“I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello”

After Eid el-Adha, I took a day or two to rest.  Eight hours slaughtering and eating and visiting with folks will tire you out, let me tell ya.  Then, yesterday, my landlord rolled in with a few younger looking guys who were visiting their family from Meknes and Chefchaouen.  He showed them the house and all the stuff I am giving him and his family.  They asked if I had celebrated Eid with Allal, and then I heard something I never want to hear again:

“Did he even eat the balls?”
“Oh yeah, yeah, he ate the balls.  We put the balls in the lunch meal.”

My eyes widened.  There are times when you wish you could not understand Arabic.  This.  This was definitely that moment.

Today, an incredibly shy fourteen year-old showed up at my door.  I’d never seen him in my life.  He mumbled something, and I had to ask him to repeat himself multiple times before I understood – “My father says you’re supposed to come eat with us now.”  Hmm.  Strange kid on a mission from his dad ordering me to his house for lunch?  Absolutely!  I asked him his name – Amine – and told him to give me a second.  Then, we were off walking through a part of the olive orchard I’d never seen.  At this point in my service, I thought I had explored all there was to explore of the orchard, although in fairness, it’s probably five times the size of my town, which takes me forty minutes or so to walk from one end to the other.

Today’s new path was walled up by large mud-brick walls about eight feet high on either side of the path.  It hides the grove and makes you feel like you’ve stepped into another era.  I kept thinking someone might round the corner on a cart full of bodies yelling, “Bring out yer dead!  Bring out yer dead!”  That it felt medieval is probably fitting.  I don’t quite know the reasoning for these walls or why they are stacked so high, but I do know there are some tensions between a few families living in parts of the orchard.  In fact, before I moved out here, I was told that there had been a recent “skirmish” over gun powder in the orchard (the phrase actually used was “tribal warfare”), which is strange since I don’t think I’ve seen a single gun that didn’t belong to the police my entire two years.  As the story goes, whatever tensions went on out here caused one of the local gendarmes to “almost get killed.”  That may have something to do with why the Gendarmes were so against me moving out here.  But I did my homework, and I still feel safer here than in Centreville near the taxi-stand where I was nine months ago.

Anyhow, the mud-brick walls maze around several fields, and there are a series of aqueducts, one of which runs parallel with one of the walls and then suddenly disappears under another.  When we rounded a turn, there was a large mud-brick house that had been so well-crafted and carefully planned, it looked like a giant, brown castle.  The mud had been stacked on the roof forming triangular parapets.  To make it even more castle-like, when you entered the front door, you realized you’d walked into an open walkway with no roof.  The actual house itself was yet to come.

We walked in and met a series of familiar faces.  It was the same guys who had asked if I had eaten testicles.  The family is related to my landlord with the paterfamilias being my landlord’s wife’s brother.  (I might be wrong on this connection).  I do not know any of their names besides Amine who kept busy doing math homework with his older brother who, coincidentally, was a math teacher near Chefchaouen.  Meanwhile, another of Amine’s brothers was working on his doctorate in International Relations in Meknes and spoke a little English.  As is usually the case when I visit a family for the first time, the women are never seen – not even to bring the food out.  …which is a shame, because the dish they prepared was probably the best lamb I have ever eaten in my life.  They had prepared it in a sauce that mixed cinnamon and quince.  And, come to think of it, there may have been balls in there again, but let’s just not focus on that.

We sat around chitchatting for a little while (mostly them chitchatting about how much I must miss my mother to have lived here for two years), and after dinner, we toggled between watching Pirates of the Caribbean 4 and While You Were Sleeping, the Sandra Bullock movie about the girl who saves a guy’s life on the train tracks and then pretends to be his fiance while he’s in a coma.  There’s not a whole lot stranger than sitting in a castle-like mud-brick house in the middle of an olive grove watching Sandra Bullock on T.V.

When it came time to leave, the brothers walked me toward my house helping me retrace my steps through the maze, and I thanked them for having me for lunch.  In the midst of all my goodbyes, it was so nice to have these people so eager to say hello.  But that is how Moroccan hospitality works.  It’s never-ending.  I walked away with a huge grin on my face and a stomach full of quince and lamb deeply thankful for having experienced that level of hospitality and hopeful that I can show the same when I return to America.

