A Capstone Experience to my Service – a visit from the Country Director

On Monday, the Country Director and the person in charge of gifts and grants for all of Peace Corps drove out to our province in the Middle Atlas.  It was an opportunity for several volunteers to come together and talk about (and show off) some of the work we were doing based on the grants we wrote to make it all happen.  Jon and I managed to pack their day full, which in turn packed our entire week full of prep work for their visit.

The day before they arrived, the children at Jon’s local primary school painted a large mural of fruit to promote nutrition and a Peace Corps logo on an adjacent wall (that included both the American and Moroccan flags).  After the children finished painting, Jon worked with them to prepare a series of “welcome” and “thank you” songs in what was none other than an awesome, shameless act, and quite possibly the most adorable thing you could imagine next to a room full of teddy bears and butterflies.

In the meantime, I sat down with Monica Groen and Nicole Gravante, as well as several Moroccan counterparts (two awesome guys named Hassan), to prepare for what was to be my final glasses distribution in Morocco and to “pass the torch,” so to speak to volunteers who will continue distributing glasses after I am long gone.  It gave us a chance to put our heads together and say, “Okay, here are some problems with this project, and here are some ways to overcome those concerns.”  One problem we kept running into, for example, was a lack of understanding over how to use the new technology for the glasses.  For you and me, it’s simple – you just turn a dial, and a sliding lens corrects your vision.  But imagine explaining that concept to an 86-year old Berber woman who is illiterate and whose first attempt to use the glasses was to put them on upside down.  That’s not a joke.  That happened.  Distributing glasses, it turns out, takes an incredible degree of patience and a willingness to teach.  I was thankful that we had Hassan and Hassan to do some translation for us and to sit down and work with people who might not have understood the first time.

The next morning, during the distribution, I gave a pair of negative lenses to a 59-year old who understood exactly how the glasses worked.  He turned the dial, stopped it, smiled, and belted out a, “Oh yeah, bless you; God’s blessing on you!”  I asked him if they helped, and he grinned big and joked, “There’s nothing blurry anymore.”

When Peace Corps staff showed up, we had a big presentation at the school with children handing staff roses and fresh pomegranates from the teachers.  Then, they gathered around to perform a special kind of Berber dance called an “ahidous.”  That looked a little bit like this video, except performed by 8-year olds and minus the horses at the beginning.  Again – adorable.

For lunch, we got a chance to sit down with the country director, a couple of members of the diabetes association from my town and talk about our diabetes project and the prevalence of diabetes in Morocco.  Allal, our counterpart, insisted that diabetes affects 50% of the population.  I know it’s at least 20%, and sadly, I wouldn’t be surprised if hyper- and hypo-tension  along with Type II diabetes, put that figure pretty close to accurate.  Allal’s excitement about working with us makes him a great candidate for a future host family.  In the meantime, Jon and I may try to squeeze in one more education project before Eid El-Kbir.

After lunch, Jon and a few other volunteers took the country director to Beni Hassan, a nearby village on the outskirts of Jon’s site, where they got to talk about a medical caravan Jon completed, bringing over a dozen doctors and nurses to do health trainings last May.  When they got back, we sat down in Jon’s house for a few hours with sage tea (barroumbo) and harcha, which is basically sweet corn bread.  Jon used the school projector to project a slide show on the wall, where he was able to show the reconstruction of a cellar roof that fell in at the primary school last winter.  Peace Corps funds had been used to repair the roof, freeing up space to store food for the children.  The conversation with Peace Corps staff gave us a chance to really reflect on our service, on our projects, and on why we came to this country in the first place.

Just before concluding the night with dinner, we went to another ahidous, this one put on by an association of guys in their 20s and far more like the video above.  Jon and I wore djellabas, and by the end of the dance, the country director, the staffer from D.C., and all of the Peace Corps volunteers were dancing ahidous in a circle with our Moroccan friends.

Honestly, the whole shindig was like a capstone experience to my entire two years, getting a chance to reflect and celebrate with our Moroccan friends.  The next morning when I rode back to my town in a beat-up old van listening to Berber music the whole way, it just dug in more and more how much I will miss this place.

Hicham and the Paradox of Cultures

A few weeks ago, I was on a train for Rabat, and I met this guy named Hicham.  Hicham was dressed to the hilt in religious garb, all black, and his beard would have put Sam Beam to shame.  To be honest, I had no desire to talk to Hicham; I was tired and not remotely interested in using Arabic.  Speaking in a different language can really drain you, and I had not spoken out loud to a native English speaker in over a week at that point.  The last thing I wanted to deal with was another conversation that started, “Are you Muslim?”

