This top ten is a bit different in that, rather than giving you the usual wordy commentary, I’ve decided to simply tell you ten stories from my service that represented a few things I’m looking forward to bidding farewell. A brief caveat is in order: none of these stories represent Moroccan culture. This culture is far too complicated, and the people are far too wonderful and complex for one or two bad experiences to color an entire group of people. I said to a friend recently that the real danger of a homogeneous culture is that, because everything often looks and sounds the same, there can be a tendency to forget the diversity of these people; there can be a tendency to let “one bad apple spoil the whole bunch”…girl. I didn’t want to share with you some sort of expose that made you think I have a sour taste in my mouth with Moroccan culture, because I don’t; I very much love this Kingdom and will deeply miss it (that top ten list is coming next week, in fact). But I needed to find a way to share the other side of the coin honestly. So, I think it’s best to let a few stories speak for themselves. Just please remember that they only represent one guy’s experience. They represent my experience, not Moroccans and not this culture, even if they were a part of it.
So, as usual, without further ado, here I bring you ten (or more) stories from my service:
10. Liver, Stomach Lining, and Sheep Testicles. And Leben. My first time trying buttermilk, or leben, I nearly vomited in my mouth. I didn’t want to hate it; I just did. And I’m not sure what it is about this Moroccan delicacy, but I’ve yet to find a volunteer who honestly loves (or even likes) to drink it (and the few who did often tested positive for Tuberculosis during their exit medical exams). So, a week or two ago, when I was with Jon and three other volunteers at his children’s camp, we did an American skit based on the Muppet’s song (that originated in Sesame Street) “Mah Nà Mah Nà.” But we changed the words just slightly to “Marrah Marrah,” which means “From time to time.”
The skit went like this: one of the Moroccan kids walked up to his friend who was acting as a tabib, or doctor, and greeted him, “Salam Aalaykum! Labas aalik? kolchi bikhir?” The other kid responded, “What’s wrong? Are you sick? Where does it hurt you?” So, the kid points to his head and says, “Oh, my head, it hurts me,” and the doctor inquires, “Well, it sounds like you’ve been eating too many dates. How often have you been eating dates?” In response, the other kid scratches his head and says, “Hold on, let me think.”
Cue the Americans with the girls on both sides of me, Jon, and Matt providing the background duet, “Do Do, Do-Do-Do,” while us boys turn around quickly and in our best Animal voices sing, “Marrah, Mrrah.” Then, we quickly got silent and jumped back around, while the skit continued.
Two more questions were posed to the doctor, as the patient described stomach issues, and the doctor insists it was either karmous, figs, or some other fruit or vegetable. Each time, as the patient pauses to think, Team America busts out with our rendition of the Muppet Show until, finally, the doctor asks, “How often do you drink leben?” That time, we turned around and said in Arabic, “La, ma-kan-charabou-ch leben,” or, “No, we don’t drink leben.”
If you think that’s not funny, it’s because you haven’t lived in Morocco or developed a sense of Moroccan humor, but you’ll just have to trust me that it got big laughs. In the meantime, I’ll be happy if I never have someone offer me leben ever again.
9. Adolescent Older Men Who Want you to Convert to Islam but are Terrible Examples of It. In what is probably somewhat of a oxymoron, there was a guy in Avery’s village who always insisted that he never drank or smoke, because he was devoutly Muslim, but on at least one occasion, Avery caught him hiding an alcohol bottle behind his back and trying to pretend like he wasn’t doing anything wrong. I don’t know if it was the same guy or not, but at one point, Avery was having lunch at someone’s house, and he complimented the cook, only to find out that the husband had beat her afterward because she’d been complimented instead of him. That wasn’t a normal thing, and several other men in Avery’s community were offended by the way that guy had acted. But on multiple occasions, I also found myself in this strange in-between world where Islam was praised by the very folks who were acting contrary to the teachings of the Prophet. During Ramadan this year, I was at a taxi stand just outside of Sefrou, literally right next to one of the largest mosques. Just before the call-to-prayer, there was a huge, huge fight between two grown men, one of whom was a taxi driver and the other was upset because he felt like the driver had cheated him. As soon as everyone finished praying, several people came pouring out of the mosque and walked right upon a second fight over the exact same circumstances. Fasting from food and cigarettes during the day, people kept insisting to me, is healthy and a good thing, but at what costs? So grown men can act like children? This is a bit of a diversion from “story mode,” but I wouldn’t dare pretend like Christianity is any better.
