Monday, December 29, 2008

Happy New Year!

Since today is a holiday for New Year's, it’s a good time to share a little cross culture info w/you.

The Gregorian (western) calendar is based on solar cycles. It is used in Morocco for business and civil purposes. The Islamic calendar is based on the cycle of the moon. The Islamic year is divided into twelve months, each a complete cycle of the moon. A lunar cycle consists of 29 or 30 days, so the Islamic year consists of 354 or 355 days. Thus, the Islamic calendar gains 10-11 days on the Gregorian calendar each year. A coincidence of the 2 calendars takes a cycle of 33 solar years. For example, in the Christian year 1981, the Islamic month of Ramadan (it’s the 10th month of the Islamic calendar) corresponded very closely with the Gregorian month of July. This will happen again in 33 years. In the meantime, Ramadan will slowly “move forward”, beginning 10-11 days “earlier” every year. At the end of this 33 solar year cycle, nearly 34 Islamic years will have passed. There is no standard scientific method of determining which years will consist of 354 or 355 days, nor which month will consist of 29 or 30 days. Instead, each Muslim country has its own method of determining when one month ends and another begins. In Morocco, this is done by the sighting of the new moon, which is carried out by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in Fes. It can and does happen that the same Islamic month begins on different days in different Islamic countries. It is also why we didn’t know if today was a holiday until the full moon was spotted at 8pm last night. Happy New Year!

Now having shared all of that, I asked my host family what the traditions were around the Islamic New Year. They got today off for the Islamic New Year, and celebrate New Years on December 31st-and get January 1st off, but don’t do anything special. Go figure. I’m trying to be culturally sensitive and prepared to participate as custom dictates. Oh well-at least I tried!

So Xmas was nice-spent w/other PCVs-very low key, but first Christmas carols I heard all year! That was followed by the weekend in Fes. Hamdullah! What a great respite from it all. There were 6 of us-stayed in the same el-cheapo hotel to save $$. I splurged and on my way there went to a supermarche in Fes and bought 4 bottles of wine, corkscrew, cups, cheese and crackers (all things only avail in city like Fes-in the “go straight to Hell section”) and we had a little celebration on the roof of the hotel Friday and Saturday nights. We all enjoyed an Italian dinner on Friday night—all the books for Fes give you recommendations for fabulous Moroccan food. OK, we get it every day, every meal w/our host families. Not a complaint. We were just ready for a change. Pasta. Pizza. Yum. We walked all over the old Medina-got back down to the infamous tanneries area w/camera in tow. We also walked all over the Ville Nouvelle (new town) area for a change. It was just good to be able to share our experiences, commiserate w/one another, and rejoice that, despite how wonderful our host families are (and they are), we’re more than ready to move into our own places Feb 1st. Inshallah.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Happy Holidays!

Language in REK:
My plan is to enlist the help of another tutor. I’d like to be working w/a tutor at least 5 days/week. My current tutor (English teacher to Basma and Bouchra) is very nice and patient. However, she’s never tutored anyone in Darija before, so doesn’t have a methodology in mind. So far I’ve driven the content of our 3x/week sessions. For now that’s ok, as I have plenty of material to work with. However, there’s a guy in El Menzel (about 15km away-easy, 5DH transit) who has tutored other PCVs who I may hire. If he can provide some structured learning to supplement what I get from Saida, and meet w/him the other 2 weekdays, that might be a good approach.

Meanwhile, I’ve enlisted the support of one of PC’s LCF’s (language trainers) to translate for me w/the women of the Coop. I have tons of questions for them, and while I’m able to ask my questions, I need Fatima there to translate the answers. I‘d at least like to have more info to work with than the superficial discussions I’ve had so far on my own. Fortunately Fatima’s family lives in Ribat El Kheir, so I can use her occasionally this way. Unfortunately she lives in Fes-otherwise I’d have her as my full time tutor!

As you can tell, language is very much my priority. Will keep you posted.