Instead, the conversation drifted in the direction, “What are you doing here?”  I got a chance to talk about our recent diabetes project going around my town with several local youth educating folks at shops and stores nearby.  Hicham mentioned that his own twelve-year old son has diabetes.  Despite being tired and uninterested in using Arabic, I liked Hicham a lot.  He was young, like me, and had studied world religions, like me.  At one point, he praised an American institute devoted to “the study of religion and liberty” and this week, he emailed me their website.   Hicham was a well-educated, well-to-do Rabati on his way home.

Now here’s where the conversation got interesting.  In the train-car with us were two other Moroccans who were, for lack of a better way of putting it, poor.  They were “bladi,” as we volunteers sometimes like to call ourselves, which probably translates to something akin “country bumpkin.”  So, in this train car were two bladi Moroccans, an American volunteer, and a well-educated religious man from the city.  It’s like the beginning of some joke.

As I was explaining what I do in Morocco, the two bladi Moroccans were incredibly confused.  The concept of volunteerism is sometimes lost on people in the countryside.  “Why would anyone sacrifice their riches in a place like America to come here?” they may well ask.  But Hicham got it.  He understood development work, the importance of volunteerism, multiculturalism, cultural exchange, religious diversity – you name it.  Hicham got me.  But then, when Hicham turned to explain to the two Moroccans why I was here, his Arabic was so full of French (and I mean, literally, “French;” that’s not some euphemism for curse words), that they could not understand him.  I had to actually step in at one point and help the two bladi Moroccans understand what Hicham was saying by translating his French (which is funny since I don’t know any French, really) to help bring everybody onto the same page.  Hicham had been so used to speaking to other well-educated Moroccans in the city where the French language symbolizes wealth and class and is essentially still the lingua franca, that it just never occurred to him that his way of speaking Arabic might fly over the heads of the lower classes.

So, here I was, in the middle.  I understood Hicham.  He was so much like me – the privileged man, a scholar of religion.  But I understood the bladi men, too; I understood their frustration with Hicham.  I understood that this train ride was hurting their pocketbook.  I understood none of the French that came from Hicham’s mouth.  I had somehow managed to cross into all of their worlds and none of them at the same time.  Over my two years, I’ve grown to live in the middle of some paradox in this beautiful Kingdom. I belong to it.  And I very much don’t.  At the same time.

And maybe I’m coming to realize that I feel that same way about America.  In fact, I think all of us find ourselves caught somewhere in the middle sometimes.  I’m not sure if it’s as stark as sitting in that train car pulling into the capital city, but I do think the more aware we are of our culture, the more aware we are of the things that shape and mold and influence us, of how exactly those things do that, the more likely it is that we’ll step back and ask, “Where do I fit in here?”  And that’s a question I wish more of us were asking.

What I’ll Miss Most, or a Top Ten List of Sorts

Jon and I were sitting at a cafe yesterday afternoon just waiting for the head of the diabetes association to show up, and as I sipped my ice-cold Fanta Citron, I just thought to myself, “My God, Fanta Citron, I am going to miss the daylights out of you.  It’s gonna be back to Squirt, the grapefruit drink, for this guy.”

Every which way I turn, I’m faced it seems with final moments, and even though I have fifty-something days left in Morocco – which is actually quite a long time – I’m already beginning to feel a little bit homesick for this place.  You know you’ve got it bad when you’re saying goodbye to a soft drink.

That seems a fair introduction to this final top ten list, so without further ado, I bring you the ten things I think I’ll miss most:

10. Bromance.  Not that Harold Burdette won’t fulfill this category in full, but a patriarchal culture like Morocco is one big fraternity house.  I’m being a little bit cheeky here, because I think the bad (y’know, like, women’s rights) might actually outweigh the good in a culture as patriarchal as this, but even when the bad outweighs the good, that doesn’t mean the good should be forgotten or ignored.  I think there’s something nice about the fact that men here can have friendships, you know, real friendships with each other, but in America, we live by some kind of code that prohibits that behavior.  If you don’t believe me, think for a second about the fact that meaningful connections between males (i.e. a good, ole platonic friendships) are rare enough that we have a special word – bromance – just to signify how we think of two dudes who genuinely like each other.   You know, like it’s not “manly” for two guys to hug in some parts of American culture vs. Morocco where two dudes are walking down the street holding hands, and nothing about it is remotely erotic.  (Okay, well, usually not anyhow).  But no one’s going to question it or go, “Hey, look at them.”  This is something that just baffles my mind, because you would think that the more patriarchal the culture, there would be more boundaries against a dude showing affection toward another dude, but no, only in the far-less patriarchal America do we find bans on males, you know, caring about each other.  Or, to sum all of this up in the words of Jermaine from Flight of the Concords, “Why can’t a heterosexual guy tell a heterosexual guy that he thinks his booty is fly?  Not all the time, obviously; just when he’s got a problem with his self-esteem.  Don’t let anybody tell you you’re not humpable, because you’re bumpable; well, I hope this doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable.”:

