Monday, June 2, 2014

A Yankee Comes Home

Well, after a fantastic couple of weeks in Spain traveling with fellow RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) I’m back in the States, for real this time. Bizarre doesn’t even begin to describe it. I’m happy to be home, of course, and to see friends and family, but I left a big part of me in Morocco. To wit, I spent this morning going through my replacement’s blog posts, and everything from photos of my town to stories about people I know there made me wish I could just hop a souq bus back across the Atlantic. Which is ridiculous. The bus would sink.

As it turns out, readjusting to America might be the very hardest part of Peace Corps. Actually, it totally isn’t, but how’s that for a topic sentence? No one’s asking me to eat sheep brain here, though I do get to keep people riveted with stories of things I’ve eaten, places I’ve been, and challenges I’ve seen. Which is pretty cool. At least on occasion it lets me go back to being the center of attention like I was for the last two years in my town. That being said, it’s really nice to not be the center of attention every time I go outside. Sometimes.

So, I’ll give a quick overview of things I’ve noticed coming back to America. I’ll start with a few general observations, and then move into some more personal anecdotes. Firstly, and most importantly, American suburbs are really weird. Globally speaking, that is. That big yard between houses, as if each and every suburbanite were a member of some kind of minor European nobility. No one does that. Except Canadians, I think. Maybe Australians? However, in Spain I noticed all the small outlying towns were cramped and medieval, just like Morocco and the English countryside. Only nobility (and farmers, but they live in a different setting) ever have large private yards. We really are a strange country. Never thought I’d come to a huge realization about American culture vs. the world’s driving through suburban Jersey.

Another strange thing is public performance and practice of the arts. While New York obviously has plenty of touts and professionals performing in the streets and parks for cash just like Marrakech’s Djmaa El Fna, it also has tons of people just going out to practice or play for fun. The other day I passed by a gospel choir performing in Central Park, no hat out or anything, just performing. People are out painting, writing, playing music, whatever, just for the pleasure of doing it outside. In my town, and really most places I went in Morocco, I was the only person who did that. Here it’s normal, and changes the landscape quite a bit. The same goes for public exercise. I’m just not used to joggers anymore.

Every RPCV I’ve ever talked to has a version of the following story. On Memorial Day I was out with my grandparents and parents having lunch at a diner. I opened the menu, a 5 or 6-page affair, and found myself completely and utterly overwhelmed by the options. Do I get a gyro or do I get a salad? Omelets look good. My God, there are eight varieties of hamburger. Just another 50 cents for onion rings. I couldn’t make a decision. I had heard stories of RPCVs suffering nervous breakdowns in supermarkets (haven’t risked one yet), or utterly unable to choose deodorant from the endless options, but I’d thought it wouldn’t affect me. Totally wrong. America, the land of overwhelming choice.

On another day I set myself a list of five chores to do regarding coming back and preparing for grad school. They would easily have filled a normal day in Morocco. I got four of them done in an hour. Admittedly, the fifth took several days and made me jump through enough bureaucratic hoops to feel like I was back in Morocco, but still 4/5 is pretty good. That being said, that last chore did teach me that my constant refrain, “this would be so much easier in America,” isn’t always true.

Lastly, I just can’t get over using and thinking in Arabic. I’ll hang out with my friends from home, and I just can’t help but drop words. I even think that since they’re my friends they must understand Arabic. Isn’t that what my friends do? I miss it, though to be honest I hear it all over. I’ve made a game of trying to guess which dialect I’m hearing as I pass by. Still haven’t heard any Moroccan Darija, but I’m sure it’ll come with time.

I wish I had some powerful closing remarks that could sum up the last two years of my life, but of course I don’t, as that’s basically impossible, so I’ll close out with a Joha story my dad made up when I came home. I think it fits the spirit of the tales very well.

            One day, Joha returned from a long trip. His friend asked him how it felt to be home. “Coming home is the best feeling in the world,” Joha replied. A few days later the friend saw Joha atop his donkey, heading out of town.
            “Joha,” said the friend, “Why are you leaving? I thought you said coming home was the best feeling in the world.”
            “It is,” Joha replied, “I’m leaving so I can come home again.”

As Moroccans say, take care of your heads. Go with peace.

- Ted Rizzo

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

My Last Few Days in Morocco

           Really hard to believe that that’s a title, but my Peace Corps service is coming to a close. I don’t really have that much to write about, but I feel almost compelled, since it is the end of my service, to leave a little note about how things closed up.