Makla (food) musings in Morocco:
Growing up, my mother couldn’t get me to eat orange-colored squash for anything, anytime. I now love it-mostly pumpkin-when pressure cooked over couscous. (Turnips fall into the same categories). Hello winter, hello root vegetables.

I don’t like green olives. Change that. I didn’t like green olives. The ones coming from the family farm, freshly made, are great.

Goat cheese. No way. Then this white mound appears in a bowl, at the end of dinner, to share. Looks like ricotta. Tastes a lot like ricotta. I like it. I’m told it’s cheese from goats. No kidding!

Goat meat. Would you choose it? Ate the kabob. Liked it. It was goat. Who knew?

Hot glass of sweet atay (tea) on cold days in winter, around 6pm. Yeah.

You CAN get a good cup of expresso, in ANY café in Morocco, and in REK it’s less than 50 cents-take that Starbucks! Only problem is, most cafes are men only. I am welcome in one by the cyber-owned by host family of another PCV. Speaking of cafes, reminds me of clarification I owe you. A cyber café is a café in name only. It’s actually a bunch of crude cubicles each with a desktop computer. People here can’t afford laptops-so there’s no Starbucks-like sitting in the café, sipping your non-fat latte whilst emailing using some wireless network. It’s either coffee in an actual café that “allows” women, or sitting in front of a computer in the cyber café-not both. I do bring my own laptop and plug in so I have an English (vs French) keyboard and my hard drive to work with at the cyber.

Warm fresh bread does not need butter. Dipping it into fresh olive oil from the farm is a great alternative. (Can you tell it’s olive-picking season?)

The Clementine oranges of Morocco win best in show-globally-against any comers.

And last but not least, God Bless the French, for they left behind fabulous bread and pastry recipes and cooks!

OK, enough about food. When language sucks, food is comfort. All right, food is comfort for any excuse-you got me there!

Business in Fes:
I’ve been working w/one of my Environ PCV counterparts as he’s trying to help the local Taeawniya l-esl (Honey Coop). Nate had been working w/Abdullah to set up a honey tasting for customers and clients of Café Clock-a hip café in the old medina of Fes, which we did last week. We didn’t have a big crowd, but the owners of several Ryads (think old medina townhouse converted into small B&B) attended. The honey’s great. We put together a presentation about the Coop and the area where the honey comes from, ie; support the cultural and environmental diversity of the Eastern Middle Atlas region. We had small info flyers (in French) for them and were able to informally survey them on their interest in the honey. Right now the Coop produces 4 different types of honey (varies by plant source and time of year-and it makes a big difference in the taste), and package them only in 1 ltr jars. The ryad owners are interested in having a small sample package w/a variety of the honeys to sell to their customers. Great idea. Easy, right? Well, the coop has to be sufficiently motivated to do it. They have to be able to fund a gross of small jars from Casablanca. New labels, storage, how to move it after producing, etc. Not so easy. There’s potential there, but it’s far from a done deal. And the whole idea is to build sustainability, not doing for them, but helping initially and stepping away as they take ownership. We’ll see if the idea has legs. Stay tuned.

So travelling to Fes PCV style-what’s it like you ask? Take the hotel in Fes where PC suggests we stay. Conveniently located just inside the main gate to the old Medina. Single room is 80DH. That’s $10. No, I did not forget a “0”. That’s $10. Now, you share the toilet and shower. No towel-pack your own. ( oh, and for you first-timers, the sheet on your bed makes a reasonable towel substitute). No tp-bring your own. But it’s clean and it works. Hostel-like. And at those rates, I can do it a lot! Between transit costs (45-50DH round-trip, depending if I have to go thru Sefrou or not) and hotel, I’m out about $17 for a one night, two day weekend, plus food. Jealous, yak?

