The Difference a Year Makes

Last Ramadan, something didn’t feel right.  For the life of me, I was having all kinds of trouble integrating.  The only time I got to break fast was when I went to Avery’s site to see my host family who lived there.  I had moments when I felt jealous of all my friends living in the countryside and being swarmed by invitations to eat at this house or eat at that house while this “city” boy got no invitations at all.

The difference a year makes.

Now, I’m still complaining (big surprise from me, right), but it’s because I can’t handle all these invitations.  It’s not that I did a great job integrating in the last year.  It really just boils down to making a good decision to move to the olive orchard, where the community is more intimate and everyone knows you.  I’ve literally flip-flopped in a year from having not a single invitation to so much as drink tea at someone’s house to actually having to turn people down for El-Ftour because I promised a different family I would eat with them.  It’s to the point where, if I want to cook my own meal at my own house, I have to fight (read: lie) to be able to do that: “Oh, I’m sorry, but I told Momma and Babba that I would talk to them tonight.”  Really?  That’s the best lie I can come up with?  When did I get so bad at lying?  Maybe it’s just that lying in a different language is more difficult to do.  You’re more exposed to the truth, because you’re more aware of the ways you use words to veil what other words mean.

I don’t know.  It’s not that I mean to complain, by the way.  This is what I wanted.  It’s why I moved out of the city.  Plus, I love breaking fast with a family, and the food is delicious.  In fact, even though I wasn’t planning on fasting when Ramadan started, I’ve been fasting for the past week, just because I’m on this schedule of breaking fasts with families, and once again, I’m just not good enough to lie to them, so I actually fast so my “lie” can be true.

Yesterday, I ate at Lahcen the Saharawi‘s house.  He likes to call himself the “Saharawi,” or “Guy from the Desert,” (specifically the so-called “Western Sahara”) so – he says – I don’t confuse him with any other Lahcen’s who live in my village.

His family is beautiful.  Three curly-haired girls, all under four, named Nadia, Nora, and Asma, and not a one of them spoke a lick of Arabic, because they’re a Berber family, but they all knew my name and proudly said “Hello Fouad” in English when I arrived.  That was a new experience for me, you know, sitting on the floor breaking fast and having better Arabic skills than the family I was eating with, except the father.  Oh, and the coffee was by far the best spiced, cinnamon coffee I’ve had in this country.

The day before that, I broke fast with Hammou, the assistant at the youth center where I work.  His wife made lamb rolls and bastilla rolls (a pigeon and chicken pastry of sorts topped with confectionary sugar), but I never actually saw her.  She hid away in the kitchen.

I’m blabbing.  The point is, those are all things I’m thankful for, and it’s food I know I will miss when I’m gone, but tonight, I was reminded again why I just need a break from it sometimes.  When it gets to be too much.

I decided tonight that I was determined to cook for myself, so when Allal asked me to come over, I went with a new lie: “I have to pack my clothes so I can travel.  Another time, God willing.”  Actually, that was true, except that I haven’t packed, because I’m lazy.  I ended up making a curry dish that was incredible.  I got the sauce just the right thickness, and the rice came out perfectly, too.   Then, after I finished eating, I was burning up, because eating in the desert without air conditioning is actually difficult work.  There’s not many feelings worse than the sweat that starts beading up on your stomach and chest from eating a hot meal in a hot desert.  Eating should not be a workout.  You should not feel like you just lost 10 pounds because you just ate 5.

But because I felt that way, I took my clothes off.  Then I stretched out on my bed and started watching a movie.

Just before midnight, my landlord shows up, and I hear him unlocking the garage.  Now the thing you need to know here is that I don’t have access to the garage that’s connected to my house.  I don’t even have a key to it.  But the door to the garage has a window that sees right into my bedroom, so if my landlord is around, I have absolutely no privacy whatsoever.

So, there I am.  On my bed.  Nude.  Sweating.  Feeling awful.  Watching a movie.  When I hear my landlord coming in.  I jump up and slam my door and start throwing on my jeans, while I hear, “Fouad!  Ah, Fouad!”  I respond from behind my door, still slipping on my shirt backwards like I was just caught doing something shameful in my own house.  When I get my clothes on, I walk to the window in the door to the garage and start talking with Allal who is interrogating me as to why I didn’t come break fast with him.  I told him the truth: “I wanted to cook American food for once, Allal.”

“You don’t like breaking fast with us?”

“No, I love it, but… [back to white lies] I’m traveling, and I needed to pack.”

For the next two hours, Allal worked in the garage while I watched movies burning up with my clothes on.  We’d agreed to drink tea together when he finished, and as 1a.m. rolled around, he and his uncle showed up and asked me to make tea for them, so I put on a pot of tea, while we made small talk.  And then it happened, the thing I have been dreading or hoping I could escape before it happened: Allal asked me what I was going to do with all my stuff before I left for America.

The amount of “stuff” a human being collects in a two-year period is ridiculous, I assure you.  I have a fully-functioning house complete with a stove and oven, buta tanks, pots and pans, cutting boards, dresser drawers, couches (four in sum), a queen-size bed.  I came to this country with two backpacking backpacks.  I now have so much crap that not even half of it can fit on one donkey cart.  Allal went on, “I heard the volunteer in Tirnest gave all of his stuff to his landlord.  We don’t have a refrigerator.  Are you going to give away your refrigerator?”

Caity and Avery had told horror stories about this.  When someone takes you into their home and treats you like family, your stuff is their stuff.  To separate it out and say, “This goes to so-and-so, while that goes to someone else” could be very damaging to that relationship.  Problem is, Allal may not be the only person who feels entitled to my things.  My host family, especially since they are from Tirnest where Avery lived, has to know how this works.  My host family is rich, relatively speaking; they don’t need my crap.  But I have every expectation that they will ask me at some point when they are getting my things.  It makes me want to run away and just leave the house unlocked so anyone can take whatever they want.

The best way I know to describe it is this: it feels a little like you’re dying, and everybody knows it, but rather than caring about the fact that you’re dying, they just want your crap.  I don’t actually think that viewpoint captures the culture fairly; I know these people do care about me and will miss me when I leave.  Allal keeps asking me, after all, if I’ll call him from America, if I’ll miss him and his family.  It’s just how it feels.

And that’s fitting and fair, because so much of Peace Corps is, actually, a lifespan in two short years.  You show up new like a baby, and you have to learn how to talk right and how to use the bathroom properly.  You grow up a little and can speak a little and can navigate your way through things fairly easily.  You work.  You work hard.  Eventually, you’ve got such a hang of things, you’re like a grandfather showing new volunteers how to take the right baby steps so they will grow up too, and then – you prepare for death.  And you go home.  This life here, as you know it, this entire world and culture, comes to an end.

So, when Allal asked me for my things tonight, it was like finding out that I have some sort of terminal illness, and my life here is quickly coming to an end.  Pretty soon, I’ll be kickin’ the ole Peace Corps bucket, and I’ve entered the first stage: Denial.  And I’m not talkin’ about the river that’s on the other side of this continent.

I think, maybe, I’ll go to Casablanca to see Dark Knight Rises.  I hear they have an IMAX Theater there, and it would be nice to pretend like I’m not going to die.  Or watch a good American movie and pretend like I was never even born here.  Denial.  Yup.  I like it.

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