TV and Other Material Comforts

In Every House

A week or so ago, after half listening to the news on 2M, my host father switched to channel 8, Morocco’s official Amazigh language channel. Normally when this happens, I’m just the tiniest bit crestfallen. In Moulay Achraf, where my ears are already so starved of ambient Arabic conversations to learn from, the TV has become my last reliable teacher. This time however, instead of retreating back into the all too familiar semi-consciousness that your brain reverts to when all it hears are foreign speech sounds, I perked up and payed attention.

For the first time since arriving in this country, I was seeing something on TV that looked like the Morocco I had experienced up until this point. I was so surprised by the novelty that I payed close attention, even though my ears were doing exactly what your eyes are doing when you read this: ⴰⴷⴱⵓⴳ ⵙⵊⵎⴻ ⵉⴳⵀ.

Out of the four months that I’ve been in Morocco, I spent two and a half of those months living with people who watched a lot of TV. Evenings at my CBT’s host family’s house were essentially spent flitting around the main public channels. There’s Aloula (“the first,” channel 1), which shows Arabic news during the day, then Darija dramas later in the evening. Then there’s “deuzème” (the number two and the letter m read in French, channel 2), which is most watched when it airs the two Darija-dubbed Turkish dramas that are wildly popular in Morocco: 7obb A3ma (Blind Love) and Sam7ini (Forgive Me). 7obb A3ma is a little more racy and higher budget: women occasionally wear low neck-lines and skirts that end above the knee, and the whole thing is lit to make the blues and blacks of the shots very stark and brooding. Sam7ini is conservative and endearingly low budget. Everything is sensibly covered and the lighting staff is probably standing off camera clutching a few bedside lamps. Immediately following these two soap opera sensations is the news in French. Finally, there’s 8 Tamazight (pretty self explanatory). They do it all, the news, music shows, debate shows, documentary segments, and historical dramas: entirely in… uh… the native North African language(s).

Now, what my senses have been taking in from the real world around me over the past few months has been irreconcilable with the hundreds of hours of Moroccan TV seared onto my retina. Where are all the ridiculous mansions that Moroccan TV characters seem to inhabit? Where is the Darija so thick with code-switching it comes out a solid 40% French? Where are the glossy, swanky cafes where the young men and women on TV go on dates? Sure, I guess we’re drinking the same tea and eating the same couscous as the people on TV. But even then, not quite.

There’s an ad for Dari, one of the leading couscous brands here, that has been playing since I got to Morocco.

The tag phrase of the ad, which is repeated as the camera cuts between different families eating couscous, is f kul dar… (in every house). This would lead you to believe you are going to be shown a representatively diverse montage of Moroccans’ homes. The first shot is of a gleaming stainless steel kiskas (couscous pot). Nope, still have never seen one of those, plenty of dull aluminium though. Next shot: individual place settings. Nope, everyone I’ve shared a meal with eats out of the same plate. After that, there’s a shot of Lbin (buttermilk, a traditional accompaniment to certain kinds of couscous) clinging to a hipster’s waxed mustache. Haha, what? Oh, here’s something familiar, in this shot the older people are balling up the couscous with their hands. But wait, see that window behind them? It’s so huge, it lets in so much sun! Nothing like the rectangular portholes that are cursorily inserted into cold concrete walls. Alright, and then this last grandfather and his family are sitting at a midriff-height dining room table, on actual chairs. No Moroccan family I have met eats like that. Tables are around knee height, and everyone sits on couches that line the walls of the salon.

This why I was so astounded by the show my Moulay Ashraf host father flipped to last week. Not a hint of this shiny TV-Morocco. Instead, square concrete houses painted salmon and dark red stretched along a dusty street. A single donkey dragged a wooden plow through a rocky field. The farmer pushing the plow behind him did so with only sandals on his feet. Most men and women wore djellabas when they went outside. A few of the men wrapped their heads with scarves, and others wore knitted caps. Hills and mountains a were dotted with sparse trees and tough, thorny bushes. And of course, not a word of Standard Arabic, or French, or Darija, just good ol’ Tamazight. The shows I had glimpsed previously on channel 8 all seemed to be set in the past. However, this one was modern, as evidenced by a plastic soda bottle on a knee-high salon table and the western jacket one of the characters was wearing over his djellaba. Add a few more sheep and some snow-capped mountains in the distance, and this could have been set in Moulay Achraf!

***

I started writing this post intending it to be about something slightly different. Instead it’s going to be mainly stories about what I’ve been watching on TV for the past few months.

But I’ll take a brief pause before I launch into the next one.

In case you couldn’t tell from the fancy embedded YouTube videos, I now have wifi, and a house to put it in. I’m up on a hill, on the second floor, so when I open my windows in the morning the first thing that greets me are the distant snow caps.

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This is the view from my window on market day.

The inside of my apartment is still pretty bare. But my kitchen and my bedroom/living room/dining room have everything I need. I even turned one of my empty rooms into a mini dojo. Right now the tiled floor is still much too cold to do anything barefoot.

A funny thing happened a few days after moving in. We volunteers had spent the past few months steeling ourselves at meal times every time the copious amounts of uber-sweet tea and bread were hospitably forced down our throats. Despite this, after a week in my own home without those staples, I found myself craving the once begrudged dietary scourges. I finally caved. Tea leaves and a bunch of shiba (a kind of absinthe, way better than na3 na3 mint if you ask me) now rest prominently on the pantry corner of my kitchen counter. Yesterday was my third trip to the bakery, and this time, I even managed to order in shil7ak-i snat tkhbziy 3afak.

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…but my tea has a quarter of the sugar Moroccans put in theirs…

Alright, back to TV now.

The Translation of “OK”

My host brother in CBT would always come home late. When he arrived around 10 pm, he would grab the remote and discard flipping through channels, one, two, and eight in favor of his own holy trinity: Aljazeera documentaries, Quest Arabiya, and any channel showing a soccer match.