Xmas in Morocco:
Sister Sandy sends me a Xmas-tree-in-a-bag. (turns out I get one from Ginger as well-will be VERY well decorated next year in my own home!) Stands about 12 in tall. Comes complete w/all the trimmings. I take it down to the family room-gives me a great way to introduce Christmas to my host family. I get the 2 youngest girls to help me decorate it. It’s got a place of honor on the bookcase. (just posted photos)

I’ll take it w/me to dinner w/other PCVs on Xmas at one of their homes-for what I’m learning is the usual PCV pot-luck. I’m down for mashed potatoes and salad. And some Buckeyes, made w/the help of Basma and Bouchra, courtesy Joanne’s recipe-and a trip to Marjane (think Target w/groceries) in Fes while there on business this week. Then some of my training-mates and I will meet up in Fes the weekend after Xmas for a couple days of R&R. This will make for a nice celebration. Inshallah.

Merry Christmas

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Slow or Stupid?

OK, so it felt like the honeymoon was over. Safi(enough!). When will this person start speaking normally with us? Is she just slow or is she really stupid?

Yeah, this is what I heard going thru my host family’s minds-and their body language, and even in some Darija that I understood over the weekend. When challenged a couple of times (out of context I might add) with simple words, I failed to respond accurately. Shuma. Must be stupid.

Yes, I hit one of the much-heralded “lows” this weekend. Jamila all but gave up on me-in front of the kids-which gave them license for short patience. Or maybe it just felt that way to me, since my level of language frustration has reached an all-time high. Don’t they know how badly I want to be able to really talk with them? Get to really know them better? Ask the many, many questions I have?

We were warned, and rightly so, that we’ll hit multiple lows such as this. I guess knowing I’m not alone is some comfort, but not much when you’re not only being thought of as stupid, but you’re feeling that they’re right!

Oh, and then we get hit w/a major snow/ice storm, the electricity (and water) goes out-so I can’t even escape and burrow in my room! Is this punishment or treatment? I have to stay w/the family in the salon and try to engage them. Harumph!

So I got some TLC from Debbie over Skype (thanks for that!) and got on with it-buck up and get back in the game. It’s not the family’s responsibility to teach me Darija-I own it all-and I have to find a way to gain their help w/o overusing my welcome!

I get back to the house last night-needed a cyber break after the “du” (electricity) came back on in the village-and Hannan (bless her heart) strikes up a conversation w/me. An actual conversation where she was trying her English and I was working my Darija. Jamila and I talked. Ham-du-li-lah!

Today I’m out in my usual fashion-running some errands and going to the coop. The guys at the stationary store want to talk-and we talk a while-in Darija. I go to the coop and ask Zahra and Fatima if I can take some hanbls (woven carpets) and purses to Fes w/me tomorrow to display at the Honey Coop tasting event we’re doing. They understand me, agree, we get the stuff put together. Fatima invites me to have lunch w/her family. She has 3 sisters and her mom-all together for quite the feast-we manage to talk a bit back and forth, and even joke-in broken Darija. I’m going back for couscous on Friday. Hamdullah. Today I’m back in the game-getting out, talking w/people-just have to push on-and today it works. That feels better!

I’ll have more lows, I know. Language is just the toughest, because you can’t express yourself and help with misunderstandings. Oh well-it’s all a part of the experience. Yak? (Right?).

OK, I’m better. Hamdullah. Tomorrow I go to Fes, ymkn (maybe) Marjan (supermarket) for some ingredients to do some American holiday baking (Environ PCV gave me a WHOLE pkg of brown sugar-can't buy it over here), Honey Coop program, out w/other PCVs tomorrow night, on to Sefrou on Thursday. It will be a good break. Inshallah.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

L’eid Kbir Tuesday, Dec 9

It’s a day of grilling and eating and family. It’s a lot like Thanksgiving. Only you go to the store and purchase a turkey prepared for cooking, and a big part of L’eid Kbir is the slaughtering of the sheep.

