Wednesday, August 26, 2009


I recently came to an important realization: the word “yes” or any affirmation in Morocco (or at least in the parts of Morocco that I’ve worked in) does not actually mean yes – or at least not always. There are times when “yes” means yes, but it often means “perhaps” or even “no.” Before I figured this out, I was often frustrated by miscommunication; I thought yes meant yes. But now that I’ve adapted a more fluid meaning for the word, it’s a lot less stressful. Although coming to this realization has been upsetting at times, I don’t want this post to sound negative. I’m just trying to pass on an interesting cultural difference. A couple examples help better illuminate my point. All the examples are related to work, but stuff like this happens with everyday life as well.

I am often approached by association members (civil society in Morocco) with project ideas. Some people think that I have a lot of money to throw around (although they are slowly being disabused of this notion) and so they want me to give them money for projects. At first I was very excited by these constant proposals – even if I didn’t have money to offer to these projects at least people were thinking about the needs of the community and we could progress from there. Whenever people proposed an infrastructure project (normally bathrooms or running water) to me, my big message to them was to prepare an estimate of all the materials that they would need for the project and how much it would cost – a budget. The water association in my town, for example, has asked me several times to help them replace the pipes; I tell them I need to know how many meters of pipe they need and how much it costs. They tell me, “OK, yeah, I will do that.” I tell them to figure out the project and tell me everything they would need. They started asking me over a year ago – I have yet to see a single estimate. Two explanations. First: they are illiterate and can’t write up a budget. My question, “Well why don’t they work with someone who is literate (there are many people who can read/write in my community) to prepare the estimate together?” Possible response: they are embarrassed to ask someone to help because it means admitting they are illiterate (although everyone knows that already). A second possible explanation is that an outside body installed the pipe system without their help, so the water association has no idea how much pipe they need or how much it costs – they just want me to replace it. So rather than tell me the problem (illiteracy and accompanying shame, ignorance about the situation) and allow me to address it, the water association told me, “Yes, OK, we can do that.”

Working on the hammam project, another volunteer and I have been trying to get the address of a hammam in the province that has upgraded their boiler. A trip to an already converted hammam would be an extremely useful tool for convincing hammam owners to make the conversion as well. For months we have been asking CDER (center for developing renewable energy), which is the organization that designed the improved stoves, for the address. Every time they tell us: “Yes, OK.” We have been asking for an address, phone number, even a name for something like 5 months now. Nothing. If they have the information, it would be painfully easy for them to give it to us. Nothing. What explanation can there be, other than that they don’t keep such records and just never told us that? They have been a generally motivated, helpful project partner, but they have not given us this information. They tell us they have it and they can give it to us. But nothing.

A project that I wrote a big grant for ended up falling through for political reasons, so I have to give back the grant money to Peace Corps. I went to Midelt, where I had deposited the money in a bank account. The bank teller there told me that the money is in a joint bank account and that I cannot access it without the authorization of the association that I was working with (and they cannot access without me). Frustrating. I told the bank that I was going to Rabat (7 hours away) the next day with the intention of giving the money back. I was pretty upset and letting them know it. Was there anything I could do to get the money? Answer, “No, you need the association.” Could a bank in Rabat help with the problem? Answer, “Yes, god willing.” Are you sure I won’t run into the same problem in Rabat? “It will be fine, god willing.” When I went to Rabat (I had other business there) the bank turned me away. I realized that the bank in Midelt was willing to tell me what I wanted to hear in order to get me out of their bank. But if fixing the money problem had been my sole purpose for travel to Rabat, they would have been sending me on a long, expensive journey for nothing.

Continuing this story, I then went to the man with whom I was working with to see how I could get the association’s permission. He told me that he would talk to the president and get their papers in order and that in 15 days I could get the money. I returned 15 days later and he told me to come back in another 15 days: “It’s no problem, really.” 20 days later he told me, (at least 50 days from the original promise) “The problem is almost fixed, really. I consider it practically resolved.” I asked him why he kept telling me that everything would be fixed in 15 days, but it wasn’t true. He said, “That’s just how Morocco is. You shouldn’t let it frustrate you. It’s how things work here.” It was aggrivating that he was excusing his own tardiness for larger cultural reasons, but at the same time I benefited from that message in the long run. I came in demanding that the problem be fixed, but really, he has no power over seeing it resolved. It came out later that what I really needed to do was to go to the Caid (regional Ministry of the Interior official) and ask him to put pressure on the president. But rather than admit his helplessness, the guy would rather promise me things that he couldn’t affect. I went to the Caid today, he called the guy and the Caid told me, “The problem is resolved, you will be able to get your money in a few days.” I feel a little better about it after having talked to the authority that is the Caid, but I have finally learnt enough to expect more problems. Whether or not the Caid actually has power over seeing the problem resolved, I have no idea.

That experience has been very instructive, but two other episodes, where I was on the other side of the dialogue really drove home the “Yes=Yes/Maybe/No” idea.

An association guy asked me if I could help him organize a blood drive. I was skeptical, but told him I would look into it and answer in a week. A week later, I came back and told him I had no resources that could be helpful; I wasn’t interested in doing the project. I was blunt and honest – I didn’t want him to get his hopes up. He said, “Oh, well, keep looking, you’ll find something.” I told him, “To be honest with you, do not to expect anything from me.” He said, “It’s OK, God willing, I’m sure if you look you will come across a way to help me.” I realized that I had given the wrong response: I wasn’t supposed to be so honest. I was supposed to tell him “yes” even though I didn’t mean it.