Aljazeera is Qatari, and Quest Arabiya is Emirati. Both would occasionally show original content, but for the most part, they rebroadcast shows from the History Channel and National Geographic. Because these are Gulf TV stations, all the English-speaking travelers, animal experts, and car engineers are dubbed in Modern Standard Arabic.

I’m going to try to illustrate the utter ludicrousness of this choice. It’s not something I fully understood even while studying Arabic in college. Until I arrived in Morocco, MSA used to be my only method of communicating in Arabic. I knew academically that it was a tad stuffy and overly formal to use in day to day situations, but in classroom settings that was never a reality I had to face. However, as soon as I arrived in Morocco, fus7a or standard literary Arabic was suddenly relegated to a very specific set of circumstances: the news, the call to prayer, and the occasional nerding out session with my CBT mates. MSA became distant while Darija became comfortable and familiar. More importantly, I finally had a foil that made the incompatibilities of MSA with everyday life leap out at me.

The first one is pronunciation. Strictly speaking, it’s not incompatible, more incongruous. When Arabic is written, it can be occasionally vocalized, meaning every consonant is labeled with an additional mark that looks like a diacritic that tells you which vowel to pronounce after that consonant.  Almost every syllable in MSA ends in a vowel, giving it a very stately cadence: katabtu fawqa-rri7i/ isma-lati u7ibbuha (these are the first two lines of a Nizar Qabbani poem, “I wrote upon the wind/ The name of she whom I love”). In addition to the vowels, there is also a mark called a sukun, which means “emptiness.” It’s a little circle used sparingly in MSA which indicates that there is no vowel following the consonant. My host brother in CBT would often joke about the vocalization of my Darija. “No, no, no, not katabtu,” he’d form a circle with his fingers and imprint it in the air above my words, “sukun, sukun, sukun. Say it again.” Darija is notoriously devoid of vowels. Hearing MSA is like seeing a sleek thoroughbred prancing down the track, while listening to Darija is like watching a giddy child scrambling to get in line as soon as the cracker-jack stall opens.

There’s a movie we watched during CBT called 3abdu 3and al-Muwa7idin (Abdou visits the Almohads). Abdou is a modern-day Marrakshi hustler who gets sent back in time to the Almohad Caliphate (12-13th century). It’s a comedy where the main gimmick is that all the Almohad characters speak literary Arabic while Abdou bumbles along in his Marrakshi Darija. Here’s a clip that I hope can highlight the difference in pronunciation even to those who speak no Arabic. Abdou thinks he’s on a movie set and is protesting that he didn’t sign a contract, while the Moulay’s courtiers are denouncing him as a spy:

(I couldn’t figure out how to add a stop time to the clip, so you can keep watching the movie or pause when you get the gist and keep reading)

This may make MSA sound like the equivalent of carefully articulated RP in the English-speaking world. However, MSA’s incongruity goes beyond its poised procession of vowels. Like any self-respecting literary language, fus7a delights in long-winded expression: Inna sawfa yekunu min aS-Sa3b annana naquma bi-hadha-l-iDTla3i (“verily, it will be with difficulty that we carry out this undertaking”). In Darija, that would just be S3ib dak shi (“that’ll be hard”). What this means in practice for the Gulf broadcasters is that the voice actors who are dubbing Bear Grylls, the snake experts in Florida, and Deke from the Auto Body Shop have to fit three or four words in for every two from the original English. The resulting exchanges sound very much like high school debate teams, with everyone on screen rushing to finish what they have to say before the next person butts in. Kudos to the actors, they never trip over the extra syllables they are supposed to fit in half the normal time it takes to say them. But this rapid-fire patter really eviscerates the gravitas from “man, that’s one big-ass snake.”

Finally, there’s word choice. This is easy to relate to in English, because that’s one of the primary ways we switch registers. The difference in speaker and audience is instantly clear when we hear, “that party was lit” versus “the party was animated.” However, in English, we tend to change content words when we want to move between slang and formal speech; it’s our choice of nouns, verbs, or adjectives that signal the switch. By contrast, the little words that string speech together stay the same regardless of context. In MSA, even the function words like prepositions, conjunctions, and even interjections can be different from their equivalents in colloquial Arabics. I get a serious kick out of how the Qataris and Emiratis have decided to translate, “OK.” Reducing our speech down to letters in English is perhaps the epitome of disregard for the conventions of our language that we learned about in primary school. Despite this, anytime Deke’s crew agrees with him about the car they’re working on, their Arabic voices say, 7assanan. Often, when a word in MSA ends in -an, it means it’s become a special kind of literary intensifier, the kind of verb modifier that permits such lofty turns of phrase as shakarahu shukran jazilan, “he thanked him with exceeding thanks.”  So while the the brawny, tattooed, heavily bearded engineers grunt out their “OKs,” “yeps,” and “mhms,” far, far away, their Qatari and Emirati counterparts demurely acquiesce with, “advisably so.”

***

Materially, my life is downright cushy. My home is almost too comfortable, so aside from market days, I pretty much only leave my house for work in the evenings. Additionally, the Peace Corps has repeatedly warned us how slow things can be during the first year at site. Perhaps I’ve taken this too readily to heart, and it’s fed a kind of complacency. It’s winter break, all youth related activities are slowly grinding to a halt. But I still spend at least an hour most evenings with the boys at the Dar Talib. Sometimes I help them with their homework, sometimes they teach me some shil7a, sometimes I just answer their questions about what the US is like. Surely that’s enough for now, right? The boys seem very excited to have me around, and I always find these exchanges to be fulfilling. Surely that’s enough to justify keeping to myself during the rest of the day. I have no problem spending most of my day reading, cooking, and occasionally streaming some Moroccan TV to hone my Darija. Part of me really enjoys the semi-monastic life-style.