Mustafa, Jamila and the 2 older girls started the day at the mosque, in traditional fashion. Everyone is wearing new clothes for the occasion. Upon their return, we gathered just behind our house-both Musafa’s family home (where his mother lives) and his sister and brother in law live behind us. There we were met w/the bleating of the sheep-5 of which had been in a stall for a couple of days. Two of them were for us-one for Mustafa’s family and one for his sister’s family. The others were being stored for other families. You could hear the sheep all around the neighborhood. The men took the sheep, one at a time, and made a clean killing, skinning, beheading and gutting each animal as custom dictates. It wasn’t long until you realized that there were no more bleats from the neighborhood and you saw the smoke of grills from each house. The women were working in the kitchen cleaning each part as it came in, and started cooking. The sheep head and feet were placed on a grill first to burn off all the skin and hair. Again, in customary fashion, we ate the heart, liver and pancreas first-all grilled, and I might admit, delicious. The stomach/lung/intestine/internal parts were cooked in the pressure cooker and they showed up w/rice for lunch. These parts made an encore at dinner served w/the usual bread as utensil, followed by the sheep head-which was consumed all but the bones and fat. I made a feeble attempt at trying all of it. All parts of the sheep will be cooked and consumed-all parts. Yikes.

The day is spent much like our Thanksgiving-women in the kitchen cooking, sitting around talking with grandma around the fireplace, cousins playing together, the men watching soccer in the other room.

I then went to visit one of the Environmental volunteers for the day to see where he lives and partake in some of their goat from L’eid and the ram that he bought for his family. (Note-fresh, grilled goat meat is good). He lives w/his host family-moved out after 2 months, but moved back in to live w/all 11 of them. There were at least another 10 people around, but the mud walls and floors (painted and look like plastered) and a good fire in the fireplace kept us comfortable, despite the continuous rain. It was interesting to see where and how he lives, as the environment and health sector PCVs have the most remote sites-in the “bled”.

The entire week is pretty much a holiday-technically Leid is only 1 day, but schools and many businesses close for the week. It’s pretty quiet around town-helpful in some ways, ie; no line at the busta, but also difficult since so many shops are closed. I guess a time for rest.


Saturday, December 6, 2008

M'bruk 'Aid

El Hajj

We are in the 12th month of the lunar calendar. This is important, as you will see (thanks to PC backgrounder, excerpted below):

“The 5th pillar of Islam is el-hajj, the Pilgrimage to Mekka. It takes place in the 12th month of the lunar calendar. No one today knows either the original rationale for the pilgrimage or what events it was meant to celebrate. When Mohammed appropriated it, he converted it to his own use and gave it a new mythology. Men and women from the length and breadth of the Islamic world come together to the holy place. They dress alike and act alike, subordinating their own wills and personalities to a greater power. They undergo a long and arduous routine together, which gives them a common experience and an opportunity to get acquainted. They attain the symbols of initiation that enhance their prestige. On their way home, as they pass thru other countries, they may trade, meet with others-the pilgrimage became a principle media for interaction in the Islamic world, one of the chief vehicles by which it was unified. Every Muslim is supposed to make the pilgrimage at least once. In Mohammed’s life this was simple, for his congregations did not extend far.

The pilgrim sets out well in advance, to arrive on the sixth day of the Dhu el-hijra at one of the six rest houses, situated five or six miles outside the city on the six roads which lead to it. At the rest house the pilgrim bathes, makes 2 prostrations and exchanges his clothing for the ihram, which consists of 2 pieces of cotton cloth, without seams, about the size of ordinary towels. Women’s uniform consists of 5 pieces-trousers, overdress and frock of green, a black rope and a veil. The male pilgrim may wear sandals, but not shoes. He may not shave, pare his nails, oil his head, or scratches his skin until the pilgrimage has been completed.

The pilgrim now walks to the city in the company of his fellows, singing a special pilgrim song. Once in Mekka, he goes to the great mosque, performs his ablutions, and kisses the Black Stone which is still in the same position to which it was raised at Mohammed’s direction. He then walks around the Ka’ba 7 times counterclockwise, 3 of these running and 4 at a slow walk, and on each circuit he touches the so-called Yemeni corner and kisses the Black Stone. Next he goes to a spot known as the Place of Abraham, where he recites: ‘Take ye the place of Abraham for a place of prayer’. Two more prostrations, and he returns to the Ka’ba to kiss the black stone once more. Then out the gate to Mount Safa, a hill on the outskirts of the city, he goes, reciting: ‘Verify As-Safa and Al-Marwa are signs of God’. Having climbed the hill he recites this 3 more times, after which he runs from the top of As-Safa to the top of Al-Marwa 7 times, repeating his prayers each time he reaches the summit of each hill. The pilgrim then returns to Mekka and walks around the Ka’ba once more.

