Monday, December 21, 2009

On Mustaches

I tried growing a mustache last month. It didn’t work. The reason I decided to spend a month with blond bristles on my upper lip is that mustaches are a big deal here. In fact, all facial hair is a big deal here. It is a status symbol, an indicator of a person’s position in life. For instance a full beard indicates adherence to a strict, non-Moroccan interpretation of Islam. It is a very unusual site, seen only in big cities where foreign Arabs live. Because a beard is generally disapproved of, the only way of showing true manhood, of letting the world know that you are the big cheese, a head honcho not to be trifled with, is to have a mustache. Of course, my inability to grow a solid mustache does not really jeopardize my position as the only foreigner for a hundred miles. That is a rather distinct status that facial hair does not bare upon. And in fact it is common for the younger generation, razed on American TV and G-Star Raw, to sport no facial hair at all. Thus I sleep easy knowing, mustache or no, I’ve got more status then every other American in my valley. (all told there is one including myself.)

On Sunday Morning Cartoons

Sunday Morning Cartoons are a tradition respected by kids everywhere. Some might expect that in deepest reaches of the Berber’s Atlas Mountains, up a muddy track, past the donkeys and sheep, that the TV might be silent on a Sunday morning. But they would be wrong. The flickering lights of Pokémon and Power Ball still illuminate the rain soaked walls, the bread and olive oil breakfast, and the young eyes of children. Sunday Morning Cartoons, it seems, is an international institution, unrivaled by any other.  

On 'Daba?'

First of all ‘daba’ is an Arabic word that means ‘now.’ Why is this word worth writing about? Well when you don’t understand most of the language circling your head, ‘daba’ is an important word to be able to hear and pick out in a conversation. Along with the question words: Skun? Snu? Fin? Fuqash? Alash? Kifash? and ‘Wesh?’ (in English: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? and ‘Is it the case that?’) Daba is important because it means you might either understand the sentence it is in, or promptly be required to do something.
Most of your life in a new language is lived in uncertainty. This is because you have no way of knowing when some says something like, ‘Ana gadi nhsd zitun mn bed 3id’ that they are telling you they will harvest their olives after the holiday. You are not going to be able to connect this sentence with something that happens two weeks from now. Daba is so important because it is THE context word. Other sentences can be ignored knowing that they won’t make sense. However ‘daba’ sentences come with the context of the moment so if someone says, ‘Ana gadi nhsd zitun daba.’ And then walks into a field and starts hitting an olive tree with a stick until the olives fall, you can safely presume that his sentence meant something like ‘I am going to go hit that olive tree over there with a stick until the olives fall now.’

On Things That Are Blatantly Untrue

Exaggeration is a part of any culture. But there are some that can take it to a level that in all probably requires a new word.  For instance a local might say something like, “Aït Dwar’s olive oil is the best in the world. If the Marines were eating olive oil from Aït Dwar they would have won the war in Afghanistan a long time ago.” Some people might find reason to doubt the veracity of such a statement. But to do so openly would be to insult the speaker. A better choice would be simply to embrace it. After all, “Didn’t you know? The Marines ARE eating olive oil from Aït Dwar. The problem is, so are the Taliban.”

On The Night Sky

When I was a child learning about the Greeks and Romans mapping the stars I used to wonder, ‘who the heck would bother doing that?’ Now I realize. There are parts of the world, away from bright lights and busy nights. And in these places, you don’t keep track of the stars intentionally. You keep track of them without even realizing that you are doing so. They are always there and before you realize you are noticing the differences between one day and the next, one hour and the next. Out on the great dark tracts of Africa, you can’t help following their great play. Watching the characters, the stars, leave their blaze across the sky.

On Language Guilt

Part of the Peace Corps process includes spending large stretches of time with other Peace Corps Volunteers. This can lead to feelings of guilt that you are able to communicate so easily. After weeks surrounded by people who have no idea what you are trying to communicate most of the time the sudden ability to express yourself is stunning and makes you think, ‘this is wrong, I shouldn’t be able to do this.’

A Moroccan Perspective on America

“It is shocking for me to see how the father and mother in America kick their own children out when they become eighteen years of age. The most surprising thing about it all is that the young people do not seem to mind or think it is too cruel to be thrown out of their own family but accept it as the natural and normal way of behaving.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On Marrakech

Marrakech is a divine heartland of sunny timelessness. It is all that you could want, the cure for every ill. It is smiles and full bellies and stress free nights. Long may it reign!

On Picking Olives

Olive picking is probably one of the most perfect activities for young men ever devised. One gets to climb up in trees with a big long stick and just whack away at every branch in sight until it releases its load of olives. What could be more perfect then climbing, using a weapon, and hitting things?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

On Tables

Moroccan tables are tough. Other tables are scared nerds adorned in pocket protectors, glasses and suspenders by comparison. This is because Moroccans don’t use plates. There is the serving dish and that is it. The table is your plate. This is of course a brilliant idea because it means less dishes to wash at the end of a meal. In fact you will get so used to it that you will begin to find having individual plates off putting. After two months of eating from the community dish, you’ll go to a fancy restaurant and be perturbed, annoyed by the plates. You’ll think to yourself, ‘what is this damn thing getting in the way between my bread and the table? I just want to set my bread down, why can’t I put my bread down? Why is there this circular white thing in the way?’ And you’ll pick up the…plate … and set it on the floor, out of the way. Now you can eat in peace.