            To start off this post will talk about food for the first time in ages. After writing (but before posting) my last post I finally had the wonder known as rfisa. Rfisa is many volunteers’ favorite Moroccan food, but I’d never been lucky enough to have it until now. It is now one of my favorite foods. It is made from torn up milwi (a Moroccan wrap akin to a thick tortilla) mixed with lentils and baked chicken. The particular version I had also had a ton of oregano. It was incredible, and I’m glad I finally got to sample this traditional, though time and labor consumptive, dish.

            The next day some students threw a “surprise” party for me. I say “surprise” because one of the volunteers at the Dar Chabab told me there would be a “surprise” party, but refused to tell me whom the “surprise” was for. It wasn’t hard for me to work it out. The party ranged from the funny (a sketch some kids put on poking fun at my Darija and how I’ll mix up close sounding words for hilarious effect), to the sweet (when a friend talked about how we’d first met), to the Fellini-esque (when the “break dancing” started). It was pretty much the Platonic Ideal of a Moroccan party, and I really enjoyed it.

            The rest of my last week passed in a blur of goodbyes and classes, with another goodbye party on Thursday, this time at the Dar Taliba. The kids managed to prank me pretty well, someone brought in alcohol free beer to the party, but didn’t tell me what it was, so when I drank what I expected to be a coke-like thing I almost spit it out in shock. I had to check the percent alcohol (0.0) just to be sure it wasn’t a test.

            The next day, my last day in site, was really hard, saying goodbye to friends and students. For our last English class I tried to teach my freshmen and sophomores “The Times they are a’Changin’” (I know, weird goodbye song, but it wrapped up the topics we’ve worked on nicely), but we were all a little too emotional to really do it well. Afterwards I went to Fes to wish my original host family goodbye. It was my first time in Fes since September, and lots has changed. One host brother is in University, my youngest host sister can now speak in full English sentences, another host sister (whose wedding I sadly missed because they gave me a day’s warning, while I was in America!) is pregnant. Lots has also stayed the same, and I was glad I had the chance to wish them goodbye. Now I’m in the capitol signing out, so this will be last post from Morocco. I intend to make one more, a final wrap-up, sometime after I get back home, so until then bslama 3likum!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

What Some Moroccans Want You to Know About Moroccan Culture

            On Thursday night, my site mate and I ran a round table discussion with some of my more advanced students about the Peace Corps, why some Americans (like us) feel compelled to do it, how it benefits America, how it benefits the host countries, and its three goals (developmental assistance, spreading awareness of American culture abroad, and increasing American knowledge about other cultures). Depending on which PCV you ask, and when, anyone of these goals might be the most important. At different points in my service I’d have answered differently. My students universally felt that the cultural exchange elements of the second and third goal were far and away more important than the first goal. As such, to finish up the discussion I posed this question to them, “what is the one aspect of Moroccan culture you think it is most important that I share with other Americans when I go home?” Below are their answers.

Loubna said that honor and respect are central to Moroccan culture.

Yassin, Scherazade, and Aicha all think I need to teach people what I learned about Islam.

Youseph added that it is important to remind people that Morocco is primarily Muslim and that means that it is strongly anti-terrorist.

Kamal, who spoke first, said that I should teach people about Moroccan food, but he regretted his quick answer when he realized most of the other students were going to make more serious points.

Moustapha didn’t learn from Kamal’s mistake and later regretted that he’d used his answer to say I should teach Moroccan dance.

Nabil on the other hand did learn from them and said that I should talk about Moroccans deep love of peace.

One of the two Merriams said that I should talk about tea and the importance of drinking it in a group.

Nouhela said that I should teach about Moroccan holidays.

Abdelghani said that Morocco’s is a culture in flux, in the midst of developing into something new.

The other Merriam said that it is important to remember that Morocco doesn’t just have one culture; each city has its own.

Our next session with these students is Tuesday. If you have any suggestions of important aspects of American culture we should share back with the students leave them in the comments below, or, if any of my Moroccan readers want to add to this list feel free to do so in the comments.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

How to Wrap Up a Peace Corps Service (I Think)

            This has probably been the very hardest post to start writing of my entire service. As you might expect, with less than two weeks left in my site before I head first to Fes (to visit my original host family), then to Rabat (to officially sign out), and lastly to AndalucĂ­a (for a couple of weeks of R&R), this is a pretty emotional time. Bittersweet is the go to adjective, but it hardly does justice to how I feel, because while I’m excited to get back to America and on to the next stage in my life the immense realization that I’ll probably never see most of my students and Moroccan friends again overwhelms the excitement and almost makes me wish I was extending my service just to spend time sitting in cafes and eating meals with them. As such, I’ve spent a lot of the last few weeks trying to spend quality time with as many people as possible, which is surprisingly exhausting, but does lead to some great stories.