After this strenuous exercise, he rests, for on the 7th day of Dhu el-hija he need only listen to a speech in the great mosque about the pilgrimage. On the 8th day, he walks with his companions to a village called Mina, where they all pray and sleep. On the morning of the 9th day, they pray at Mina and then proceed to Mount Arafat, where they pray more and hear another sermon. Then they go to the place called al-Muzdafila, halfway between Arafat and Mina, arriving in time for the sunset prayer, and there they sleep. On the 10th day the pilgrimage reaches its climax. This is the day of sacrifice, called variously lum-an-nahr, al-Azha, and ‘aid-el-kbir. The pilgrim rises early, prays, and then goes to Mina where 3 ancient pillars mark some archaeological site. Each has a name, the first being shitan el-kbir (the big devil). The pilgrim picks up 21 stones, which he finds conveniently lying on the ground at his feet, and throws 7 at each pillar, from a distance of 15 feet or more, with his right hand. In 1300 years, several millions of pilgrims have thrown these pebbles, several tens or even hundreds of millions of times at the same pillars, and no one knows how many times this was done before Mohammed’s day. The pillars are still standing. This is considered a miracle.

Still at Mina, the pilgrim now acquires an animal, preferably a sheep. He cuts the throat of this animal ritualistically, while exclaiming, ‘God is Great’. He gets a shave, has his nails pared, and removes his ihram. Now he can put on his regular clothing and resume the character of an individual. After a 3 day rest at Mekka and a few other duties, including a final circumambulation at the Ka’ba, he is free to go home, wearing a green turban and from now on people will address him as al-Hajj, the pilgrim, and this will add greatly to his prestige."

"On the 10th day of the month of el-hijja, the last month of the year, the Islamic world celebrates its yearly sacrificial feast. (This will be next week, on Tuesday, Dec 9.) In Morocco it is known as the ‘Great Feast’. This is the central feast in Islam, comparable to and derived from the feast of the atonement, Abraham’s substitute sacrifice, for the remission of sins. Hence the animal must be mature and without blemish.

Every family must have its sheep just as we need turkeys for the proper celebration of Thanksgiving, but those who cannot afford one, may buy a goat or another cheaper animal. In Morocco the animal cannot be slain until the King has killed his sheep. Then in each household the head of the family kills the sheep. The sheep is eaten in an orderly fashion determined by local customs. For example on the first day the liver, heart, stomach and lungs are eaten while on the second day the head and feet are eaten.

There are purification and sanctification customs and rites that prepare the people for the holy feast and its principal feature, the sacrifice. The people must purify and sanctify themselves in order to benefit by the holy feast and its sacrifices. Personal cleanliness should be observed. Men and boys visit the barber and a trip to the hamman is not unusual. Henna is used not merely as a cosmetic but as a means of protection against evil influences. Women paint their hands with it and in many cases also their feet. Among some tribes henna is also applied to domestic animals.

Almsgiving and prayer are 2 other purification rites followed during the Great Feast. Gifts are exchanged between family members and a portion of the meal is given to the poor. Prayer begins the day. The chief praying ceremony takes place in the morning at the mosque. The day is spent in the company of family.”

M’bruk 'Aid

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Tooth Fairy Finally Arrives!