And yet…

I’m a human being, and being alone is only enjoyable up to a certain point. Also, my work ethic is nagging me: I don’t just want to coast for two years, I want to do well. The obvious solution to both of these quandaries came succinctly from the mouth of one of my CBT mates over the phone a few days ago: “our job is to make friends, so I just go out on the town.” Simple. So today, I took a book and some flash cards, intending to plant myself in a cafe for an hour or two.

I ordered tea with shiba when I walked in, and to my surprise and delight the guy behind the counter answered back in English. He didn’t have shiba, but he did had lwiza. “How do you say it in English?” I had to Google it. Verbena. When he brought the tea out, I invited him to sit, and we chatted in Darija about Moroccans’ TV addiction, about his own holy trinity (Nat Geo, ZDF, and France 24), about the teaching of Tamazight in schools, about North Korea. When I was about to leave, he said simply, “speak to me in English.” I smiled and promised I’d be back to do just that.

Physical discomforts are virtually nonexistent, and I am happy to report that the emotional challenges I’ve had to face so far remain easily surmountable. However, as an acknowledgement of my friends and colleagues who don’t have it so easy, and as a reminder to future volunteers to do some careful introspection before committing to service, I feel it’s necessary to point out that I have been sailing smoothly thus far in no small part because I am a man, because I happen to be an introvert, and because I had prior language experience.

Because I am a man, I can leave my house by myself and not have to deal with being cat-called. When I feel cooped up and in need of ambient humanity, I can sit at cafes without my presence there being tacitly or openly questioned. When I want to practice my language, I can engage readily with strangers at these cafes, without having to worry about rebuffing misplaced romantic interest.

Because I am an introvert, I am less affected by the loneliness typical of the beginning of service. I talk with friends and family on the phone a few times a week, and I see other volunteers once every week or so. That has been enough to sustain me through the solitude of living alone in a place where I still don’t have anyone I would call a friend. I’m also very content to be investing time in my own hobbies: reading, writing, learning to cook Moroccan food from Chef Choumicha videos (the woman speaking in the couscous ad), brushing up on Standard Arabic with my translation of Harry Potter, etc.

Because I had prior Arabic experience, learning Darija was a question of reshaping what I already had instead of creating from scratch. As such, I now feel confident leading classes, running field games, and talking about what’s on TV all in Darija, even though I still make frequent mistakes. I also speak French, which means anytime I come into contact with officialdom, I can read the fine print. I also know exactly what the recorded voice is saying when I have to add data to my phone. All this helps me preserve an appropriate sense of autonomy for the twenty three year-old that I am.

For some people, none of these three things may be true. To those of you thinking of joining Peace Corps Morocco, please don’t let this dissuade you, but know that patriarchy, solitude, and a foreign language make one vicious cocktail. Not only do they present daily challenges, they also cut off access to a lot of coping mechanisms. To my friends who already know this all too well, your tenacity and resilience are inspiring. Make sure you reach out to your loved ones when you’re tired of being strong. And as soon as we can travel around the country freely, I’ll come cook you some comfort food and we can watch videos of baby animals being cute.

In the meantime, picture this:

Fridays are the live-stock market in Moulay Achraf. Today, I saw a man ride into town on his donkey, with two lambs bouncing along in his saddle bags. Not twenty minutes later, a taxi pulled up, the door opened, and a fully grown sheep got out, followed by a man holding its hind legs. I asked someone later if you had to pay for the sheep’s seat too. Daruri. “Of course.”

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Dancing under Orion

A donkey brays. The call to prayer sounds. The afternoon sunlight tickling my freezing toes has put me in a delicious stupor, so it takes me a while to realize the donkey ended his call on the same note the muezzin started his. There’s gotta be some neat symbolism there, right? If there is, I still haven’t found it, because I just went back to warming my toes while reading a book on the roof.

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Hmm, donkey parking? Yep, that’s exactly what it is, there’s a guy off camera in a fluorescent orange vest collecting payments.

***

The word for white foreigner here is Arumi. As in Roman. As in the last Europeans that the people of these mountains had prolonged enough contact with for the word to become engrained in their language where the Romans. I guess that’s only fair. The term Berber after all comes from “barbarian,” which was the Ancient Greek word for non-Greeks. I hear Arumi a lot in the streets and when extended family comes over for dinner. I don’t know whether to be amused or offended. So I just tell people that I’ve never even been to Rome.

***

I’m coaching a group of high school girls through some English reading selections. Any time I ask them what an English word means, they give me a translation in Standard Arabic. But when they ask a follow up question, it’s in Darija. And when they put their heads together to talk among themselves, it’s in the language I started learning only two weeks ago.

***

I convince my host mother to show me how to do laundry by hand. She agrees. My last host mother wouldn’t even let me fold my clothes. It’s a tiny victory, but those are what I live off of these days. Host mama Zohra is one of those people whose voice knows only one way of exiting her throat: just short of a bellow. The quality of her voice translates to her actions too: she roughly kneads the clothes in her tub, soapy water flying everywhere. I’m glad for her unabashed brusqueness. It makes things easier when each of us only understands 10 words the other is saying.

***

I see Orion on my first night at site. It’s on the same roof where, days later, I would hear the aaa of ‘eeehaaa and aaallaaaahu akbar sung out at with the same pitch. I dance on that roof until around 2:30 am with 40 other guests. The Greek hunter’s jewelled belt periodically pulls my wondering eyes to the starry sky. Alright, so maybe the donkey and the muezzin is a metaphor for the invisible harmony of this social microcosm. But then how mind-boggling is it that I can come from so far away to witness something so local, so specific, so precious? It almost seems sacrilegious. Oops. I lose track of my steps. Hurriedly, I focus back downwards to stay in sync with the swaying Ahidous circle.

