Friday, October 23, 2009


Peace Corps mandated that all volunteers get flu vaccinations this year (seasonal flu, not H1N1). I got mine in Azilal, which is about 7 or 8 hours from my site. Although it was a long trip, I was glad to visit Azilal for the first time, which is a beautiful small (20,000) city.

On the way back, I got on a transit (owned by a guy from my site) from Boumia to Tounfite - the 2nd to last leg before arriving in my site. It was late, so this probably was the last transit making the trip. Just as the transit was pulling out, a couple of visibly drunk guys got on the transit. One of the sat down next to me.

The was loud and smoking a cigarette (bad form in a transit). He was carrying a clear plastic bag full of alcohol. I was tired from the long day of traveling really I didnt want to talk to anyone, especially a drunk obnoxious someone. But he wanted to talk to me, and loudly. He kept asking if I remembered him, which I did. At first it was just annoying...he wanted to kiss me a lot (sign of respect here) so he kept grabbing my head and kissing my forehead.

Then he started getting abusive. He was yelling at everyone in the transit. He spit in the direction of the driver. But most of his maliciousness was directed at me. He started saying very rude things to me. (I debated about whether or not to include translations...I decided to print everything. Please excuse the rudeness). Amongst other things, he said to me, "I fuck you," "I fuck your asshole," and "I fuck your mother." The transit was full of young men from my site, people that I have known for almost a year and half now. I looked to them for help, support. They said to me; "fist," which means "be quiet" in Tamazight. They didnt want to confront the guy. I couldnt believe it. Then the guy started telling the volunteer that I was traveling with, "Tell Duncan to shut up or I will hit him in the face." I didnt need the translation from my friend to understand.

At this point, I was still taking it pretty well. I was getting angry, but I was limiting my responses to: "youre drunk, be quiet," "enough talking," "im tired," and the like. I was very frustrated with my friends in the back, who would rather endure this guys abuse than stand up to him.

Then the guy opened up the plastic bag full of wine and started drinking it, inevitably spilling part of its contents on me. I turned to my Moroccan friends sitting behind me, told them that he was drinking alcohol, and asked them to do something about the situation. They told me, "just be quiet, what do you care?" Then the guy got right up in my face, said the shohada (the phrase that you say to convert to Islam: There is no God but Allah and Mohamed is his prophet). He demanded over and over that I say it. I wanted to point out the extreme contradiction of asking me to convert as he was stumbling over drunk, but I didnt. After he tired of this, the guy returned to his previous topic of conversation: my asshole and my mother.

I turned to the guy and said, in English, "All I want to do right now is hit you in your face with my fucking fist." Like I said earlier, "fist" in Tamazight means "be queit" or "shut up." And most people know the word "fuck." So he thought I was telling him to "fucking shut up." He wasnt really affected by my explosion; he kept harassing me and others in the transit.

We finally got to Tounfite and everyone got out. After the drunk guy was gone, my Moroccan friends apoligized to me and said the guy was an idiot. I was glad that they were finally acknowledging that the guy was in the wrong, but frankly I felt that their apologies were empty. I wanted to say, "Where were you guys when the drunk was in my face, yelling at me?" Its not like the guy posed any physical danger to us. He was one man amongst 20. Simply stop the transit, get everyone out, and make the guy ride on top. Or make him walk the rest of the way back. At the very least, stand up for yourself and your friend (a guest in your country).

Ive dealt with drunk idiots in the States before. That part bothered me, but not as much as the lack of support that I got from my "friends." I worry about how interactions such as this (and the one a couple weeks ago where a group of men told me I should have raped an American girl who visited my house) are permanently coloring my feelings about Morocco. Yes, there are lots of people that I have only positive interactions with and I care about quite a bit. But this minority (is it a minority? In two interactions, 20 out of 20 men have been complicit in disgusting behavior) is damaging how I feel about my time here.

OK, so despite this negative post, things are good. The time in Azilal was nice, although short. Its a beautiful town. No trash on the street, trees planted every 20 feet on the sidewalk, surrounded by mountains.