For the hammam project, another volunteer and I were in Rabat with Peace Corps programming staff and an association from Midelt (where the project is based). At the end of the meeting, PC programming put a lot of pressure on the association member to provide transport for hammam owners to Ifrane (2 hours away) if necessary. He told the association guy that it was critical that they contribute to the project in this way. I knew that the association guy could not provide such accommodations for 20 people, but he told our programming yes. In Peace Corps’ office, asked by a man of superior status, he could not say “no,” even though he could not actually give what was being asked of him.

This is hardly an exhaustive list; I could think of 10 more such examples. What to make of this all? Well, it’s frustrating, first of all. It’s difficult/impossible to make plans for future work if you are dependent on the word of someone that you have no reason to trust. There is little correlation between what is promised and what actually happens. I thought: “maybe there’s some cultural thing that I am missing and a Moroccan knows when a ‘yes’ is a ‘yes’ and when it’s a ‘no.’ But a couple other episodes make me think that this is not the case – our Peace Corps programming staff (Moroccan) was just as fooled by the promises of CDER. I think, in the end, unless you know someone very well, you cannot take their word at face value. You must be skeptical and expect things to work out different than you plan.

Western writers often attribute this uncertainty to the “inchallah” (God willing) factor. Muslims often follow any talk of the future with “inchallah” to demonstrate God’s ultimate control over their destiny – it’s not really up to them. Sometimes “inchallah” is used to politely turn down an invitation. For example, the other morning in Midelt, I was invited to come over to tea in the afternoon. I told the invitee that I was leaving Midelt in 30 minutes; I wouldn’t be able to come over. The guy again invited me over and I said, “Inchallah.” The guy knows I won’t come over.

While the “inchallah” thing partially explains “yes=yes/maybe/no,” it’s incomplete. “Inchallah” is one way that people say “yes” and mean “no,” but it’s not the only way. Furthermore, it doesn’t explain why people can’t just say “no.” For me, the biggest reason is about saving face. In many of the examples I gave above, the person put in the position of making a promise would lose face if they said “no” and admitted that they had no control over the situation. Appearing powerful is important here and people are especially inclined to appear capable/powerful to the American. Take the case of the man telling me that the money problem would be fixed in 15 days: In all actuality, he has no/little control over the problem. But he likes me coming into his office because it makes him look important and he likes talking to me. So he keeps giving me an excuse to return (before I learned that the project had fallen through, he kept telling me it was nearly ready to be started even though he knew it was already failed). When he fails to come through on his promises, he can hide behind Moroccan bureaucracy (a problem that I acerbically criticized in another post). Generally, when people fail to come through on their promises there are no repercussions or consequences – it’s almost expected. In all the cases that I have had my expectations not met, I have no power to hold the person accountable.

I got back on Sunday from my vacation in Chaouen. My last post was about the hike through the mountains, which was the best part of the trip. I spent the rest of the week walking around Chaouen and seeing the sites there. It is a beautiful medina, painted a dreamy, light blue. Being right next to the mountain, the city is flush with springs; there is a public fountain around every bend in the road. The only downside to Chaouen is all the tourists. Since the city is small compared to other tourist destinations and the tourists all tend to concentrate in the medina, they really stand out. I also went to Oued Laou for a day. It’s a small town on the Mediterranean. It was good to lie on the beach for a day and swim.
On the bus ride back to my site, I had one of the most normal interactions I’ve ever had in Morocco. I was sitting next to a 24-year-old woman who lives alone in Meknes. We talked about her work (she is a agricultural technician) and about my impressions of Morocco. Religion never once came up. When the bus stopped for break-fast (it was the first day of Ramadan), there was a mad scramble for food. She bought us both food and we sat down together and ate it. I know this all sounds boring, but to me it was a very pleasant reminder of how modern other parts of Morocco are. I’ve never had a meal with a Moroccan female in public before.
Back in site, Ramadan has started. Last year I was enthusiastic about fasting and people gave me a lot of encouragement. This year, I’m much less enthusiastic and everyone expects that I’ll fast. It’s going to be a lot harder not to eat something in the privacy of my house.
I just finished reading a book called 1491, by Charles C. Mann. I recommend it highly. It’s a synthesis of recent archaeological work that challenges the prevailing wisdom about the Americas before Columbus. It’s thesis is that the Americas were vastly more populated with more advanced civilizations than we learned about in high school. Not everything in it is new, but it was a real eye opener for me. It’s an especially good book for anyone who is feeling that his or her white guilt levels are low.
Besides being hungry and thirsty, everything here is good. As you can tell from the sarcastic tone of my post (written before my vacation) I probably needed some time away from work. I’ll try to post again this Sunday to get back on my weekly schedule.


Jillian said...

I don't comment frequently, but I've been reading your blog for awhile, and just wanted to point out how much I appreciate your perspectives. I've read Peace Corps blogs from Morocco for the past five years since I first lived there, and you are the only PCV to consistently recognize the great diversity of Morocco and that your experience is representative of a select part of the country; I really appreciate that.

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