****

“Come on, there’s a wedding today,” said my new host father after grabbing one of my over-sized bags. I followed him out of the taxi stand into the bustle of the Saturday market.

“Who’s getting married?” I asked.

“My daughter.”

The wedding took up my first two nights at site. The first night we danced on my new host family’s roof. The next evening, the festivities continued at the family house of the groom, a one-story grey brick box surrounded by rocky hills and empty barley fields. We were far enough away from the cell towers back in Moulay Achraf, that for the first time since being in Morocco, there was no way for me to contact the outside world. Just like the Peace Corps of old. Earlier that day, in the middle of eating lunch, my host dad called my Regional Manager. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I caught enough words and hand gestures that I could guess: “The Arumi you sent us danced Ahidous with us the whole night!” Even over a week later, I’m still running into people who, upon seeing me, beat on imaginary hand-drums and ask “Ahidous?” while grinning broadly.

A crash course on how to dance at a wedding in Atlas Mountains. A circle will form comprised of people standing shoulder to shoulder. Find a friend to pull you in next to them. Make sure you’re pushing out against your neighbors’ upper arms with your own, just as they are doing to you. This will help you stay connected once things get moving. Most people around the circle will be holding large circular hand drums. You can just clap if you don’t have one. A few people will start singing something and begin to mark out the beat with their drums. Another group of people will sing back the appropriate response, adding their drums to the layers of rhythm slowly building up. The whole circle will start swaying from side to side. As it sways, every individual shuffles around in time to the beat and the song. Once you can relax into the slightly counter-intuitive footwork (all I can remember is that you tap twice with one foot and then tap twice with the other as it shifts over, but not on the beats you would expect if you’ve been socialized with Western music conventions), you feel anchored to everyone around you in a rare and wonderful way. The circle moves like a well-oiled gear, and you’re simply along for the ride, snuggled by your neighbor’s shoulders, the insistent beat, and the strong voices calling back and forth to each other.

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I’ve been in site a little over two weeks. I’m trying to recreate the terror that was dogging me right before coming here, but it now seems largely unfounded. Or maybe it’s simply that there are more pressing experiences distracting me from worrying.

First and foremost among these, Moulay Achraf is beautiful. Like Tolkien-esque-fantasy-adventure beautiful. And it doesn’t hurt that there has been a single overcast day since I arrived. As a child of the Midwest, lakes, forests, and cornfields are comfortingly familiar. But mountains… it’s like the land is tensing, flexing, then rearing up with wild abandon before gently kissing the clouds. That force, that immensity coupled with their gentle stillness always leaves me awestruck. My CBT site was in the Middle Atlas region of Morocco, so there were plenty of mountains to witness there. Moulay Achraf, despite being at a lower altitude than CBT, is in the High Atlas. What that difference means in practice is that here, whenever I walk to work, I see snow caps. They look so close I’m sure I could walk to their base in an hour, but it’s probably just some screwy physical property of the air here. Seeing them is like finally making eye contact with your crush from across the room, a tingle of surprise mixed with a deep-seated joy.

Next, there’s my host family, or more accurately their laughter. My host family in CBT were quiet. It wasn’t uncommon for meals to be spent entirely in silence. During my first three days in Moulay Achraf, I heard more laughter in the home than I had heard during my three months in CBT. My current host father has the heart of a playful child. He spends most of his time at home sprawled on one of the mats near the wood heater, indifferent to his bulging gut protruding slightly from under his t-shirt. He’ll often stay in this position while the rest of the family is eating dinner. One evening, he found that I had left my water bottle within arms reach. He picked it up and, lying behind his sister-in-law, trickled some water into her pocket. It took a moment for her and the rest of us to realize what was happening. Everyone burst out laughing as she swatted his hand away. Innocently, he looked over at me and asked, “You don’t mind, do you?” It’s not just him though, the humor genes run strong in the whole family. A couple nights ago that same sister-in-law was over for dinner once again. She began doing impressions of other people in the village. Pulling them one after another from under her hijab, she made her voiced husky, then squeaky, warping her pronunciation and facial expressions. I couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying, but everyone else in the room was weeping with laughter, and I couldn’t help but join in.

Which brings me to my last and favorite distraction: language. The only Arabic I’ve heard since arriving has been for my benefit. To one another, the people in Moulay Achraf speak… well, that’s where the fun begins. Before leaving for site, the Peace Corps gave me and the other volunteers headed to the mountains a language textbook. On the cover it says “Tamazight.” They also gave a similar textbook to the volunteers headed to the desert. Theirs are labeled “Tashlheet”. In Peace Corps jargon, these are known as “Tam” and “Tash” the indigenous North African languages of Morocco, the first spoken in the center of the country, the second in the south. Except that, during my first couple days at site, I heard people referring to their native language by every name imaginable: Tamazight, Tashlheet, Shil7a, Amazighia, even Berber. Intrigued, I polled the big volunteer group chat, only to find that everyone was discovering more or less the same thing, regardless of what region they were in. I haven’t just left the Arab World, I’ve left the world of standardization.

Three pages into the Peace Corps textbook, and there are already glaring differences between what’s printed and what people are saying around me. I’m hoping to do a little digging once I get settled into my own place and survey of the existing academic literature, but it is highly possible this exact variant spoken in Moulay Achraf has never been written about by a Western academic. I still haven’t moved past single word answers (although the other day, to my great pride, I managed to string together, “I ate big at Mohammed’s” in order to keep Mama Zohra from putting more food on the table), so I can’t comment on cool grammatical structures that people use here an nowhere else. However, there is one regional linguistic flavor that immediately jumps out to the ear. The sound “k” here is pronounced close to the German sound “ch” in the word ich. This pronunciation bleeds into Darija loanwords, so here people say 7ach (here, take it), baracha (enough), and even Abdelcherim (Abdulkarim). For some reason, this sound conjures up mental images of sitting on a porch watching the sun set with stalk of wheat between your teeth.

