The Boulemane Province, at least on this side of the mountains, is a little like Southern California. It never rains. Or rather, when it does rain in the summer, it does so for maybe twenty minutes and then dries up before you notice it even happened. The only reason it is noticeable is because of that familiar scent in the air that lingers around as though something that had been shackled up by the endless days of sun was suddenly set free.
The rain, though, is a potential disaster to the fort on my roof, which I called “Fouad’s Palace” (El-Ksar Fouad) to my landlord who thought that was the funniest thing he’d ever heard in his life. I even got a full-on handshake out of that “joke.” Usually, if I suspect the rain, I have to remove my sofa (ponj) and blankets before the droplets come crashing in. Once, I didn’t quite make it, and I’ve been dealing with a moldy smell ever since. I seem to remember America had some sort of device that when you pressed a button, a refreshing smell would pour out of a nozzle and overtake those moldy scents, but I can’t remember if I just dreamed that or what. I’ve yet to see anything like that for sell in my village. Maybe I should invent it.
Come to think of it, I’ve actually had several moments lately where I think of something back in America (or imagine it, if it didn’t actually exist), and then I think, “If a Moroccan sold that here, that particular Moroccan would make a fortune.” Like maybe Febreeze. Case in point, this country needs laundry mats, and the first person to open up laundry mats in seven major cities here will be a millionaire overnight (in Dirhams, let’s not get carried away here). I’ve had plenty of time in Ramadan to think this through, and it’s a fool-proof plan.
Anyhow, back to rain. So, after my one disaster where my evening home base, Fort Fouad, was torn apart by a storm, I’ve been incredibly wary, and if I so much as see a cloud I don’t like, I move the sofa into the stairwell. Somehow, today, when I moved the sofa, it got stuck in the stairwell so that the only way to get down the stairs was to go over the sofa, but when I tried to go over the sofa, I slipped on it and then slide down the rest of the way. And then it hit me. I have a slide in my house. And boy does she slide.
So, between a Fort that I built on my roof and a slide in my stairwell, the only thing I was missing was some sort of cool beverage to be able to sit back and enjoy it all. Problem solved: I bought fresh mint, seven lemons, and sugar. Fresh-squeezed lemonade with mint all to myself.
I guess it’s pretty obvious that there’s not really any work to do during Ramadan, or the little there is to do, no one feels like doing it. It’s hot. No one is eating or drinking anything, and everything is closed until nightfall. That’s turned me into a strange hermit of sorts (no, really, stranger than usual) who only goes out at night to dine with Moroccans, and this year, I’ve had to schedule my meals because I’ve had so many invitations. I have to fight to just get one night in to myself where I can cook my own food.
The rest of the day is literally spent loafing around just trying to not be bored or lonely, and that’s where things like building forts, reading Steinbeck, writings novels (working on my second currently and up to Chapter 4), making lemonade and sliding on make-shift slides, all become a part of the magical land of Fouad. It’s all just a little bit wonderful and a little bit silly, but I’ve gotten incredibly good at being productive with different personal projects when there is absolutely nothing going on. I think that is something that is required of a Peace Corps Volunteer: you have to learn to be comfortable with yourself and to enjoy countless hours of being by yourself. This is something I think I’ve always been good at, but here, it goes a step beyond mere solidarity and steps into a zone where you really start to discover the things that you love. I actually think if everyone was required to spend one year to themselves like this, we would all be so much happier. Because you just can’t love other people if you can’t be comfortable in your own skin loving whatever mess of cards you’ve been dealt.
Yesterday, on my way to Allal’s on my bike, I passed a seven year-old banging two empty coke bottles together like drums. I thought, “Those are his toys.” And that’s something I see a lot here. People don’t have all the junk that occupies our every waking moment in America between iPhones and iPads and PCs and cool sports gear, etc. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love all our American techno-gadgets and toys, but seeing a boy banging two empty plastic bottles together and knowing he was perfectly happy with those two bottles, and I just thought, “Yeah, we don’t just need a year of solitude to figure out what we love. We need a year of being stripped of all the techno-junk we have, to get back to something more simple and be reminded that life is pretty darn good no matter how rich or how poor, if you’re just willing to be happy with what you have.”
I think Ramadan gets to the heart of that idea – being happy and thankful for what you have. When I first moved up to Fort Fouad and started sleeping under my mosquito net, I wrapped a group of Christmas lights around the net, because I thought they were peaceful when they blinked, but the first night of Ramadan, I turned them off, and as the crickets chirped, I just lay there and stared up, straight up into the night. From my roof, the Milky Way (El-triq el-labnya) stretched across the horizon shining brighter than usual thanks to the New Moon. It took moving all the way out into a three hundred year-old olive orchard before I could actually see the Milky Way out here. But let me tell you, it was worth it. But as the moon grew in the sky, it faded the Milky Way a little and gave me something else to look forward to.
Ramadan follows the path of the moon from one new moon to the next, so each night, as I would glance at the moon before bedtime, I could see Ramadan passing by from the waxing crescent and now to a half moon as the month is one-fourth gone. I don’t know that I’ve ever really watched – I mean, really watched – the phases of the moon so carefully, knowing that they are guiding my month and not just the tide. It’s actually this incredibly comforting feeling. You feel sort of like the moon is watching you, and it’s not just happening the other way around. You can’t help but glance up, and your eyes are drawn right to it, and it’s just you and this big orb in the sky that’s busy tellin’ time.
And time, she’s a movin‘. She’s moving quickly. Soon, Ramadan will be over. My Close-of-Service Conference will have passed. I’ll be in America in just three or four more cycles of that moon, and before I know it, on to the next thing. That’s the way a sky works, I think. It just glides along the horizon, new seasons, new constellations. The longer you sit and stare up at that old sky, the more convinced you are that the crickets and the stars have some secret plan they’re working on together, some sort of great, electric light symphony they’re getting ready for. It’s just hard not to stare up at that sky and not be overwhelmed and not know that there’s some thanksgiving that must be spoken, that Ramadan, indeed, is generous.