Thirty Days

Thirty Days.  It’s like America is so close but so far away at the same time.  You may as well be dangling a giant cheesy gordita crunch in front of me and saying, “One month.  You have to stare at it for one month, but you can’t eat it yet.”  Sick, sad world.

I think I made the mistake of thinking this last thirty days was going to be relatively relaxed.  I mean, most of my projects were over, right?  The diabetes project is done; the glasses project has passed into the hands of other volunteers; Hassan cancelled my classes at the youth center.  It was an ideal time to turn and focus on grad school applications and saying goodbye to friends.  I even went to Fes and sent a package home just to free up some packing space.

Then, out of nowhere, my schedule booked up.  Next week, Jonathan and I are going to Tandit, a nearby village to replicate the diabetes project.  Basically, a guy who attended our workshop was originally from Tandit.  He loved what we did so much that he said, “We gotta do this again.”  This time around, Jon and I are mostly playing the role of spectators rather than having the stresses of planning the finer details.  This is exactly what you want to happen when you do a project.  It’s sustainability perfected.  I think seeing this happen in Tandit will be one of the highlights of my service.

A week after that, the Country Director and someone from Peace Corps HQ in Washington, D.C. is coming out this way for a mural painting project and another Eyejusters glasses distribution in Jonathan’s village.  Jon and I are preparing to put on quite a show, and we’ve invited folks from the diabetes project and my youth center director, as well.

And then, just when you thought things would finally die down, Jon and I have committed to playing an ongoing game of Risk for the remainder of my service.  And so it begins.  I will command the greatest Army that ever walked the face of Planet Earth, and I will obliterate annihilate Jonathan Pleban battalion by battalion until not a single soldier is left standing, so help me God.  (And somewhere in there, I will find time to pack my house, work on manuscripts, say goodbye to family’s in town, and help Allal slaughter the family sheep for Eid).

In the meantime, I find myself cherishing the littler things I know I’ll miss.  The monster olive trees with their curved spines.  The crimson, cold, paprika-cement floor of my orchard house.  The deep guttural musings of Arabic – my God, how I’ll miss Arabic.  How crazy is it to have this entire language buried within you and no one around to hear it?

I’ve had several friends lately trying to remind me, “Oh, Philip, you’re going to be so depressed when you get back to America.  I know so-and-so lived in such-and-such place and they were so crazy culture shocked when they got back!  Blah blah blah.  Bob Loblaw’s Law Blog.”  One friend even went as far as to say I would be “vacant.”  Really – vacant?

Here’s what I think: I think change or transition or transformation, however you want to phrase that, very often involves some kind of death and rebirth.  But I also think that metaphor can come across as kind of violent, so instead, I’m going to play a little with the idea of vacancy, or as I like to call it, an emptying of oneself.  I think for the past two years, I’ve had all these opportunities to fill up on Moroccan culture.  It was like I was filling this bottle with couscous and mint tea and God-phrases and Islam and djellabas and rugs, and a day is quickly coming where I’m going to have to slowly pour that out to make room for something new.  And I think the healthiest kinds of transitions are the ones where you learn how to empty the bottle slowly sharing it with the right people at the right time while you simultaneously refill it, taking in new experiences, new faces, new things.  …unless you’re a recovering alcoholic, in which case that metaphor just sort of breaks down altogether….

So, in thirty days, will I begin a painful process and sometimes be down-and-out?  Sure.  But it’ll be one of those moments, I believe, that wakes you up inside and makes you feel alive and experienced and loved all at the same time.


So, here’s a few thoughts about a man who has had a big impact on my life the past two years, but I don’t know that I’ve ever even mentioned him, so it just seemed fitting to say a thing or two.