I’ll wrap up with a quick nod to current and future volunteers. I’m going to be repeating what’s already on hundreds of Peace Corps blogs and training PowerPoints. Turns out everything they told us about this experience is true: tons of downtime, nebulously defined and scheduled work. Keep reminding yourselves that it’s only been two weeks. Be patient with yourself, celebrate the small victories. Find a hobby, read some books, go out and talk to people. And when you’ve spent an entire afternoon circling mentally around the same five thoughts, it’s time to use those free inter-Peace Corps calls and phone a friend. As for youth development, don’t compare your work to things you may be hearing about from other volunteers. Every site and workplace is different and you need time to figure out how they work. For example, I lucked out in that I’ve had regular work since arriving. I’ve been spending weeknights at Moulay Achraf’s Dar Talib (boarding center for students who live too far away to commute to school daily). The regularity is a by-product of plugging myself into their pre-existing evening study-hall periods to tutor them in English. However, as far as day-time activities with the other youth in Moulay Achraf, while my local partner managed to get the right keys to open the Dar Chebab, we still can’t get the doors open because something is clearly blocking it from the inside. So in the meantime, I’ve posted a pen and paper version of a when2meet in the Dar Talib. Many students have free afternoons during the week that vary depending on everyone’s individual schedule. There’s no extra-curricular programming for free afternoons, and I’m trying to change that. We’ll see what next week brings.

Here it is, home for the next two years.

 

The Edge

Bye CBT!

Soon after arriving in Morocco, my watch broke. The second hand simply fell off the central pin. The next night, the other two hands stopped moving. At the time, I didn’t know how ironically emblematic my broken watch would soon become. Back in October, a mere 48 hours before Moroccans were scheduled to change their clocks back for daylight savings, the government announced that the country would no longer be engaging in the ludicrous practice of bi-annually changing the time. For a good four hours on that Sunday morning a few weeks ago, none of the Peace Corps trainees knew what time it was. To make matters even more confusing, the government’s announcement compounded with a second time-related phenomenon that remains a source of confusion for many of us. Many Moroccans don’t change their actual clocks in the fall and spring, but are aware that the time does change. In order to accommodate, they preface any mention of time with “old” or “new.” What time are you starting tomorrow? my host father would ask me. At 9, I would answer. He’d then turn to one of his daughters. He means the old 8, she’d confirm. Oh, that’s not so bad, he’d say. I would sit back, utterly confounded that the old 8 was a more meaningful indicator of time than the new 9. I guess seeing digital clocks back home jump from 1:59 am to 3:00 am is pretty wacky too. In any case, now that the time hasn’t changed, I’m even less certain what old time and new time actually refer to. Has one of them been rendered obsolete?

Does the analog watch hand breaking loose right before all temporal hell broke loose herald an even more dire turn of events? I hope not, but I still can’t help feeling apprehensive. Finally, after an interminable wait, Peace Corps Morocco has assigned us to the communities we will be working in for the next two years. We’ve been talking of little else in our CBT and in larger groups during our last three day “Hub.” Everyone has something to solicit either a little jealousy or a little sympathy from our colleagues. “I’m 45 minutes from the Mediterranean.” “I’m down south, it’ll be nice and warm.” “I got a site-mate, she sounds awesome.” For my part, I will be spending the next two years in a village of just over a thousand, up in the mountains, where the lack of central heating often makes the inside of houses as cold as the outside. For convenience, let’s call it Moulay Achraf. Based on the little info packet I got last week, a good 200 students from the surrounding countryside spend 9 months of the year in a boarding center so they can go to school in Moulay Achraf. I’ll be working to develop after-school programming with these students.

I’ve reached out to the two volunteers who served in Moulay Achraf before me. The last one left in 2017. Their responses were… a lot to digest. One burned out, and was forced to end his service early because of a family emergency. The other apologetically compared his experience to Thoreau: cold, solitary winter nights and 5 hour walks through the mountains. Their experiences sounded intensely introspective, almost monastic. A part of me is very satisfied with their responses. It’s the same part of my psyche that prompts me to say off-handedly, “Yeah, in another life I could have been a monk.” After all, part of the reason I joined the Peace Corps was to have some time to reflect on what I want to do next. Based on these two volunteers’ responses however, I’m a little anxious at the prospect of having too much time for solitary contemplation. Yes, I joke about being a monk, but there are plenty of very good reasons why I am not one. Reasons I am not at all ready to just abandon for two years.

I need to keep reminding that as intense as this experience will be, no one is asking me to take a vow a silence, or go meditate in a cave mouth. Quite the contrary. I’ve been told that while I will be able to communicate with people in Moulay Achraf in Darija, the real key to people’s hearts will be the local variety of Tamazight, a language that isn’t usually written, and that will probably differ from whatever standardized dialect the Peace Corps textbook uses. Challenge accepted. Now I’ve got the language nerd in me jumping for joy. And then there’s the work the Peace Corps expects us to do. Everyone in my cohort agrees that of all the initiatives the Peace Corps pursues with the various partner countries, “Youth Development” is the most nebulous. Granted, Peace Corps Morocco has just revamped and streamlined its Youth Development framework, and despite all the annoyingly glitzy flow-charts we’ve received, it’s a framework that I feel comfortable working in. To me, everything the Peace Corps has asked us to do during training (and expects us to continue at final site) feels a lot like what I was doing when I worked as a karate instructor and a camp counselor, two jobs I thoroughly enjoyed. Standing in front of class, balancing order with levity, spending time swapping stories with young people, helping them work through projects, and Peace Corps wants me to do all that in a gorgeous mountain village? Great, let me get to work already. Internal motivation is all well and good, but everyone needs to be told they’re doing a good job from time to time. The de-facto director of my CBT’s youth center surprised me a few weeks ago by admitting he had put in a request to the Peace Corps for me and a second volunteer from my training group to stay in our training site for the full two years. Ok, so maybe the volunteer in Moulay Achraf four years ago had a thoroughly walled-in experience (all the credit for that one goes to my CBT-mate Ben). I can either let that freak me out or feel excited that Moulay Achraf is the kind of place where wanna-be monks, adventurous linguaphiles, and amateur teachers thrive. Right now, I’m doing a splendid job of teetering between the two.