The preparations for the maternal and child health training are going well. I am feeling nervous about how the training will go, but a lot of it is out of my control. This project is the ultimate test of delegating responsibility, which is frightening for me. But Im getting better at not worrying things that I have no power over. The women will start arriving Monday. The training will start Wednesday and last until Friday. Several volunteers from the province are coming to help out, which is nice. I have big dreams and hopes for the training and follow up to the training.

I hope all is well. Take care.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wedding Season: Year 2

Last year I wrote a post about weddings in my site. Well its that time of year again, although this years weddings have been quite different.

Last week there were two days (Monday and Tuesday) where, between my community and the one a mile down the road from us, there were 20 weddings. Everyone has their weddings on the same day so that they dont have to feed the whole community (everyone is invited to every wedding). I went to 6 of the weddings, spending most of my time at my cousins wedding (where my camera was broken). Lots of being crammed into a windowless room with 50 other people, sitting on the floor, drinking tea, eating sheep meat, dancing, drumming, and singing. Its really the only time of year where girls and boys get to spend significant amount of time in the same room.

On Thursday, I got up at 6am to catch a transit. I traveled until 7pm, arriving in Rabat. Thursday night I spent with a Swarthmore alum doing a Fulbright in Rabat. We went out to a nice restaurant where they serve good cheese, pork products, and beer. Delicious. The next day I got up and went to the Peace Corps office to work on grad school applications.

The next day, some other volunteers arrived in Rabat and we hung out and got ready for the wedding that night. My program managers daughter was getting married and he generously invited volunteers to the wedding. One word for the wedding: WOW. It was quite similar to an American wedding, sans alcohol. There were real tables with chairs-I cant tell you how much of a difference having chairs makes.

It was so much fun. The food was delicious. From 9pm to 1am we were served coffee and cakes. For dinner there was bastilla (a pastry sort of thing with fish) and roasted chickens. Then after dinner we had more cakes, including a real wedding cake.

As good as the food was, dancing was the highlight of the night. Every hour or so the bride would be carried into the main room on top of a throne, wearing a new dress each time. People would get up from their tables and clap as she was paraded in while the band played music (6 total parades). Once the throne was set down, everyone would start dancing. I danced all night long (until 430am). There was a group of 17 year old girls who were very excited to have an American boy who would dance with them. It felt weird at first, but it was completely appropriate. The girls fathers would come dance with us at times, giving me thumbs ups and showing me how to dance (key to dancing in Rabat: shake your hips and do something silly with your hands).

That was Saturday night. We got back to our hotel around 5am. Sunday morning I caught a 2pm bus to a friends house that is kind of close to my site. I relaxed with him and tried to catch up on my sleep. Back to my site on Monday.

Tuesday and Wednesday were kind of slow. There was another wedding in my site, which I attended (my friends brothers).

Thursday I got the invitations drawn up (in Arabic) for the Maternal and Child Health Workshop, which is happening on the 28th of this month. That afternoon I helped my family harvest corn, which provides a good story:

My host dad is unable to do all the work himself and I am an unreliable worker, so my host dad often pays his nephew (Mimoon) to help him with the work. Basically, we go out to the fields, cut down the corn (stalk and all) with sickles, and Mimoon takes the corn back to the house (a mile away) on a mule. Towards the end of the day, Mimoon was getting frustrated and tired, so he started loading the mule very high with corn so as to reduce the number of trips he had to make. Each time my host Dad told him he had loaded the mule too high. With just a couple loads remaining, Mimoon returned to report that the mule had fallen and that he had left the corn in the road. We loaded the mule again (again my host dad told him it was too much corn). We decided that this would be the last load for the day, so my host dad and I accompanied Mimoon. In order to get through the house, we have to go through a sort of pass, where the path is bad and a fall could be potentially disastrous. This is where the mule had fallen last time, with the corn laying by the side of the road. Well going through the pass, the mule started stumbling, then started walking backwards down the mountain (a 45 degree angle). Loaded high with corn, there was no way that it wouldnt fall. It did a back flip, landing on its back, then another full 360 degree back flip, landing on its back at the bottom of the hill, 30 vertical feet below the pass. I thought for sure it would have broken its neck. It was one of the most hard core things I ever watched. Amazingly, it got up. My host dad broke into some of the meanest curses (directed at Mimoon) Ive ever heard. Meanwhile Mimoon is yelling at my host dad as well for making him work too much. We ended up loading the mule back up with much less corn on its back and returning a couple times to pick up the corn from the previous fall. Everyone was very tired and angry. That night, I went to another wedding.

