The weather is nice. Despite my trip home looming on the near horizon, time is passing quickly. One new thing is that I’ve started studying Arabic seriously – a teacher at the local school is teaching me. Another new thing is that I’m spending less and less time in my community. My work is drawing me away from my site. I’m glad to have the work and be busier, but I don’t like being away from my community so much.

Another volunteer and I recently took a trip to one of my outer douars (28km) to visit with a woman who attended our traditional birth attendant (TBA) training. One striking thing about the trip was that the truck ride from our souq town (Tounfite) to the town (about 50 km) took five hours. The road is terrible. So these people are completely isolated. The other notable thing about the trip was our work with the TBA. We helped her lead an informational session with local women so she could pass on the knowledge that she learned at the training. It went OK, but there are lots of cultural things that we struggled with. Unfortunately, people don’t think they can learn anything form an illiterate woman like the TBA. And there isn’t any precedent for public education in this form, so people didn’t know what to make of it. The workshop emphasized the long-term view that one needs to take in order to see success for this project.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Culture of Dependency

I’ve always been in favor of the redistribution of wealth, but so my experiences in Peace Corps are changing that attitude some.

Before I came here, the argument that aid and government charity was pernicious because it created a culture of dependency seemed like a lame excuse. I just didn’t get why it was a problem. Saying that people needed to ‘pick themselves up by their bootstraps’ seemed unrealistic and insensitive. But seeing aid in action puts a different spin on the issue.

As a Westerner in a developing country, I’m constantly asked to give things away. People assume that Peace Corps and I have lots of money and that I want to give it to them. From time to time I hear a reasonable proposal for a project, but mostly people suggest things that involve lots of money for something that they can take care of themselves.

Three examples: First, there are many old, military towers in town from the days of French colonization that are starting to fall down. Someone suggested to me that my association pay to have them restored. Although this sort of project is not priority, I asked the guy more about what he was thinking; what the village would need to do the project. Since the buildings are made of mud and straw and dirt, I asked what materials they would need. None. So what is the money for? The guy thought that my association would pay people in my village the cost of labor to repair the buildings. This is a project that the community could easily do themselves, but they want someone to pay them to do it. Second, people have suggested that I figure out a way to lower the cost of running water in our town. People in my town currently pay about 5 Dhs per month (less than a dollar) for water, which is affordable. If they really can’t afford it, there are several springs in close proximity where they can gather water. The cost of this project, to gather water from a far spring and pipe it to our water tower, would cost some where in the neighborhood of 30,000,000 Dhs. In order to recoup the cost of the project in money saved from the water bill, it would take some 8,000 years. So it’s not a great use of funds. Finally, having nearly completed a project involving money with a local community leader, he said to me, “Give some more money.” I said, “For what?” He said, “I don’t know.”

I’ve done toothbrush and toothpaste distribution in my community and other nearby communities and I always feel a little bad about it. The cost of the toothbrush and toothpaste is really small and if people felt that dental hygiene was a priority, they could afford it. Why should I be paying for healthiness of someone else’s teeth when they can afford it? Since I mostly give toothbrushes to kids, who actually can’t afford it, I justify the practice to myself. I hope that having toothbrushes (accompanied by dental hygiene education) helps them see the benefit of dental hygiene and encourages long-term behavior change.

Food aid is irregularly given to my community by a Moroccan governmental organization. A truck pulls up in the center of town and everyone lines up to get their share. The sad part to me is that people take a) what they can afford themselves and even b) what they don’t even like. My host family took a bunch of macaroni noodles on two separate occasions. Both times they realized they didn’t like them and gave them to me. People ask me why I don’t line up with the rest of the community to get my share of food aid. I say that I have no need for it, but this is not a convincing argument for them.

Having people constantly ask others and me for foreigners makes me wonder what this begging does to their dignity. How does your self image change when you are constantly asking others for handouts?

Beyond the question of dignity, this culture of dependency prevents people from making positive changes in their community that they have do have control over. The repair of old buildings in my community is one example. Another, more important problem is the environmental one that I have discussed in past posts. Protecting the land is something that the community is entirely capable of: they have been able to survive here for hundreds of years without stressing the land. It is the increase in wealth and population that has put stress on the land. The community has abandoned previous conservation methods in favor of getting the most out of the land in the short-term. Even with the Moroccan government offering to pay the community to reforest the land, it is not enough. The solutions that I’ve heard to the land problem all involve outside organizations giving massive amounts of money. They want someone else to fix their problems, even though they are capable of fixing those problems themselves.

It’s a tough question that doesn’t have an easy answer. Peace Corps’ solution is to build the capacity of the people and the institutions here to help themselves. To empower people and give them confidence. I guess that is really the only reasonable solution. I really like projects like the traditional birth attendant training that we did because they build capacity and help people be self-sufficient. I have doubts about projects like toothbrush distribution because they reinforce the expectation of handouts. There is no community contribution. The only positive is that, hopefully, the kids learn to brush their teeth.

This is a big question that I won’t be able to answer on this blog or anywhere else. Considering that I think about working for organizations like USAID as a job, it has important implications for my career.


Every week spring becomes more apparent. The fields are green now and the trees are starting to bud. Thank God.

Having the date of my vacation to the United States (May 1) draw closer is making it hard not to count the days. I’m looking forward to it greatly.