Speaking of the director’s request, I have to take a moment to share and reflect on an unfortunate turn of events that has shaken up this last week in CBT. When sites were announced, it turned out that a third trainee from our CBT, neither of the two the director had requested, had been assigned to our training site for the full two years of service. A few days later, this trainee left the Peace Corps. For the past eleven weeks, we had been telling the youth at the Dar Shebab and the women at the women’s center that a volunteer was going to be assigned to them to continue the work we were starting. We had been assured this would be true by Peace Corps Morocco employees. This past week, having to shrug our shoulders in response to the community’s questions about what happened left a very bitter taste in our mouths. Amongst the remaining trainees in my CBT, we’ve been asking ourselves how the Peace Corps could so blatantly ignore a request from a community they claim to be serving. There are additional details I cannot share here, just as there are even more details that we weren’t privy to and could only guess at. This whole situation probably boils down to a series of unfortunate miscommunications. I just hope the Peace Corps higher ups are learning from this. Maybe in the future, ask trainees not to discuss site-placement with their CBT communities. Maybe don’t have trainees conduct youth development work during training, just focus on language. Maybe just… alright, apologies for dropping the veneer of empathy here, but the momma bear inside all of us left in CBT needs one final roar; for crying out loud, y’all have been doing this for over 50 years… do better.

***

I started this post during the last week of CBT. I had a different ending for this post planned, a reflection on different strata of life here that are slowly coming into focus. It’ll have to wait. I leave tomorrow. We were sworn in this morning. We’re officially volunteers. For me, these kinds of things don’t quite sink in until 5 days later, when it is completely impossible to deny that the old life I was leading is gone. Right now, a single emotion is taking over half my brain, and the other half is doing its utmost to keep it in check.

Until this moment, I think I’ve only been truly terrified once before in my life. I was twelve, starting seventh grade at an international school in Berlin. My dad walked with me to school and sat with me in the gymnasium as the teachers welcomed everyone back from summer break. Class years were being called up to the front of the gym, one student at a time. When my name was called, I stoically stood up, left my dad, and joined the other students of 7a. It wasn’t so much the speed at which my heart was racing as I mechanically put one foot in front of the other, it was violence with which it was pounding against the back of my throat. Inexplicable, irrational terror.

What followed was one of the best and most formative years of my life.

So here we go again, I guess.

Adrift in the Mountains

I meant to publish this post a few weeks ago. It was going to be bubbly reflection of our first week in training, driven by the excited energy of novelty. That energy has since dissipated. The fresh observations and meditations that were supposed to flow effortlessly from my mind to my fingers have gotten stuck. Either some things don’t seem noteworthy enough to document anymore, or the benefit of several weeks experience has lead to a cascade of thoughts that I need to spend more time ordering before I write them down and share them. Here’s more or less what I managed to write up about the first few weeks of training before this experience began to feel too normal to write home about.

I am a child of the Midwest. This means I take certain features of natural surroundings for granted. Soil is brown. Terrain is is flat, hilly at most, but never mountainous. Land is full, either with fields, towns, forests, or lakes.

Driving to our CBT site four weeks ago, the the view from bus and taxi windows challenged all of these familiar assumptions. The soil ranges from rust to yellow. Mountains—not snow-capped behemoths but mountains nontheless—loom in the distance. And the land, the land is empty.

We were driving in two “grands taxis” (public transit between neighboring towns) from the small city where the buses had dropped us off to the village that would be our home for the next two months. We rounded a bend, and suddenly I was confronted with a landscape I had never before seen in my life. Apart from the zigzagging highway, there was nothing. “Waaaalu” as we say in Darija. Yellow earth, sparse grass, grey sky. We had passed by some grazing sheep a few minutes ago, but now there was nothing, not even a small hill or valley to disturb the sameness of this plain. I was deeply impressed, almost perturbed. Even the sand desert I saw in Oman last summer hadn’t seemed this empty.

Kinda like this

Our CBT site is nestled between three small mountains. The basha, or mayor, estimates there are about 7000 people living here, so I’m not sure whether “town” or “village” is more appropriate. Since arriving, we’ve had several opportunities to view our little town from above. It extends right up to the slopes but no further. From the top of one of the mountains we climbed this past weekend, our town is the only sign of human habitation visible for miles around, aside from the odd farm or cellular tower.

Here’s the town seen from the top of the second tallest mountain in the area.

The five other volunteers and I have all settled into a schedule. Monday through Saturday we wake up, have breakfast with our host families and walk over to our LCF’s house. There, we have Darija classes from 8:30 until 12:30, then walk back to our families to have lunch and/or take a nap. At 2:30 we’re back altogether, either for more Darija or to work on the beginnings of Peace Corps’ approach to Youth Developpment. For the past week we’ve been working on ethnographic-esque tools to better understand our community, like maps, schedules, and calendars. At 4:30 we walk over to the local youth center (dar shabab) and work on implementing these tools and playing games with the kids. Around 6 we walk back home, have kaskrut (Moroccans’ third but not final meal of the day), hang out, watch tv, or do homework until dinner, which can be served as late as midnight. Some Moroccans continue to hang out past then, but I’ve learned to respond very enthusiastically to the first “wesh 3iti?” (are you tired?) and excuse myself to go to bed. During two of the past few Sundays, we’ve hiked up the surrounding mountains with some of the kids and facilitators from the dar shabab.

