A Happy Eid from America

Today is Eid Al-Adha, and it’s the first one in three years where I wasn’t helping somebody slaughter a goat. Instead I spent most of the quiet Wednesday working on editing my novel while it rained outside. Maybe it’s the rain or the fact there’s a little cold mixed in with it, but it felt like Eid today. It feels like Thanksgiving and Christmas are just around the corner, and I’m already eager as all get-out to bring on the Christmas music. Funny how Eid would kick in the American holiday season for me. It’s a stunning realization, really, to recognize that a holiday that isn’t my own, perhaps because of the solidarity I feel toward the many Muslims I came to know and love, is now a holiday that carries a deep meaning to me. I marked it by firing off a few messages to some of my Moroccan friends and exclaiming, “Happy Eid!” or literally, “Mbrouk!” Congratulations!

For the Columbus weekend, I took a hurried trip to Nashville to see a couple of friends, and on my way into the city, right around Charlotte Pike on I-40, I filled with this sense of excitement I haven’t felt in a long time. It was a sense of belonging, really. Nashville: This is my city, I exclaimed to myself in the car. Kinda silly in hindsight, but having been born there, I feel I can stake a claim to it. I suppose when I lived there, I probably had some things to gripe about, but there’s very few places I’ve ever returned to where I got that excited to be there. I can think of three besides Nashville – Lakeshore, Rabat, and San Diego.

I guess it’s funny to me how a place can get under our skin and make us feel so at home, even to the point that later on in life there’d still be remnants of those places, such that I’d give a quiet little nod to Morocco on Eid or shout with joy when I saw the Batman building in Nashville or just be excited my plane – on its way to Seattle a few years back – made a pit stop in San Diego. In a way, I think, we become the places we go. And we leave our little mark on those places while we’re there, as briefly as we may grace that little spot. That’s why it’s so important to be mindful of where we’ve been and where we’re going and to never forget that one informs the other. It’s like my mother’s insistence to “never forget where ya came from.” I think it’s just as important to never forget where you’ve been.

So, to my Muslim friends out there – and to my other friends, too – happy Eid. It’s a good day to be thankful.


“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.

Sheep in the Taxi Trunk

The big holiday known as Eid el-Adha or Eid el-Kbir is just around the corner.  The holiday celebrates the almost-sacrifice of Ishmael.  This same story appears in Christian and Jewish texts, though is slightly different in that it is Ishmael who is almost sacrificed by Abraham in Islam, not Isaac.  In either case, that God provides a ram for sacrifice in the place of Abraham’s son makes the holiday a kind of remembrance and time of reflection for the sacrifice God may require of us.  It’s essentially the Muslim version of Christmas in terms of how large and important the holiday is; and it’s probably similar to Easter in terms of religious significance and the similarity to sacrifice.

This is my third Eid in Morocco.  Every family will buy at least one goat or sheep to slaughter on this coming Friday morning.  So, right now, my world is surrounded by goats and sheep (more than it usually is).  Case in point, this afternoon, when I went to grab my backpack out of the taxi, I opened up the trunk, and there was a sheep laying there smiling at me.  Hey sheep.  I realized I have been here entirely too long when I just kind of shoved the sheep to the side trying to find my backpack and thought nothing of it until five minutes later.  Then, I was sitting in the cafe, and it just sort of dawned on me, “You just pushed a sheep over in a taxi trunk to grab your backpack.  That’s at least kinda weird.”

Back in the orchard, there’s two sheep in a side room connected to my house constantly calling to me, “Philip, save us.  Only you can set us freeeee.”  Their call is maddening.  Here’s some fun math: there are approximately 32 million people living in Morocco.  Now, let’s say that per 10 people, which each family being somewhere in that number, one goat or sheep is purchased for the sacrifice.  That means, on Friday morning, this country will collectively slaughter 3.2 million adorable, furry sheep and billy goats.  I attached a picture Caity took forever ago to make your heart hurt.  That goat should be ready to be eaten this year.  If it’s still alive.  Sometimes, the baby’s are especially tasty.

Meanwhile, I have been… summoned... to one of these slaughters by my landlord who is insistent that I arrive at his house at 8:00 a.m. Friday morning to take pictures of the whole charade (his son Mohamed begged me to come at 7:00 and I shut that down really quickly; no way, Mo).  I honestly like how this will be my way of saying goodbye to this family.  To spend their holiday with them.  I do not, however, particularly enjoy the fact that I will endure sheep stomach, potentially eyeball or testicles as part of the day’s meal.  If you are a praying person, please pray for me to endure this meal yet one final time.  And that I can stomach it without vomiting.  Or crying as the blood of some cute little baby goat or sheep cries out from the ground.  I’m being dramatic, I know, but they are such cute animals!

So, yeah, that’s what’s going on with me.  In the meantime, I am in the slow process of packing.  The end is upon me, and that is crazy.