Friday I woke up and biked to an outer douar, where I had to inform women about the training date. There happened to be a wedding there, which I was obliged to attend before going on with my work. The husbands of the women changed their minds and said that they couldnt go. So we had to recruit two different women, which was greatly complicated by the wedding going on.

Saturday afternoon I walked to another outer douar, to inform women there and attend ANOTHER wedding. Informing the women was easy there, but I was tired and it was difficult to gracefully exit the wedding. This morning (Sunday), I got up at 6am to walk 10km to the main road, where I caught transit to market. And here I am in Tounfite.

Its been a busy couple of weeks and with the workshop fast approaching, the next 2 weeks will be even busier. Im happy to be working, mostly I just hope that the workshop goes well. I think I have everything planned out, but inevitable there will be problems that I cannot foresee.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Gender In Morocco

I missed last week's posting because I forgot to bring the notebook in which I had hand written it. Without any further delay, here it is:

I keep writing about this topic of gender because I keep learning more about it. And also there's a lot to say.

For the last couple months, I've been helping a local girl with English. She just graduated from high school and is starting college this fall. She's the only girl from my village that I know of who continued her studies past the 6th grade. She just happened to choose English as her concentration; when her father asked me to help her I was happy to do so. I'm glad to be helping her with her English because I get a lot out of it too: we have honest conversations about gender and religion that are illuminating.

Every week she writes a couple essays for me so that I can correct her English and to give us something to talk about. She often writes something about gender.

For Westerners, the symbol of female oppression in the Muslim world is the headscarf. This girl (let's call her Fatima) wrote about when she started wearing the headscarf (which she calls a veil even though it only covers her hair and neck): "The step of the veil was very difficult for me because I wasn't used to covering...As a non-Muslim, the importance of wearing the veil must seem stupid and exaggerated, but I think it is good for every woman." She told me that the hardest part of wearing the headscarf for her was the physical discomfort of wrapping her head. She told me that parents ought to make their little girls wear headscarves from an early age so as to get them used to the feeling.

Ultimately, she made the decision to wear the headscarf because "I know it was a command from God." Dogmatic is a good way to describe her belief (and the belief of many other Moroccans that I have interacted with). Whenever I question a practice of Islam that I find sexist, she says that it is justified because God commanded it.

But that is not to say that she is uncritical of Muslims' behavior. We talk about some of the oppressive practices happening in the community (and in the rest of the Muslim world) and she says that many people distort the word of God - I'm only happy to point out the ways that people do that with Christianity as well. Returning to gender, Fatima has told me that it is silly to pretend that man and woman are equals. She wrote that "menses and pregnancy make women weak." She sees men and women as performing important, but different roles in the community and in the family.

For Fatima, religious rules about relationships between unmarried girls and boys ultimately come down to protecting the "dignity" of girls. She's told me that if a girl's virginity is not intact on her wedding night, there will be lots of trouble for her and her family. I asked her why a man's virginity is not guarded in the same way and she said that that was confusing to her. That it was unfair.

Given that she goes to school in a bigger city, Fatima is exposed to Moroccan girls/women who dress similarly to Western women. She told me that she feels pity for these girls; that they have no self-respect.

This is a crucial point: Fatima believes that sexual and behavioral freedom in the West is a degredation of the women. While Westerners see Muslim women wearing modest clothes and segregating them from men as oppressive, she sees it as the only way to protect their dignity and respect. She thinks that Western men treat their women poorly in a similar way that I think that Moroccans treat their women poorly. Both groups see the the other as oppressors of their women. For Westerners, freedom and choice are important. For Muslims (at least Fatima), modesty is important.

Given the way that some Moroccan men treat women who dress "immodestly," I kind of see her point. Fatima writes, "I don't like the idea of a boy who uses a girl as a tool for gratification of his desires." I have heard many horror stories from female volunteers about harrassment. From my own experience, men in my village talk very disrespectfully about girls. One story stands out (I am not sure if it's good to pass this story on; it's quite upsetting).