So, dental health is not a priority in Morocco if you go by the status of most smiles you see. Therefore, Peace Corps booked me with a dentist in Rabat to have my broken crown replaced. Apparently there wasn’t a good one they knew between here and 6 hours away! Yes, 6 hours-by grand taxi and train to Rabat on Thanksgiving day so I could be there in time for my Friday morning appt. So it's Thanksgiving and I’m on my own in Rabat-oh, and there’s no room at the hotel PC told me to use (and also told me to not bother w/a reservation). So the security guard takes me around the corner to another hotel that has a room. Just a room. No toilet. No shower. Bed, chair, sink, closet, overhead light. That’s it. OK, so it only cost 90DH (about $11-yes, $11!). So, I pull out all the stops and fork over the extra 10DH ($1.20) for the key to the shower (and a hand towel) on the 2nd floor and took a HOT SHOWER. The water came out of a shower head-not a bucket! Yum! I buy a couple things quickly in the hanut next door to have as a dinner snack and get back to my room to call my Aunt Geri-who I am SO GLAD I caught on the phone to wish a Happy Thanksgiving. Don’t shed any tears-I had a warm room to myself, a shower and a good but quick talk w/loved ones-that’s something to be thankful for! So the next day I check into the other hotel-now there’s room-and for another 10DH/night (or 100DH, about $12), I get my own shower and toilet in my room-feels luxurious.

So, the dentist in Morocco. First of all, I only have an address to find him. Streets aren’t marked. I ask a couple of people where the street is (after heading what I’ve been told is the right way). No one knows. I keep walking. I turn right on the last street before the medina w/its labyrinthine streets. Turns out I’m on the right street and just in time for my appt! Long story short, he’s not a big fan of novacaine, so I start to understand the poor state of dental affairs in Morocco, but he sees me Friday am, Sat am, Mon at noon and again at 5pm and I walk out w/a brand new, very nicely done crown! Yippee! This means I won’t have to trek back to Rabat again. Well done! Hamdullah!

Saturday was belated Thanksgiving dinner. There were some PCV’s in Rabat w/their artisans for a Holiday Craft fair at the American School (and I wanted to check it out as a possibility for my coop next year), and we all went to another PCV’s house for dinner. I helped smash (that’s crush between my fingers-no masher) potatoes, puree sweet potatoes, make green bean casserole. We had rotisserie chicken, stuffing and pumpkin pie. All made w/buta gas stove and oven-impressive!

I was originally supposed to go to Rabat on Thursday and return home on Sunday, but that would have meant a return trip to Rabat for the final crown. As I mentioned, the dentist did a yeoman’s job and was able to do it in 4 days, so I just prolonged the original trip. No problem, right? Right. PC is informed by medical that I’m staying longer, I let my host family know and tell my tutor that our first lesson will have to be on Tuesday. OK. Until I get a call in Rabat on Monday afternoon from the Gendarmes in Rabat El Kheir. They know I’m not there, and am I still in Rabat? Oops-didn’t let them know my trip was extended. All’s well. Except they know every move I make. Gulp. Put that on the list of adjustments. Move on.

So I have time on Monday between dentist appts-and I did say the office was close to the medina, right? I schlep over to the Rabat Artisana to do a little info gathering, and make my way back to the dentist’s with a couple stops along the way. 2 pairs of pants 100DH each ($12), socks 10DH each, 2 turtlenecks for layering 20DH each. Not breaking any banks here. Oh, I splurge on a digital tape recorder for 680DH-should really be useful in language learning.

Back on the train/grand taxi on Tuesday morning in record time-I hit every mode of transport w/perfect timing and make it in 4 ½ hours! Hamdullah. If only there wasn’t snow on the ground (only a dusting) when I arrived-oh, and it was 1 degree Celcius outside last night (remember the little detail about no insulation-that means it’s only about 5-10 degrees warmer in the house). The warmest you’ll be all day is when you wake up in bed. I keep telling myself that it just means our summer will be more bearable. Inshallah.

Now I can get on to my work-visiting w/the coop women and studying/talking w/them, meeting w/my tutor and studying, finding an apt to rent, teaching at the Dar Chabab and working w/my Environment PCV counterpart on the honey coop marketing project.

One last holiday note. I’m so far removed from “home”, that it’s easy to forget it’s holiday season in the US. Note-no Xmas decorations beginning in October. However, as I was waiting at the busta yesterday, the ring tones of 2 different people got me smiling-one was Jingle Bells, the other was Merry Christmas. You wonder if they have any idea of the use of those catchy tunes!