When I arrived in my village, Hassan – the director of my youth center – was one of the first people I met.  He’s a short man, maybe just a bit on the hefty side.  If you don’t get to know him very well, you’d think he was a very somber and serious man.  I think that’s because he has this tendency to lean back in his chair and scratch his scruffy chin, like a wise, old man pondering over whatever you’ve just said (or in my case how to translate it into something tangible).

My first year of service, I couldn’t seem to crack him.  But as my language got better, I found him to be one of the funniest and jolliest men I’ve encountered in Morocco.  And not just that: every single volunteer who has spent more than five minutes around him has said something to the effect of, “Wow, Hassan is probably the best counterpart I’ve met.”  Why?  He gets us. He understands our terrible, first grade Arabic.  He understands our goals as American volunteers.  I mean, he even understands the concept of volunteerism (and that’s something many people in this country don’t understand at all; just ask some of the folks who are convinced I’m CIA, FBI, or a missionary, because they can’t wrap their heads around the fact that someone would ‘sacrifice’ life in America to come to their little village).  He understands that the youth of Morocco are the future of Morocco, and he has devoted his life to improving theirs.  I feel like there are plenty of directors in youth centers across the country who do good work and make an impact, but I think it’s rare to find one who can both understand why that impact matters and actually loves being a part of the bigger picture at the same time.

Last week, Hassan helped me do some of the prep work for our Diabetes workshop, but while we were sitting around putting Arabic workbooks together on diabetes information, we just chitchatted a little about religion and politics – conversations I can’t seem to avoid in any language.  He was asking me if I’d watched the now-infamous film that’s caused so much hate, and I told him I’d seen a good chunk of it and that it was awful.  I tried to explain a little about why it was so important to me to get back to America and let people know that Islam isn’t this terrible, awful thing they think it is.  I also told him that I was worried that if Romney won the presidency, it could very poorly affect America’s relationship with the Arab world.  Hassan really wanted to know who I thought would win, where I thought the election currently stood, and I explained absentee ballots and that I’d be proudly casting my vote for the ‘Muslim ticket,’ you know – Obama).

As we kept talking, I told Hassan about the fiasco with the glasses project in Jonathan’s village – how the Ministry official rudely refused to let us distribute glasses there, because he was worried the technology of the glasses would put doctors out of business.  I reiterated the point that the official was incredibly rude to us.  “Maybe he has diabetes,” Hassan planted a huge smile across his face, “and he should come to our workshop.”  Ah, yes, the “people with diabetes are irritable” joke: very clever, Hassan.  Clever indeed.

He had me laughing for quite a while over that one, actually.

Maybe that’s just it, though.  He has this clever way of taking something heavy or serious and joking about it without trivializing it.  He’s the same man who, while helping me fix my refrigerator, yelled at a guy for trying to convert me to Islam: “Stop trying to convert him!  Do you want to convert to Christianity?  Shut up at do your work and just fix the fridge already.”  And then he turned to me with a huge grin and shook my hand.  That always gave me a deep appreciation for Hassan who is probably more devout as a Muslim than the man who was trying to convert me.

As things are coming to a close, one thing I’ll have to figure out is how to properly say goodbye to Hassan.  I thought about writing a letter, as I’m prone to do, but even though I think I could pull it off, it would just take an ungodly amount of time to write a letter in Arabic, and I’d never have the guarantee that he’d understand it all.  I also considered giving him honey or a few little gifts.  I don’t know how I’ll handle this goodbye exactly.  It’s near impossible to sum up in one goodbye what someone has meant to you, especially when you suspect you’ll never see them again.  I don’t know if that’s true, you know, that I’ll never see Hassan again, but I know it’s a real possibility.  I hope the best for him, and as I am preparing to leave, it is very comforting to see where things are for him, with the Ministry building him a new house and adding a second level to the youth center.

It seems like whenever we part ways with another person, they etch this memory into us, and who they were to us in those final moments is, on some level at least, who they’ll always be to us – unless they enter our lives again later down the road.  That’s probably not entirely fair in the day-and-age of social networking, where you can “keep in touch” with people you don’t really keep in touch with, watching them age and change (for better or for worse) without ever having to talk to them.  But if it is fair at all, I’m glad this relationship will come to an end with both Hassan and I facing new changes, with both of us carrying fond memories of the other into the remainder of our lives.  So, yeah, that’s my thoughts on Hassan.