9. The convenience of your friendly, local l-hanut.  You’re hungry.  The pantry is empty.  You need to go to the grocery store, but that means getting in your car, spending gas money, and driving somewhere between five and ten minutes to buy something.  Not the end of the world, but the nice thing about Morocco is that there’s a local vegetable store around nearly every corner.  It’s not driving distance; it’s walking distance.  You might be thinking, “Well, that’s more work.”  Maybe.  But, especially when I lived in the January house, there was just something so incredibly wonderful about thinking, “Oh no, I just forgot to buy butter.  Oh, that’s okay, I can leave this cooking while I run out and grab it really quick, because there’s a place I can buy butter a two-minute walk from here.”  I mean, I guess if you live in a big city (or just really insanely close to local food stores and other shops), then you can easily have that, but it’s really something I’ve loved here.  I like the little conversations at the mahaliba (the milk store) with the owners there.  I love the Super-Hanut, which is the one place I can buy canned pineapples and redball (gouda) cheese.  The guy who owns that place is so, so incredibly nice and funny.  I love that it’s not just some giant chain with people in the same color uniform, but that I can stop and have nice little conversations with the people I’m buying food from, knowing that my money is actually something sustaining to their livelihood in some occasions, and not just chunk change thrown at some large, corporate market.  When will I ever have that sort of Mom-and-Pop convenience store experience ever again in my life?  Maybe never.

8. Moroccan cuisine, including lamb tajine with plums, pastilla, arfissa, etc.  You know what.  I can’t even write about this. I just can’t.  Thinking about it makes my stomach growl, and I think my taste buds are actually screaming.

7. Mak-Doh Abroad.  That’s right.  I said it.  I’m going to miss McDonald’s.  You might be thinking, “But Philip, you’re coming home to America; there’s a McDonald’s on every corner.”  No, my friends.  Mak-Doh (the appropriate Moroccan pronunciation) is a venue of high-class and luxury.  It’s like going to the movies in America; it’s where the cool kids go on a Friday night.  And it tastes better, too.  Come to think of it, the one we went to in Porto was even beautiful.  I mean, when was the last time you felt dirty after you walked into a McDonald’s, because everyone there was dressed nicer than you?  I’ve now had McDonald’s in the UK, Spain, Israel, and Morocco, and I can honestly say, I’ve never been disappointed in Morocco abroad.  But don’t think you’ll catch me there in the States.

6. Bab Boujaloud, and the Mdina Qaddima.  There’s no city in the country I love more than Fes.  I mean, I wrote a whole blog about it.  Check it out.

5. Cafe Culture, complete with Mint, Sage, or Wormwood (Absinthe) Tea.  First of all, you might again be thinking, “But Philip, America has Starbucks!  You can get your tea or coffee, quite literally, on any corner.”  Not the same.  In fact, not only is there a cafe on every corner in Morocco, but for every corner cafe, there’s five more cafe’s in between each corner.  And I can promise you this, I can’t get absinthe tea; I can’t even get Moroccan traditional mint tea prepared the same way.  Where will I find a perfectly chilled bottle of “Coka” at a cafe in America?  Where can I sit and people watch while I sip a ns-ns (half and half: half coffee, half sugar, a tiny bit of milk)?  Where else can I sip freshly-squeezed orange juice or banana milk or avocado milk whilst munching on harcha or malawi?   It’s, by far, one of my favorite things about Morocco.  It’ll be something I crave secretly for a long time.

4. Taking the Train.  When I first heard that President Obama had proposed a high-speed rail as part of his 2008 platform, I was ecstatic.  Sadly, America is just so incredibly huge that a high-speed rail would have a lot of trouble competing with the plane, but something Europe – and Morocco – have done right is the train.  You know, come to think of it, I can’t picture myself taking a taxi, a bus, a van with a goat cage on top, or a train anywhere in Tennessee.  This may be the third world, but the third world knows how to travel a lot better than we do in America.  It’s a shame that we’re all so obsessed with having cars in America or that public transportation is somehow a “lower class” phenomenon.  I just love falling asleep on a train and waking up, and bam, you’re exactly where you wanted to be.  I can honestly say that I wish America would invest in this idea, even if it doesn’t pay off in the end.