Quiet days in the Orchard

Since the end of the diabetes project, it’s been a quiet week in the olive grove.  With September ending, the weather is finally beginning to feel like it isn’t August anymore.  And I mean that.  It changed overnight from sweltering hot to, “Oh my God, where did summer go?”  I woke up cold in the middle of the week and had to add a blanket for the first time since June.  I’m convinced that the floods in Spain near the Andalusian region that killed nearly 18 people this week passed through here first, because I found myself sweeping water off my roof multiple times.  There are places where it just cakes up and starts to leak onto the stairwell and into the bathroom.  I’d taken to covering the sunroof back in the spring, but I’ve stopped covering it these days.  So, when it rained last week, it rained inside for nearly three hours, which gave me the opportunity to “mop” my house while “showering” under my sunroof at the same time.

In the middle of the night one night, some herder stopped outside my house with all of his goats, maybe thirty to fifty of them.  I woke up to goat and sheep calls echoing off the concrete walls of my house, which are equivalent to zombies noises, by the way.  The first time I heard this, months ago, I literally thought the zombie apocalypse had begun.  Nowadays, I’m just annoyed that goats are waking me up again.  It’s a preview of the endless goat calls that will surround me as Eid Al-Adha quickly approaches.  I just can’t wait.  Just before the country-wide sacrifice of a few million goats and sheep, every household all over the city has at least one goat calling my name, “Fouad… Fouuuadddd… save me, Fouad.  Help me, please.  You can set me freeee.”

It… haunts me.

When the goats finally moved on, there was this one rooster who thought 2:00 in the morning would be a wonderful time to pretend like it was 6:00 instead.  Stupid rooster.  I bet he’d be delicious in a tajine.

I’ve been trying this week to use up the grant funds for the diabetes project, making 83 extra copies of the fifty-page information booklets in Arabic.  That meant walking to-and-from the olive grove rather than biking there and back.  It’s kind of a long walk, a solid twenty-minutes just to get into town, and usually another fifteen or twenty to cross town once you’re there.  My life, you could say, consists of walking in and out of my village repeatedly, and this process is something I both love and love to hate.  I’ve never really described this before, so I’ll try to give you a good picture of it:

If I bike into town, there’s just one long street that runs through the grove – we’ll call it the “high street,” because it literally runs “up” into the grove [I realize this is the incorrect usage of the term “high street,” as there is virtually no business at all on this street, but I like my version better], and Moroccans always refer to it as “up there” or fuq in Arabic.  The elevation really isn’t noticeably higher unless you’re biking it, but it is five minutes closer to the Middle Atlas Mountains, so it makes sense to me that there’s an elevation change.  The High Street intersects Main Street and Centerville nearby the Post Office and the Baladya (i.e. County Hall), complete with multiple cafes and teleboutiques.

Now, if you’re walking, there’s a different path I like to take that eventually veers off the High Street.  Technically, the High Street begins at my house.  If you keep going “higher” walking away from town, it’s just a gravel path that eventually turns into a foot path that mazes through the orchard.  Alternatively, walking into town, you have a poorly paved road that winds over a few makeshift canals used to water the gardens surrounding the olives.  It’s not unusual here to spot a chicken crossing the road and have this surreal moment where you realize that isn’t just some classic joke but an actual, everyday occurrence.

The High Street itself is lined by mud-brick walls until you reach the beginning of the orchard, where two sets of olive trees line both sides of the street like something out of a classic film.  The trunks and branches of every single tree lining the road lean away from the road making the path look perfectly parallel as you walk it.  From here, you can either remain on the Street walking ten more minutes into town (the same way you’d bike it), or you can take a shortcut at the water tower cutting across a section of the olives that are more copse than grove.  This section of town lines one of the two rivers that cut through my village (one of which is the second longest river in the country), and the riverbed is usually near-dry even in the winter, making it look a good bit like the Martian surface between its rocks and sands.  If NASA wanted to fake a landing on Mars, this would be the place to do it.

The views are usually beautiful on this walk but not nearly as beautiful as they are returning to the orchard.  If you’re always walking away from the mountain, you never see it.  Yesterday afternoon, I was walking back to the orchard on this path as the sun was setting.  The clouds were low enough that you felt like you could reach up and pull them down to make a fog, but strangely, they weren’t covering up the view of the mountain the way they usually do when they hang that low.  The sun was reflecting off the clouds and painting the mountainside some deep crimson hue, while the clouds that buried themselves into the mountain valleys were a mixture of blues and magentas you’d expect to see off some sea-side coast and not tucked into a crimson-painted valley.  It actually made me stop in my tracks and say out loud, “Wow, that’s beautiful.”  I passed by two Moroccan women sitting down and facing the other way as they chit-chatted, and I just couldn’t fathom why they weren’t facing the mountain.  But I guess if you get these views all the time, it can be easy to ignore it.  Maybe they saw some beauty in the other direction that I couldn’t see.