This is what kaskrut can look like. Thankfully, for me it’s normally just bread, olive oil, cheese, and tea.

Everyone in my CBT group knew some Arabic before coming to Morocco, but we’ve still managed to amass our share of linguistic (mis)adventures. On my first night, my host brothers and cousin brought me to a sadaqa. As I understood it, a sadaqa is part of a funeral. Under an immense pavillion, family heads gathered, listened to Quran recitations, prayed together and then ate dinner. I was invited to join a small table when the food started coming out. After a round of handshakes, a man leant forward to ask me a question. My brain attempted to register the sounds coming out of his mouth. Yes, I recognized all of them, or at least there was no out of place phoneme that would have given away that he wasn’t speaking Arabic. And yet, I was unable to understand a single word. Turning helplessly to a host brother, it took me a while to understand even his response, “he’s speaking shil7a.

Shil7a, or Tashlheet, is one of the Amazigh (Berber) languages of Morocco. What confused me that night, and what continues to confuse me, is that any casual reading on Morocco will tell you that Tashlheet is spoken in the South, not in the mountains where I currently am. That same reading will tell you that the language spoken in my area is called Tamazight. But everyone I’ve talked to here says that they speak Shil7a. Nomenclature aside, I am currently living among the 40 to 60% of Moroccans who do not speak Arabic as a first language. A quick Wikipedia skim confirmed that my linguistic intuitions on that first night had not been too far off. Amazigh languages in Morocco share many of Arabic’s distinctive sounds: emphatic consonants, the “q” (a “k” made deeper in your mouth), the “7” (pharyngeal “h”), even the “3” (the technical term for this sound is “voiced pharyngeal fricative,” when we Arabic learners first make it, it sort of sounds like groaning). The long cohabitation of Amazigh languages and Arabic is the reason Darija likes to delete its vowels. Tashlheet, Tamazight, etc. are notorious among phoneticians, because not only do they allow vowel-less syllables, they even allow syllables with consonants that don’t involve your vocal cords. So the “k” sound can be a syllable by itself, as can “t.” Hopefully, I’ll have the chance to learn more some day. Right now the only Shil7a/Tamazight words I can remember are the command to eat more, itsh, and the word for thank you, tnmird.

Life here is very slow. We need to constantly remind ourselves that it’s only been a few weeks. It’s a comforting grounding exercise. It puts our challenges and successes in perspective. Discomforts can easily flip my mood, but then I remember how quickly I overcame the last one; that in fact, it was only yesterday. On the flip side, even if wrapping my tongue around this vowel-deprived Arabic still trips me up, the fragments of conversation I understand around the dinner table grow longer by the day, and I only started learning Darija three weeks ago.

Hopefully over the next few weeks, I’ll be able to better put into words some of the other thoughts that are dancing at the corners of my consciousness. About inactivity, about our role here, about gender roles…

For now, here’s a little window into an evening at my host family’s house. The little tv is on from when I come home until when I go to bed. The first staple of the afternoon is Sam7ini (“Forgive Me”), a Turkish soap opera that is dubbed in Moroccan Arabic. This is a fascinating, but apparently common, phenomenon. Sam7ini is wildly popular. It’s been airing five days a week for seven seasons, but these are Turkish seasons, so more than 1500 episodes have been aired since the beginning. They say soaps are a great way to learn a foreign language, and while I am getting lots of practice in, I still have no idea how everyone is related to each other. Right now Farida and Ayman are in court; Farida wants a divorce but Ayman won’t stop professing his love. Meanwhile Zeinab and Osman got married in her father’s hospital room while Erdugan watched from across the hall, broken-hearted. To add to the linguistic mix, some of the commercials that interrupt this melodrama are in French. From what I’ve been able to gather, Sam7ini airs on the public French language channel.

The call to prayer sounds, and a host sister will mute the tv momentarily. The characters mouth in Turkish for a few seconds, and then go back to speaking Darija for another half hour before coming to a sudden halt: Murad texts a picture of an entry in Karima’s diary to Leyla. Once the credits role, my host sisters leave the living room to check on dinner. My host mom will sometimes join them, or else she’ll stay in the living room, pulling apart clumps of raw wool. She told me that instead of going to school, she learned to weave. I’m pretty sure she’s starting a new blanket.

The family does not switch the channel, so next up is a news report, in French. This goes on uninterrupted, despite the collective 10 words of French that the family speaks. I’m not complaining though, there’s finally something I understand completely on tv. For the next few hours before dinner, I am typically left alone with my host dad. When my host mom stays in the room, she and my host dad speak to one another in Shil7a. Even if I still understand nothing, it’s very pleasant to listen to. It’s full of n’s and rolled r’s and t’s and d’s. Aside from an interruption during which my host dad leaves to the other room for his prayer, we channel-flip through news bulletins (covering the exact same topics as the French ones but this time in Standard Arabic), Moroccan soaps, Aljazeera documentaries, talk shows where a musical guest sings accompanied by bendir drums and vertically played violins, and, most interestingly, historical dramas in Tamazight.

Thus continues the evening until my host brother returns from his interminable day at the 7anut (convenience store) around 10 pm. We eat dinner in the living room. The little round table in the center has wheels attached to its legs so we can easily move it to the corner of the couches where everyone is sitting. We eat, and once I hear my cue (“you tired?”), I bow out and rapidly fall asleep.

One last thing before I go. Every time we regroup with the other volunteers and share our experiences, I am struck by how good things are here. Our training group gets along famously, our LCF is quickly turning out to be a wonderful friend, every interaction I’ve had with the Moroccans in our CBT has been warm and welcoming, our surroundings are breathtaking (I still can’t get over the sight of the mountains stretching out over the blue sky every time I leave someone’s house), the kids and older teenagers at the dar shabab are excited to work with us, and I’ve yet to have a bad meal.