What it’s like to feel new again, or What’s all this Berber Stuff?

I spend a lot of time on my blog talking about the so-called Arab World, which really just describes countries where Arabic is the chief language.  That makes sense, because I live in a community where Arabic is spoken almost exclusively outside of the home, and I rarely encounter anything else.  But Morocco isn’t exactly Arab, or at least, it’s not just Arab.  There’s an entire other language and culture with sets of tribal dialects, together known as Shilha (Tamazight or Tashelheit).

The best way I know to describe this language or this culture is to make an unfair comparison: try thinking of it as though Berbers are to Morocco what Native Americans are to the United States.  The one exception is that the Berber community permeates and is extremely important to Moroccan life and culture.  A large portion of the population has Berber roots.

You actually know the word “berber” already, because it comes into the English as the word “barbaric.”  That obviously has negative connotations, but the term didn’t always carry such negativity.  It comes originally from Latin or Greek and means “foreigner,” which is a bit ironic since the Berbers, at least the ones in Morocco (Berbers are spread across Northern Africa), probably existed here before Arab culture conquered.

Not to go into a huge history lesson, but I think that’s all worth mentioning, because it’s a huge part of Morocco that I’m just unaware of solely because I’m constrained to Arabic.  But many Peace Corps volunteers are trained currently to speak the Berber languages, and even just an hour away, there are volunteers speaking this language, and since many Moroccans can speak three or four languages, many of them know one of the Berber dialects and will use it chiefly in the home.

This past weekend, I was thrown into a few Berber communities where, while many people may know Arabic, Shilha seems to be the chief language.  It was a lot like stepping into a new situation where I knew nothing again, and it was fitting to have that experience at the year-mark.  It brought everything full circle.

I traveled with several volunteers to the Imilchil Wedding Festival in the High Atlas Mountains, a festival that dates back at least more than a hundred years in Morocco.  It’s called the Wedding Festival because fathers bring their daughters veiled and dressed in shiny, white kaftans.  Men interested in the girl might ask to see her face or flirt a little before offering the father a dowry if he was interested in making the wedding arrangement.  Then, if the dowry was good enough, the two would marry right there at the festival.

Today, the festival has changed.  There are still wedding arrangements happening, though a lot of it may be staged.  There are no longer weddings.  Instead, the festival is a giant souq, or market.   It’s like Goodwill but Moroccan and cheaper.  The entire festival becomes a makeshift city of sorts with restaurants and cafe’s and everything you can ever imagine to purchase from donkeys and camels to clothes and rugs.  I made two purchases to  buy rugs I thought were beautiful, one of which I haggled down until I got it for half the asking price, taking it from $45 to about $20.

But what made the festival especially nice was the other volunteers, most of whom were friends of Caity and Avery and in their staging group.  I’ve sort of been adopted into their group of friends, and it’s just a solid group of really wholesome people.  In fact, our first night on the way to the Festival, we stayed in Rich with our friend Galen who had painted his house sea blue and managed to wrangle together multiple couches and bookcases for an incredibly comfortable volunteer house.  We cooked lentils and made salad and just sat around talking about Moroccan and American culture.  Having spent the past few weeks working hard in preparation for our HIV Education workshop, sitting in a sea blue room eating lentils with friends was the perfect way to relax after a hard but successful project.

The next few days were chock-full of riding in transits through beautiful, mountainous landscapes, closing our eyes and covering our faces to avoid the dusty wind, sifting through piles and piles of .12 cent clothes, and laughter, lots and lots of laughter.

As I spent time sitting back and thinking about how I’d been here in this beautiful country for one year, what struck me most was how happy I am to be in this place, to live in this moment appreciating everything from a distant mountain to sitting around with old and new friends cracking jokes and loving a more simple life than we’d ever lived before.

…but of course, to answer your most important question: no, I didn’t offer a dowry or marry a Moroccan girl; I’m perfectly happy with Liz.