When I got back to my house, ready to settle in for the day, a little trumpeter finch flew in through the sunroof and perched on top of my door watching me.  This same bird has been hanging around my house for months, and I know it’s the same bird, because I’ve heard the other trumpeter finches, and their calls are slightly different.  I thought for the longest time this little bird was a sparrow, mostly because I thought it would be more poetic, somehow, if that turned out to be true.  But this little finch has really grown on me, and someday soon, she’ll fly into the house and discover I’m not here anymore.  The days are now counting down more quickly than I’d like, but I’m happy to report that I really am soaking it all in, at least as much as I possibly can.

“Let your bird go lost.
I will bring her back to you in Spring.
She won’t change at all
Let your sparrow fall to what might be”

Basia Bulat

Oh, you know, just sheep slaughtering season again, or continued conversation about the so-called ‘mid-service crisis’

The Mid-service crisis is far from over.  My landlord came by, and I showed him my broken faucet and asked if it was possible to get it fixed.  He then told me, or I thought he told me, that he’d come by later, and I could pay him for rent then.  That’s what I heard, anyway.  Another volunteer heard that he was bringing people over to look at my house, because I’m moving out.  I immediately went into worry mode.  Is my language that bad that what I thought was “repairing a kitchen sink” was actually “you need to move”?  You can certainly have good language days and bad ones.  I’ve been scrambling trying to figure out how to explain to my landlord that I’m not moving when he comes today.

On top of that, I was cornered yesterday by the guy at the post office insisting I pay a customs fee for a package (from Mom & Dad) I’d been trying to avoid paying.  Basically, I got slapped with a 530 MAD ($64.00, more than a forth of my monthly allowance) fine by Moroccan Customs for a package that had nothing in it outside of two t-shirts, shorts, and some nutella.  Morocco decided to charge me double what the package was probably worth.  On top of that, they’re not supposed to give you the package unless you pay the fee, but the folks at the post office didn’t find the fee until after they’d given me the package.  Convenient?  Maybe.

My original plan was to keep telling them that I would pay it later, but you can only get away with that for so long, and Avery and Caity were quick to point out that we’re at the mercy of the post-office, so there’s not really anything I can do other than pay them and hope it doesn’t happen again.  For future reference, if you’re going to send me a package, always, always say that it’s worth less than $50 on the customs form.   Anyway, long story short, and now I’m broke.  And a Peace Corps Volunteer is already basically broke, so that’s nothing new, but still.  Just two or three months ago, I had enough money that I was planning out what to get people for Christmas, and I guess it all disappeared.

So, no money, worries left and right, a computer that’s just barely getting by (anybody got a half-decent laptop they’re not using?), and I’ve got the Mid-service blues.  The good news is, according to the volunteer emotion chart, come January and February, I should be slowly moving into the height of my service, and that should come quicker than expected, given my trip home to America is just six weeks away.  Crazy to think I’ll be in America in just six weeks.

All mid-service crises to the side, and my English classes are in full swing.  I’ve got two beginner classes with fifteen girls and seven guys.  Tomorrow, I’ll teach – inchallah – my first intermediate class, and I’m trying to square things away so that I can teach advanced classes, as well.  On top of that, the glasses project holds on by a thread, while the Diabetes project is in full swing.  I’m hoping to have a powerpoint developed and start writing a grant for that project sometime in the next two weeks.

And of course, it’s November.  This time last year, I was traveling to my new home for the first time, celebrating l-3id l-kbir in Sefrou, and everything was brand new.  It’s not so new anymore.  Outside of my window, there’s been this one sheep who will soon be joined by many.  It’s like he’s calling to me, “Fouadddd.  Fouaaaddd.  Save me.”  Sorry, buddy, but you’re gonna be somebody’s dinner for, like, three weeks straight.

This year’s big holiday of slaughtering sheep and remembering the almost-sacrifice of Ishmael may be, despite the constant sheep noises, rather quiet for me.  I mean, if someone really wants me to join them for the festival, I certainly will.  I’d actually love an invitation, though my host family will be traveling like they usually do for the holiday.  But if there’s no invitation, I think for once, I’ll be okay with that.  After last year, I think I got my fill of sheep stomach and sheep head.  And while I did really like liver kabob wrapped in stomach fat, I’d be a-okay with cooking macaroni & cheese and enjoying a quiet evening on my roof, too.  I could easily appreciate and respect the holiday from afar, right?

Oh well.  Things to look forward to: Halloween pictures (I was Eeyore), new volunteers arriving to the region in a few weeks, mid-service medical exams (aka free trip to the capital), thanksgiving, and a post about my upcoming trip to America.