8. Lack of air conditioning and heater. There’s no great story here. It’s just simply this: there were days in August when I would strip down to absolutely nothing, and if someone came banging at the door, I had to quickly slip on jeans and a shirt while yelling, “Schoon?” or “Who’s there?” Throughout Ramadan, both years, most all I did was sit and sweat. There is no escape from 120 degree weather in a concrete house. By contrast, the winter meant having multiple volunteers over and shacking up in my room on one bed per four volunteers. Sounds scandalous, I know, but it rarely was. Fully-clothed cuddling under five layers of blankets, and everybody was still shivering. I didn’t know that kind of cold existed, but it did. I recall that Avery had to borrow my Burt’s skin lotion, because the cold weather chapped his knuckles so bad that they were bleeding. During the daytime, I would escape to the Post Office, the only building in town that was heated. Finally, I broke down and bought a heater, but the electricity bill after using it for a month was so high that the people next door paid a guy to knock a hole in my wall and theirs so their electricity could be calculated on a separate meter (we were previously sharing one). Suffice to say, I’ll have a hard time ever complaining about how cold or how hot it is ever again in my life.
7. Harassment from Children. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that kids in my village have a tendency to yell, “Bonjour!” or chase you down and ask for money, grabbing your hand and begging. Sometimes, this turns into rock throwing, and on multiple occasions, I’ve had to chase down eleven year-olds who threw a rock at me. One day, before I’d moved into the Olive Orchard, Avery and I were hiking through the orchard, and a group of kids yelled, “Hola!” Avery got pissed, which is hard to do, and he called them all over, “Ajiou, Ajiou!” or “Come here!” So, they run and hide behind trees, and Avery tells them not to be afraid, and then for the next ten minutes, he gives them a language lesson on how Americans don’t speak Spanish or German or Italian or French but English (which isn’t entirely accurate, but you know). He then makes them repeat “Hello” and “What’s up,” hoping that if we get harassed by them again, at least it’ll be in the right language. Since Avery has left, Jon’s picked up this tactic and taken it to an extreme, and every time he does, it is hilarious. It’s like taking harassment and flipping it on its head.
So, I’m walking down the street with Jon, and we hear this little high-pitched, “Hello! Gimme a dirham!” followed by giggling. Jon immediately turns around and starts walking toward the kid and speaking to him in fluent, overly-excited English: “Why hello to you! How are you? You speak English! Let’s have a conversation in English right now! What? Wait, all you know how to say to me is hello? You have to learn more English than simply a salutation.” Meanwhile, the impish, almost evil grin on the face of this kid has turned to shear horror that the America is actually engaging a conversation, and he can’t understand one bit of it. When Jon’s done this with a group of kids, the other kids usually start making fun of the one Jon’s addressing. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing as enjoyable as harassing the daylights out of little kids who thought they could one-up you with a little impish power-play because they think you’re a dog they can throw a rock at; good riddance.
6. Doing Laundry by Hand. To the complete disgrace of any Moroccan woman, I am pathetically terrible at washing clothes by hand. When Hope came in May, she brought me a bunch of socks, and Patrick left me a few of his just a week or two before that (because he was that embarrassed for my sock situation). I have already destroyed all those socks, and I am in barefoot mode these days just hoping to God I can make it until late October, at which point, I will probably fork out the money for new socks just before leaving. There’s just something about the rigorous rubbing you have to do to get all the dirt out that makes it nearly impossible for socks (or any clothes) to last long, and in my defense, I don’t think that’s less true for Moroccans doing laundry by hand. Although Fatima – my host mother in Sefrou – sure did a good job of getting my socks clean (a much better job than I do), those all had holes in them pretty quickly.
By the time I got to my village, I seriously considered asking Fdila, my new host mother, to do my laundry for me. After all, she had a washing machine, and I was willing to pay, but after the first time she did the laundry, it came back smelling like a donkey, because there was one upstairs where they were hanging the clothes to dry. If I had to choose between having my clothes smell days-old or smell like donkey, I was going to go with days-old every time.
5. Being Dusty and Dirty. When I left for Close-of-Service Conference a few weeks ago, the most exciting part – getting to a nice hotel for a nice shower. Seriously, there is nothing I look forward to more than a daily shower, even if it does make me feel wasteful these days. If I leave my house for a week, the entire floor is caked in a dust that, despite the windows being closed, manages to find its way not just to top of the floor but even under the rugs. I’ve been scratching my head for some time trying to figure out how nearly three or four millimeters of dust can pile itself up under a pretty thick rug.
Right before Caity and Avery and Nicole left, I remember that Caity accidentally got caught in a sandstorm walking 10 kilometres from her village to another nearby village, and by the time she got here, her clothes were one solid layer of brown. You could hit them like you were going to beat a blanket, and then you would cough from all the dust it kicked up. Sure, I know, we could always take a trip down to the hammam to get clean, but every time I went to the hammam, Omar or Khalil or whoever would insist on staying there for three hours. I can only handle maybe 30 minutes tops, maybe an hour on a cold day. Not three.
So, yeah, not gonna miss feeling dirty.