3. The Arid, Mountainous Geography of the Boulemane Province.  Morocco’s geography, I like to say, is a lot like California. We’ve got the sand dunes, the beaches, the mountains, the arid desert, and the green forests.  It’s just far more condensed and probably a little more on the arid side.  I’ve lived near farmland and on a beach (twice) and in the suburbs, but I’d never in my life lived in a place like the Boulemane Province before I moved here.  There’s no place quiet as desolate, quite as beautiful.  I discovered that I actually really love mountains.   But over time, I’ve really grown to love the Middle Atlas in particular.  I mean, just behind Avery’s village was the second tallest mountain, Bounasseur, in all of North Africa.  I got the opportunity to hike a lot of it, over the Tichoukt where I stood at the peak and saw green on one side of the mountain and an endless desert, the Sahara, on the other side.  I think one day I’d like to live on an island with a mountain and a desert.  And I’d live in a suburb really near a large city.  Somebody find me that island.

2. The People: Hassan and Hamou, Allal, Lahcen, Ahmed, Kaotar, Omar and Hamza, etc.  How did I manage to not have a Mohammed in there?  I’m finding it more and more difficult to speak about some of the things I’ll miss.   I just regard them as something I hold dear, and there’s not much more to say about it.  Today, I cracked jokes with Hassan about the history of our village.  Earlier this week, I was having lunch with Allal, and a week or two ago, I bought a beautiful carpet from Ahmed.  It’s a no-brainer that the people are what I’m going to be missing the most of, their smiles and their laughter and their jokes.  They are who I came here to get to know, and I will never, ever say this experience was about me helping them.  They helped me.  They helped me appreciate and love life a little more, and I can’t be more thankful for that.  They are more Morocco to me than anything else ever will be.  To say anymore would be to do an injustice to who they were to me deep down.  So I’ll just leave it at that little bit.

1. The Olive Orchard.  My home in the woods.  My first encounter with an olive grove, ever, was the Garden of Gethsemane.  I loved it, because that’s probably my favorite Biblical story ever – the disciples still getting it wrong, the sacred tempted by the profane, the dark and mysterious garden of trees whose branches are like the arms of monsters.  There’s this peace here I can’t really fully describe to you.  It’s not constant.  It’s very often interrupted by a donkey or a stampede of goats or even an occasional car rushing by.  But there are moments when I feel and know it, when the wind just rushes through this quiet place, and I feel a little like I’m part of it, embedded into it, like I could fall asleep just like those disciples, or maybe – more fittingly – a little like Rip Van Winkle.  It’d be a nice place to sleep for a 100 years.  Or maybe forever.

Well, there you have it.  On Saturday, my big project with Jon – the so-called “diabetes project” – is finally happening.  We’re distributing 100 workbooks in Standard Arabic on literally everything you could ever want to know about diabetes and nutrition.  Then, after training fifty youth on how to teach diabetes nutrition, we’re dispatching them into the community to do just that.  Keep your fingers crossed for us, because there are a lot of people we have to depend on to make sure this whole shindig goes off without a hitch.  I’ll leave you with an exciting preview – the cover of our workbook, put together by myself and Jon with some Moroccan help.  It says, verbatim: “Booklet Sickness (of) Sugar and Nutrition” followed by the name of our village and then “Peace Corps America.”

Eid Marks the End, or a Relief as Ramadan Comes to a Close

It’s been a hot, long month – that sweltering, god-awful hot where, as Anteus likes to say, it’s so hot your sweat sweats.

But yesterday afternoon, that heat spell was finally broken by an hour-long rainstorm.  I was napping and woke up to the smell of the rain in the house and the sound of the droplets hitting the floor because I hadn’t covered the huge hole in my roof.  Shower time, I thought.  I jumped out of bed and ran to stand under the sunroof and just let the rain cover me right there in my hallway.

And that was it.  That momentary relief was when I knew Ramadan was over.

After the rain shower (literally), I spent thirty minutes trying to brush the blue kool-aid off my tongue before I biked over to break fast with Allal and his family for the last time.  When I got there, there was this explosion of happiness and joy in the air, and it wasn’t just the fact that Allal was stuffing his pipe full of hash the way he always does when I see him.  It was this happiness that the holy month was reaching an end.  You couldn’t hide from it.

I don’t remember being so grateful at the end of Ramadan last year, which is especially funny, because I didn’t fast this year (even though I was lying about that a lot), and last summer, I fasted every single day, even from water.  I think a big part of it is that I’ve spent so much time with families this year, whereas last year, I may have been fasting, but I was doing it completely on my own.  This time, there was this sense of relief that came with it that I don’t know how to fully describe.  It was like letting go of some incredible weight.  I definitely understand how this month can be so sacred to Muslims, even if I’ll never be Muslim.