My work is going pretty well, despite the above musings. I’ve gotten to a nice point in my service where my comfort level in my community has increased significantly. Before, I always looked forward to the days that I would leave my community and go to Tounfite, where there is Internet and Americans to talk to. I still look forward to that, but I no longer take any excuse to make the trip. I’m happy enough here and have developed enough of a routine that I can pass the time. Although I still have lots of free time, it has decreased and I wish I had more (earlier in my service I had far too much time). I’ve started staying up later because I can’t get everything that I want to done. I hear about excuses to take a big trip with other volunteers and realize that I would prefer to stay here. This weekend, a number of volunteers will be gathering for a St. Patrick’s Day party some 6 hours from here. It’s nice to realize that I would rather stay here in my community than make that trip.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Hammam

For those of you who don’t know, a hammam is a public bath. Many houses don’t have their own baths, so the hammam is an important part of Moroccan life.

The hammam in Tounfite (my market town) is open in the mornings for men and afternoons for women. There are some hammams that are big enough that they are open all day for both sexes, but not ours. There is no public hammam in my village – some families have small private hammams.

The first room in the hammam is the changing room. There are benches, cubbies, and hooks to hang your clothes. Men strip down to their underwear, grab a few buckets, and enter the warmer rooms of the hammam. Most hammams have three washing rooms, of varying warmth. The innermost room is the warmest as it normally has the hot water taps and is closest to the fire.

I always go directly to the innermost room and fill up my buckets with hot water. An important ritual is splashing hot water on the space of the floor that you will sit on before you sit down to wash. After I have my water and have cleaned the floor, I take a seat and relax.

The hammam in Tounfite is, relative to other hammams, not very warm. It’s not anywhere near as warm as a sauna in the United States. Nonetheless, it’s very comfortable and relaxing. I normally just sit and relax for a while before I begin washing. I have fallen asleep in a hammam before.

The traditional way of washing is to apply a special soap and let it sit for 10 minutes. Then you take a very rough mitt and scrub your whole body. The idea is to scrub and scrape your body hard enough to remove all the dead skin. I’ve seen people scrape layers of skin off. It’s kind of disgusting. For the hard to reach areas, people often get someone else to scrub them. Skin is often red after the scrubbing. Then you lather up with some normal soap and rinse off. Men often shave in the hammam as well.

Another interesting aspect of the hammam is the communal stretching that takes place. Given the warm atmosphere, the hammam is a nice place to do stretching. I often stretch as well. But the communal stretching in the hammams takes it to a whole other level. Body parts intertwine to create enough leverage to really stretch. There is often loud grunting coming from the stretchee as his body is contorted into positions I never thought possible. It’s difficult to describe the positions attained by the people stretching each other, but imagine joints bent at angles previously unattained and the body parts of one man indistinguishable from those of his stretching partner. If stretching were an Olympic event, this is what it would look like.

Although I haven’t experienced this aspect of the hammam, for women the hammam is a very social place. Men exchange some greetings, but there isn’t a lot of talking (hard to hear one another over the grunting coming from your stretching neighbors). From what I hear, however, women spend a lot of their time in the hammam talking. In Moroccan society, there are fewer (or no) public spaces where women can socialize, so I imagine that the hammam is a good excuse for women to get out of the house and meet with other women for a few hours. The hammam actually charges women more (6 dirhams compared with 5 for men) because they spend longer there. I’ve heard of women who come to the hammam at 1 o’clock and don’t leave until 5.

All told, the hammam is an essential Moroccan experience. It’s warm and clean – what more could you ask for?


My 73 year old host dad has many illnesses, but one that troubles him the most is arthritis (at least I think it’s arthritis – he describes it by saying that his hands are closed). A traditional healer recently came to town and so my host dad went to see him. I’m pretty sure my host dad has never seen a certified doctor about his problems.

The treatment for my host dad’s illnesses (and many other illnesses) is a light burning. The healer took a hot piece of metal and burnt my host dad on three different places on his right arm. Back at the house, he had to stay inside for seven days to ensure the effectiveness of the treatment. During those seven days, he could only eat bread, tea, and eggs. Guests were not supposed to come over and generally my host dad was instructed to relax.

The seventh day was Friday the 27th. On Sunday the 1st, my host dad went to the mountain with our mule to collect branches. He was still feeling tired, but the animals needed food to eat. My host mom and I were hanging out at the house in the afternoon/evening, waiting for him to come back so we could eat dinner. He has to wait until late in the afternoon to return because the activity is illegal. But he was much later than normal in returning. It was dark outside. So my host mom and I went looking for him along the road. My host mom was really freaking out, worrying that he had died up in the mountains or there was some other catastrophe. I was a little worried as well. We ended up finding him 5 kilometers from home slowly leading the mule back. Apparently the mule had gotten away from him and he had a tough time tracking it down. He was exhausted. My host mom walked the mule the rest of the way home and I walked back with my host dad. The entire time he kept saying, “I’m tired, I’m tired.” We were walking really slowly. We got back to the house OK, but it was a worrying experience.

Other than that, all is well. The weather has gotten a little cold again, but nothing bad. My work is going well. The most exciting project is currently trying to do some HIV/AIDS education in a nearby city/town. I’ve also recently decided that I need to learn Arabic in order to improve my effectiveness. Tamazight is not the favored language once I leave my little mountain community and I’m often constrained by not speaking Arabic. Plus, I am illiterate in the operative language of the country. Fortunately, I already know a good deal of Arabic from studying in school and the overlap between Tamazight and Arabic, but I hope to get a tutor and get serious about learning the language.