I am nearing the end of one of my best weeks in Morocco. I’m in Fes for an annual Peace Corps youth camp. All over the country, volunteers from a different sector (they work with boarding schools in bigger towns) put on an English camp for Moroccan youth (14-17 years old). Volunteers from other sectors come to the camp to help out.
I was assigned to the Fes camp. I’ve never been to Fes before, even though it’s not too far from me and it’s one of the most famous cities in Morocco. After this week here, I will definitely be coming back to the city.
Before I get into gushing about how wonderful Fes is, let me first say that I am very happy to be in my tiny mountain village. I love the people there and I and if I had to choose a place to live for two years (in Morocco) this would be the place. I wouldn’t want to live in Fes and do this kind of work all the time.
That said, Fes is great. The people here wonderful. It’s a huge culture shock to be in this city; everything is so different. People are educated, open, and cosmopolitan. It feels like a different country. The language is different (Arabic, not Berber), people dress different, and people are wealthy. It has more in common with America than it does with my village.
Working with the kids at this camp is the most rewarding part. They are smart, engaged, and open. In addition to teaching English, I’m responsible for leading an HIV/AIDS and STI “club.” We meet for a couple hours a day to talk about these issues. In my village, it’s very difficult to talk about such sensitive issues, but here the kids are eager to talk about it. I am learning from them as much as I am teaching. I put a lot of time into preparing for the lessons. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be able to keep up with them. They have questions for me after class! So far the defining moment of the class was when a boy was explaining to the class that he would wait to marriage to have sex for religious reasons. When he finished speaking, a girl said, “That’s not possible! Every guy has sex before marriage – and so do most girls!” That may not be shocking to American readers, but coming from my village, it was astounding. Another amazing moment was the condom demonstration that I led. After I showed people how to do it, a girl came up and demonstrated for the rest of the class.
The girls at this camp are in love with me. And they are not afraid to show it. They flirt openly. One asked me, “So which of the girls at this camp do you think is the most beautiful?” When they talk to me, they touch my arms. It’s just how 14-17 year old American girls would act around a 23-year-old guy. It made me uncomfortable at first because it was so different from what I’m used to.
Most of the kids in the camp have girlfriends/boyfriends. They have little teenage relationship dramas and text one another constantly. (They all have cell phones with video cameras and the like). The kids dress hiply; much hipper than I remember my classmates dressing in high school.
Apart from the kids, there are other amazing parts about Fes. It is a beautiful city. We went for a tour of the medina (old city), and I was blown away. We visited beautiful religious schools with amazing courtyards. In these tile courtyards, the walls are lined with intricate woodcarvings. These ancient religious wonders are enough to make an atheist want to convert to Islam.
The people are great too. On Tuesday night I made plans to meet up with fellow volunteers at a hotel. They had transportation problems and were several hours late. The hotel was full (they already had a room), so I couldn’t get into the hotel until they arrived. I loitered outside the hotel and as the night got later and later, I started to feel uncomfortable. There were several sketchy looking characters smoking hash nearby. It’s the sort of situation that Peace Corps recommends that we avoid. But I ended up talking with the guys and I was amazed by how welcoming and nice they were. It made me feel guilty for my earlier wariness.
I’d been told that Fes is a proud Arab city and that people look down on Berber speakers, so with these guys I didn’t mention (at first) that I spoke Berber. But eventually it came out. To my surprise, it turned out that a couple of them spoke it. It wasn’t their first language, but they studied it and learned it, basically out of respect for the Berber people. They were thrilled that I spoke it. The guys who didn’t know Berber told me, “I’m jealous of you. You speak the language and I don’t. It is wonderful that you have learned it.” Coming in expecting hostility, I was (once again) blown away.
With these hash smoking, Berber speaking guys, I took a step towards understanding the religious views of people in the country. I’ve always been skeptical of the constant God phrases and just the omnipresence of God in people’s speech. I thought that having references to God so often cheapened the meaning of the words. And I assumed (wrongly again) that drug users wouldn’t be the firmest believers in God. But these guys were humble and just as firm in their belief as anyone else I met. We had a good conversation about it. They have a deep appreciation for the life that they have. Thanking God and doing everything in the name of God is just their way of expressing that appreciation.
The trip has strengthened by resolve to continue studying Arabic. I’ve met random people in cafes and on the streets who were welcoming and warm. I thought that with all the tourists coming through Fes that people might not be so welcoming. But I had good conversations with people that were limited by my language ability and not their willingness to speak with me.
Basically, in a week I’ve learned about this whole other world in Morocco that I am missing. The diversity in this country is unbelievable. Having not traveled very much, I’ve been ignorant to all the different pockets and niches where entirely different cultures and beliefs exist. The difficulty with traveling is that all the time that I spend out of my site hurts my ability to get work done. Nonetheless, I’ve just found out that I have to make the time for some traveling. It would be a shame if I lived in Morocco for two years and missed out on some of the wonderful things that it has to offer.