This is the view from the roof of my host family’s house.

I still feel like I’m drifting, but things could be much worse.

Alphabet Soup with No Vowels

Everyone is very excited. We just received details about our host families for CBT. For the past hour, all the volunteers have been urging each other to go find their LCFs. They each gave us a slip of paper bearing a few names: Hassan, Aïcha, Mouloud, Yasmine… our fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters for the next three months. We are leaving to move in with them tomorrow, some of us to small towns, others to remote mountain villages. It will be a welcome change from sitting in a conference room listening to PCMOs and SSMs click through PowerPoints.

CBT? LCF? PCMO? SSM?

Yep, Peace Corps really loves its alphabet soup. This post is mainly aimed for any future volunteers curious about what a first week in country can look like, since I don’t have much to share by way of quirky (mis)adventures yet. Friends and family, hopefully I can still make this entertaining for you.

I am a member of Peace Corps Morocco’s Staj 100. I am pretty sure “staj” is a French loanword in Moroccan Arabic, and it refers to a cohort of volunteers. After 55 years of partnership with Morocco, we are the hundredth group that Peace Corps has sent to serve here. There are also over a hundred of us, which I believe is the biggest staj ever sent to Morocco. So far, around two thirds of the people I’ve talked to have graduated from undergrad in the last year or two. Most of the last third is still under 30. Today at lunch, everyone considered a “mid career” volunteer was invited to sit together, which was about a dozen people. We have four married couples and about 5 or 6 volunteers who have served in the Peace Corps before (they tend to be referred to as RPCVs, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers).

For the past week, we have been living in a hotel five minutes walk from a beach. The ocean greats us from the restaurant windows every time we walk in for a meal. The Peace Corps does not allow us to talk about our precise location, so apologies for not being able to give travel recommendations. Our surroundings have been idyllic this past week, slightly at odds with the Peace Corps mantra of “serve under conditions of hardship if necessary.” To be sure, our days have been long, but after training for the day is over, we are left to enjoy the beach, the pool, and the estival mix of Cardi B, Nicky Jam, and Saad Lamjared blaring over the loudspeakers.

So what have we actually been doing here? Training, which, apart for language classes, feels a lot like college orientation, except that business casual attire is required. We’ve learned who to call in case we ever feel unsafe (the SSM or Safety and Security Manager), the PCMOs (Peace Corps Medical Officer) have given us shots and told us how to deal with diarrhea, and we’ve been briefed on what kinds of assignments to complete during CBT (Community Based Training).

Everyone’s favorite activity by far has been the few hours a day we’ve gotten to spend with our LCFs (Language and Cross-Cultural Facilitators). These are young Moroccans assigned to a small group of five to six volunteers to teach them Moroccan Arabic or Darija both during this first week and throughout CBT. Most of them have graduated with degrees in English language or linguistics, and many of them previously served alongside Peace Corps volunteers as local counterparts back in their hometowns. For me and many others, they have been the highlight of our experience so far. We’ve shared our evenings off, exchanging words, idioms, songs, and even the occasional dance.

I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to write more about language. It’s one of my favorite things to talk about, and it’s a great source of anecdotes for fellow Arabic learners back home. I spent four years in college studying Modern Standard Arabic, a language/register that is primarily written, except during news broadcasts and political addresses. In every Arab country, it exists in tandem with a local spoken Arabic, which can differ from MSA or Fus7a* in pronunciation and grammar to varying extents. Moroccan Darija is notorious for being the most different from MSA, as it mixes in a ton of French words and grammatical structures from Amazigh languages. Darija and Fus7a are undoubtedly related though. I looked up a few Moroccan words in an MSA dictionary. Some of my favorites were hdr which means “to talk” in Darija, but in Fus7a means “to make noise;” and sht7 which means “to dance” in Moroccan Arabic, but means “an unbridled excess of imagination” in Standard Arabic. As of right now, one of the hardest challenges for me as a fus7a learner is the lack of vowels. Moroccans consistently delete the first vowel of any word and often a few others besides. For example, the Darija word for “couscous” is ksksu.

In addition to the LCFs, the overwhelming majority of the Peace Corps staff here are all Moroccans. They have trained us and outlined the requirements of our service. Many of them at one time also worked alongside volunteers as counterparts. Their presence and expertise have greatly reassured me. Before leaving the US, I read a few scathing critiques of the Peace Corps as an institution and the imbalances of US citizens leaving their adoptive communities after two years. I think it’s still important to work against being complacent, and continue to reflect critically on my work here. If nothing else though, this week has shown me that the Peace Corps is indeed striving and perhaps succeeding in building from the ground up in a locally driven and sustainable way.

That’s about all for now. Bslama!

*7 is the emphatic “h” (ح) in Roman character texting transliteration.

Oh yeah, and here are some pictures:

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230 pounds of luggage and a few volunteers in JFK at 3 am.
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The hotel and the surrounding city is crawling with cats. They make it all the way to the restaurant to look up at our dinners longingly.
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A 15 minute walk to another beach on our “self-directed learning day.”

 

The impatient language nerd

In 12 hours, we’ll be on a bus to JFK.

This adventure hasn’t officially begun yet, but I needed to replace the stock image of a sunset that WordPress automatically provides when you start a new blog.

So I’ll write about language.

The Peace Corps provided us with a Basic Moroccan Arabic Handbook a few months ago. I tore through this eagerly. It largely reiterated the wisps of Moroccan Arabic grammar I had gleaned by flipping through other textbooks, but one note in particular caught my attention.

Capture

Oooh… A verb that changes meaning depending on tense? Are there others? How do you say “I wanted” or “I used to want”? Are the categories “past tense” and “present tense” really appropriate? Could it be something more like “completed acts” and “incomplete acts”? But does it make sense to think of wanting or linking complete or incomplete?

I’m very excited for the first day of language classes.