About a week ago, a Swarthmore who's doing a Fulbright in Morocco came to stay at my house on her way to the South. After she left, I was in a young-man hangout place and the men brought up the girl. First, they couldn't believe that I didn't sleep with her, despite my insistence. Worse was what they told me I ought to have done. They said I ought to have gotten her drunk so that "she couldn't say 'no'." If that didn't work, I should have gotten a rope and tied her up. There was a group of about 10 young men agreeing with this and chiming in with their own rape strategies. Obviously very upsetting. I said that was wrong, no one agreed with me. (This is one reason that I'm having trouble making real friends here: I don't respect most of the men.)

At least in my community, it is culturally acceptable to think of women as sex objects. Given that, Fatima is right: the only way for a girl to be respectable and to keep men from saying awful things about her is to cover up (although covering up doesn't always work either). Both men and women here have told me that men cannot control their sexual impulses. It is up to women not to stir up these impulses. Talking about women in big cities who dress like Westerners, Fatima told me that any harrassment that they get is their own fault. They invite it.

What to make of all this? Oppression exists in the Muslim world, but after reading the Qu'ran, it is clear that a lot of that oppression is of cultural and not religious origin. However, there are some passages in the Qu'ran that clearly put men in a superior position to women. Fatima sees these passages as a reflection of natural differences between men and women. Ultimately these oppressive measures are necessary to protect the dignity of women. I don't see it that way, but living amongst men in my village allows me to see where she is coming from.

I've been accused by some readers of being too factual and not editorializing enough; so here's what I think: Oppression of women here is awful, but the situation is a lot more complicated that liberating women by allowing them to wear whatever clothes they want. Furthermore, there is a partnership between man and wife in the household and a great deal of respect and love in that partnership.

In some European countries, the issue of the headscarf is a politcally sensitive one. France restricts wearing it in certain public spaces. Certain schools in Belgium have recently banned wearing the headscarf. To me, this is terribly misplaced liberalism. Preventing someone from wearing an article of clothing that they see as central to protecting their dignity?? Crazy. The headscarf is the symbol of female oppression in the West, but women here see it as a way to protect themselves. Treat the disease (male chauvanism), not the symptom. French President Sarkozy called the burka a tool of oppression and sees himself as a savior for liberating women from its shackles. While the burka (a burka is different from the headscarf: it covers the entire face, except for the eyes) is oppressive, forcing a woman to remove it does not address the root of the problem. Worse, it embarrasses Muslim women and makes Western government seem disrespectful in the eyes of the Muslim world, widening the gap between the two civilizations.

Imagine a nation where people do not where shirts. Natives, men and women, walk around topless (some Pacific Island community?). Then suppose that a law was enacted requiring women (targeted at American immigrants to the community) to take of their shirts when they entered public schools. Absolutely ridiculous. I see the amount of clothing that a community finds acceptable as culturally relative and ultimately arbitrary. Why force one culture to adapt your culture's clothing norms?


I'm in Rabat now. I've been invited to the wedding of my boss's daughter, which I'm very excited for. I've spent most of the last week in my community at weddings, staying up late, drinking lots of eating, eating lots of sheep meat, and dancing.

When I first came to my village, I thought that I could never be friends with females. My host mom has always been one of my best friends here. Then I started helping this girl with English and we have become good friends. At the weddings, I met a girl who is from our community, but lives and work in Rabat. She's much more open and less shy. We rode the bus to Rabat together and are friends. Also I've developed friendships with the nurses and teachers in my community. I'm very grateful for these friendships.

My camera recently broke. Almost as upsetting as this fact is the way in which it happened. One of the weddings that I went to was my host cousin's. He asked me if he borrow the camera and take pictures of the wedding. Wanting pictures of a wedding and feeling uncomfortable to be snapping photos myself, I agreed. Well someone bumped into the guy and he dropped the camera. He felt really bad, but didn't offer to pay for its repair and probably doens't have the money to anyways. This is upsetting because lots of Peace Corps volunteers don't lend their things to Moroccans for precisely this reason and warn others against doing the same. I've always been pretty generous with my stuff because I wanted to treat people in my community as I would treat Americans. Now I face the consequences. I'm going to try and get the camera fixed while I am in Rabat.

All is well.