This morning, for Eid Al-Fitur, that sense of relief was replaced with horror, as the delicacy of the morning was none other than goat liver wrapped in stomach lining fat and shoved onto a skewer.  I think I might have to be conveniently sick and in Rabat for the upcoming big holiday, because I just don’t know if I can do even more goat organs, and this was a little reminder of the fact that I will still be here when the big holiday arrives.

As I was eating the kabob, I glanced around the room while one of the women prayed.  I feel like that’s not something you get to see very often, the women praying, and I was a little shocked she was comfortable doing it in front of me.  That’s a big difference between my host family and my landlord’s family.  In my host family, it’s work just to get the women to eat in the same room as me or to get permission to watch them cook.  In Allal’s family, it’s just one big party, and gender doesn’t seem to come with the same barriers.  I sense that they aren’t quite as religious as some other families I’ve come to know, but I use that term loosely, because Allal and his family are definitely, definitely religious.

Glancing around, I noticed that the walls of Allal’s dining room (if you can call it that) are bare and pink.  There is one black-and-white picture of an older gentlemen with his head covered who I suspect is Allal’s father.  Moroccans generally leave the walls empty, because the Qu’ran deems it shameful to have idols in your home.  That’s not to say people don’t hang things on the wall anyway, but if they do, it’s usually of someone extremely important – a family patriarch or the King.  This morning, they covered the floor with beautiful, wool rugs.  Allal doesn’t know it yet, but when I leave, I’m very likely to give him my two sofas, my bed, and my two couches.  For a family that literally has  nothing  beyond rugs and blankets to sit on, I feel like that’s a pretty big deal as a gift, and Allal tells me that after I move, they are going to move into my house and live here.  I find that exciting, and I know they’ll love it here if this house brings them half the joy it’s brought me with its turquoise walls and its candy-apple red, cement floors.

Allal’s family is obsessed with the fact that I’m leaving.  They keep asking if I’ll call them from America, or they tell me things I shouldn’t forget before I leave.  It’s still well over two months before I finish my service, but they make it seem like it’s coming tomorrow.  Like today when Allal reminded me that I need to make sure I lock up the door and give him the key back before I leave.  Cause we won’t have that conversation eighteen more times between now and then?

So, leaving’s sort of been implanted onto my mind, y’might say.  I keep telling myself that I have a long way to go between now and then.  Jonathan and I just submitted a $500 grant to Peace Corps for a diabetes workshop.  I’m pretty excited for this project.  Maybe even more excited than I was over the glasses, because this one was my baby, and the glasses project was a hand-me-down project from Caity that I grabbed hold of and ran away with.

I’ve mentioned the diabetes project a few times now, but the details are this: on a Saturday in late September, we’re bringing 50 kids over sixteen to the youth center and training them on the causes, effects, symptoms, prevention, and treatment of diabetes.  We’re giving each kid two workbooks filled with information on diabetes and nutrition in Standard Arabic.  Then, we’re feeding them lunch, and finally, they are going to be sent out as part of a peer education model to local shops and cafe’s to educate fifty additional people around town about diabetes.  The next two days, we are partnering with the Ministry of Health and a local diabetes association to provide insulin and blood pressure checks for anyone in the entire community who can come to the health fair.

Y’know, for all the money Peace Corps forks out for AIDs prevention, I think this is far more important.  I don’t mean to be knocking HIV/AIDs assistance, especially in Africa, but you’re far, far more likely to contract HIV in America than anyone is in Morocco.  It’s just not the crisis here it is elsewhere in Africa.  Of course, you could credit that to the good work people are doing to make sure Morocco doesn’t become, say, West Africa, but 2 million people have been diagnosed with Type II diabetes in this country, and there’s only about 8 million people in the country altogether.  I’m hoping my project can set a precedent for other volunteers, because while I know of a few health lessons here and there, I don’t know any other volunteers who have done a whole project on this issue, and I think it’s absolutely daroori (necessary) that Peace Corps make diabetes education a major focus of its efforts.

In the meantime, the reminder of my service is relatively quiet.  My director, Hassan, is closing the youth center so that they can build a second floor and put his house next to the building.  No English classes.  So, instead, I’m working on grad school applications, manuscripts, my second novel (six chapter deep), packing, saying goodbyes, etc.  I’m definitely keeping busy.  It’s just mostly a kind of busy that keeps me writing constantly, but I like that.

Tomorrow, I might even go to a cafe during the day and drink a coke.  I can’t even begin to express how exciting that is.