On Table Manners

Hand and hand with the idea of no plates is the idea of triangle etiquette. Since everyone eats from the same community dish there are rules governing what food belongs in whose territory. Everyone has their triangle of the dish, which is theirs from the moment the dish is set upon the table. To eat from another person’s triangle, with or without their permission, is taboo.

An example:
At the dinner table the woman sets down the meal. ‘In the name of God’ everyone says and begins to dig in following their host. Though there is meat in your triangle, you know not to touch it until your host has touched his. So you eat, and eat, and eat. And pretty soon the host has made a grab for the chicken, its meat time. And at this point he generously pulls off the best pieces and places them in your triangle. And you realize no matter how much you eat, your triangle will never be empty. You begin to push food from your triangle in to your neighbors. Others see the guest’s triangle begin to dwindle and plop food from their triangle into yours. It becomes a battle, how much food can you sneak out of your triangle versus how much food can they demonstrate their generosity by putting into your triangle. On and on it goes. Saying, ‘O, no thank you I am full’ is like pouring sand into the desert. It becomes a war. You cross your arms across your chest, ‘I’m full.’ Really you are beyond full. You’ve lost and they’ve won. You have eaten much, much more then you wanted to in your desire to be polite and not waste food. Its past polite time. To heck with slyness, time for the endgame.  You clear your triangle into your neighbors and say ‘thanks be to God’ before anyone can retaliate. Its over. And you roll yourself to somewhere where you hope that your engorged belly will feel more comfortable and less full.

On Indistinct Sounds

If you ever suddenly find yourself dropped in the middle of a language that you did not even know existed two months previously you will quickly prefect the art of always being able to say something that means just about nothing. When being talked to in a language that you completely don’t understand you get very good very quickly at making just the right kind of indistinct sound to fit the conversational moment. Your arsenal quickly moves beyond the ‘uh’ ‘huh’ and ‘um’s that you used to be able to rely upon. Suddenly you have added ‘hmm’ ‘mm’ ‘mma’ ‘iea’ ‘Ha’ ‘heh’ and of course the nasal snort: ‘!’. More then that you are now able to place them in exactly the right spot to give the impression you are following the conversation. For instance if someone says something like, ‘blah blah blah blah blahblahblah BLAH!’ you know, as if by instinct, that a good solid ‘!’ will let everyone know what you think of that. Saving you the need of trying to respond in a language you can barely manage to a comment you didn’t understand in the first place.
Of course you have to watch out for the tricksters. Those sarcastic few whose manner of speech places their questions in propinquity with mere comments.  They keep you on your toes because they say things like ‘blah blah blahblah’ and it is not until after you drop an, ‘mm’ and receive an odd look, that you realize they were asking you a direct question. Now you just appear like you weren’t paying them any attention at all. Oh those tricksters, well at least you seem pensive…

On Food Poisoning

The symptoms of food poisoning are abdominal pain followed shortly thereafter by multiple bouts of vomiting. Symptoms also usually included diarrhea and malaise. An elevated temperature can also accompany these symptoms and may last from one to two days. The recommended treatment for food poisoning starts with a BRATT diet, BRATT standing for: bananas, rice, apples, tea and toast. Febrile patients may also take acetaminophen. Medical officers also recommend taking oral rehydration salts, however most patients agree that, while sound in theory, oral rehydration salts should generally be avoided as they taste so foul that their consumption can lead to vomiting, thereby negating any medicinal aspects.

On Cultural Sensitivity

There are a lot of assumptions that go into making everyday life work. When you are immersed in another culture, you try to be sensitive to that which is going on around you. So for instance when you come back from a trip to your village to find candles lit on every store counter and get home to find a dark house lit by candles, you try to be culturally sensitive. ‘O you think, this must be something to do with the religious holiday coming up.’ But when you ask you don’t understand the response. ‘Well,’ you think, ‘there must be a good reason why we are sitting around in the dark. Maybe it’s a local custom, to do with the birthday of their local saint Ben-Moullay Idris, that might make sense.’
So you spend all this time being sensitive culturally, just accepting the fact that you’ve got to sit in the dark. Even in your own room, you don’t reach for the light switch for fear of being offensive. Your sisters make sure you get a candle. You spend all this time trying to be culturally sensitive, and just going along with whatever is happening.
Of course what you are not being is conscious of the possibility that you are sitting in the dark because power went out….

The obvious can make you feel so stupid sometimes.

On Orientating

When you spend all your life next to the ocean, it becomes a part of your thinking. You orient yourself by it. You think, ‘well the ocean is that way, I can’t see it but its there, just out of site…. So that makes that way West. Therefore North is there, ish.’ And that is how you navigate, be it cities or suburbs. But when you find yourself living in a new place, hundreds of miles from the ocean, it remains part of your thinking. You think, ‘Oh the ocean is that way, I can’t see it but its over there, just out of site,… or a ways out of site I guess… so that way, wait what? No that doesn’t work. Um, well Mecca is that way ish, and… Oh! The North Star is right there at night so therefore North is there.’ Nonetheless, you still expect that the ocean is out of sight, just beyond that set of hills, over there…somewhere.


I celebrated Thanksgiving today (Sunday, November 22). Not the first time I have done it in a foreign land by any means, but the first time I was responsible for actually cooking part of the meal. The stuffing. I went to the nearest town from my Dwar (about an hour and a half ride by grand taxi) and stayed with the PCVs there and we three made a thanksgiving meal to be proud of! It even had sparkling apple cider.