4. Missour, more like Eye Sore? Even though there are no volunteers there, Spring Camp this year and the year before that sent us to our provincial capital town of Missour where we worked as English teachers and counselors for a week. Alexa, a health volunteer who was close friends with Caity, jokingly called it, “Missour, more like eye sore,” in reference to the rather unpleasant nature of the town. It’s the closest place in my service I ever came to the real Mos Eisley. This last year, one of the volunteers was showering in the bathroom, and a group of teenagers jumped the fence, stole her clothes, and ran away while taunting her. A few months later, Peace Corps sent a female volunteer there by herself, and two days into living there, she was thrown against a wall by some punk teen who then licked her face from her neck to her forehead and said out loud, “I love you” before he ran away. It hasn’t all been bad, Missour. There are a few great people to work with there. The town definitely has its moments. But those two stories were a bit unforgettable, and the Safety & Security Officer at one point referred to the town, appropriately, as “the black spot” of Peace Corps. Oh, Missour. Poor, poor Missour.
3. Bureaucratic Government Agencies with Unrealistic Expectations. I’ve decided to let this one speak for itself. No story necessary. The title says it all.
2. French Bureaucracy. When I first got to Morocco, some of the bureaucracy made me giggle. The Gendarmes in particular, I remember comparing with a scene from the Beatles.
Toward the end of the movie Help at 1:10:37, if you want to fast-forward to it, the Police Inspector gets off the plane to meet the local Gendarmes, but there are only four of them. As he is being introduced to each Gendarme, the last one ducks below his fellow coworkers and runs to the end of the line to be introduced again, so that the Police Inspector will think there are a great many Gendarmes working the case. That sums up exactly what I think of Gendarmes.
Early in my service, I recall walking into the Gendarmes office, and the Chief was scrambling through paperwork on his desk of all the American Volunteers. He hands me half the paperwork and asks me, “Is she still in Morocco?” pointing to a volunteer who had left years earlier. Later, he started to freak out because they had paperwork for five volunteers, but they were sure there were only four of us. In fact, the fifth volunteer was Meagan, and her papers were being counted twice, because they had two files on her and had not realized that it was the same person, even though it was the exact same picture and the exact same name. I remember asking Avery, “Are we really that difficult to keep track of? There has to be a special place in hell where, as punishment for whatever you did wrong, you’re forced to endure this kind of meaningless French bureaucracy for all of eternity.” You could say, I don’t laugh about bureaucracy anymore; it’s not the giggling matter it was my first six months in country.
1. People Who Only Help Others When it Benefits Themselves. When I first got started on the glasses project a year or so ago, I was explaining the concept for the glasses (you know, that they are self-adjusting) to a friend of mine who is married to an optometrist in Tennessee. He gave a rather apathetic, if not a slightly agitated response: “So, glasses turn a dial and they can change the prescription? That’s a terrible idea. You’re going to put eye doctors out of business.” I tried to explain, “No, the glasses are for poor people in the developing world where there aren’t as many optometrists and where, even if there are optometrists, many people can’t afford glasses.” He gave me a “Okay, I guess, but I still think it’s a bad idea” like a kid who just realized they lost a middle school debate. I pressed him a little harder, explaining that the technology doesn’t fix astigmatism or other eye issues, so optometrists would never be “hurt” really by the product. He still disagreed, so I added, “Wait, so you think that because we have the technology out there to help people, we shouldn’t help them if it hurts someone who’s already financially stable, whose business – even if these glasses could hurt them (they wouldn’t) – would barely be impacted by the good of this technology?”
At the time, I thought that argument was something you’d only hear from a wealthy libertarian white boy who thinks every success he’s ever had was the result of his own hard work and had nothing to do with the social circumstances in which he was raised. Then, I went to the Mendubya, or the Ministry of Health Delegation with Jonathan to get approval to distribute glasses in Oulad Ali.
Because Jon is a Health Volunteer, his town [equivalent of the] mayor wanted approval from Missour, so Jon and I traveled to meet with the guy in charge there. He took one look at the glasses, as we explained the technology and said, “Well, we can keep the frames, but you’ll have to get rid of these lenses.” We explained that would defeat the purpose of the glasses, and he agreed to let us distribute the glasses so long as there was an optometrist to look them over and give his approval first. By the end of the conversation, he was insisting that the glasses technology would put eye doctors out of business, and he refused to help us, even though everyone in Oulad Ali was under the poverty line and couldn’t afford glasses anyway.
Yeah, so needless to say, I have no patience for someone who only helps people if it benefits those who already have everything they need. I’m tired of that attitude in America, and I’m tired of that attitude in Morocco. It has to stop.
So, there you have it. Ten stories about a few things I won’t miss all that much. Next week: the things I’ll miss the most.