            A couple of weeks ago a couple of sisters in my adult beginners class invited me over to their house for cous cous. As always happens, it turns out they’re related to a bunch of people I know in town, none of whom ever mentioned that they were related—I didn’t even know these two students were sisters until the family members lesson! The topics of conversation ranged all over, from one of the sister’s ill-fated attempt to teach herself guitar, which ended with her mother smashing the “racket making device” after just two days (her mother looked pretty embarrassed at this point in the story), to the distinction between anime and other cartoons. This came up because their ten-year-old brother flip-flopped back and forth between two animated channels, each showing one or the other. He was very excited I was there, and was very proud of the English words he learned over lunch. Their mother cooked an astonishingly good batch of cous cous, and showed off her weaving skills on an impressive loom stored in a side room. The conversation almost took a turn for the disastrous when the topic hit the almost inevitable “do you pray” question. One aunt, who has emigrated to Italy but was back visiting, started telling us all that in Italy she knows many Muslims who are, in her words, “better Muslims” than Moroccan women. These Muslim women in Italy always hide their hair and never shake men’s hands. Her nieces, who are in their twenties, only rarely cover their hair and have never hesitated to shake my hand, nor did her sister, or herself, in fact, so I objected to her saying that the Italian Muslims were “better” Muslims, arguing that neither way was better, just different. I started to argue that no version of a faith is better than another, all Islams are true Islam, just as all Christianities are true Christianity and all Judaisms are true Judaism. Then I stopped and revised myself, if people believe their version of faith to be so right that they kill others for it they believe a false version of the faith, so that Al Qaeda operatives and the Afghani Taliban are not Muslims at all, just as a man who murders for Christianity is not a true Christian, and a man who murders for Judaism is not a true Jew. Except for the aunt, who looked miffed, and the ten year old, who was engrossed in a knockoff version of Full Metal Alchemist, the family applauded. Which was cool.

            A couple of days later was the start of the school holiday. Since most of the students with whom I’m closest were going back to their outlying villages for the holiday or were travelling around Morocco, and since my Dar Chabab is still being repaired (the new floor goes in soon!) I decided to use the opportunity to go to a few nearby places were I’ve made friends to say my goodbyes. First, I went down to my friend Melanie’s site, were she has gotten yet another set of toilets built in the elementary school in an outlying village. Just like last time she did this (just before I went home in December) she had PCVs and local high school volunteers put on a health fair for the students. I partnered with one of her students, who had also gone to BRO camp, teaching an exercise lesson to the little kids. A passing herd of cows temporarily disrupted us, but otherwise the fair went very well and I was glad for the opportunity to say goodbye to those students of hers I’ve met and gotten close to over the last two years.

            The next day I was in Khenifra to help the volunteers there with their spring camp. They’d decided that instead of an English focused camp this time around we would teach about art in various forms: drawing, painting, music, theatre, and dance. I helped primarily with the music, teaching the students an American song everyday and one day also teaching them the harmonies to “In the Jungle,” my first successful attempt at getting harmony going among Moroccan youth. My favorite part of the camp was a group of local volunteers. A friend from my site who is a fantastic painter came in and helped the kids plan and paint two canvases for the “Global Art Exchange.” These canvases, on the topic of world peace, will go to an American high school (in Colorado, I believe), and in return the Khenifra Dar Chabab will get a piece from that school. On another day, some men who run a performance art association came and taught the kids a dance to Katy Perry’s “Roar” (yeah, I was confused as well), and helped the kids write a couple of short theatre sketches.

            On the last day of camp the students, many of whom I’ve gotten to know well through various camps and events I’ve helped with, threw a surprise good-bye party for me. It was incredibly sweet and incredibly sad. Afterwards a few kids wanted to say a few words about the camp, and one kid's speech was incredibly touching. He said, in English, that we Peace Corps Volunteers “are like angels, coming from far away just to help us fill our empty time, time we didn’t know was so important until you came.” It was a really hard day not to cry.

            The next day I stuck around Khenifra to join on a hike with those volunteers’ C.L.I.M.B program, which ended up meaning I saw most of the same students again. We went up a mesa outside of town that I’ve been meaning to climb for whole service, so it was great to finally get up there. In a nice twist the grade and quality of the slope is actually very similar to Toubkal (read: steep and covered in scree), so I was able to tell the students from experience that it was good practice for Toubkal. Just multiply it by 10 or 11 times.

            The next day was this past Monday and I am back to my regular schedule in site, the only big differences being that I spend even more time trying to hang out with folks and that I spend a lot of time helping my new site mate learn about town and meet people. She is doing very well integrating and is already a huge hit with my students, and I’m excited to know that even though I’m wrapping up my own service, my students are not wrapped up with.

Saturday, April 5, 2014


            I haven’t written a post on the vagaries of Arabic in some time, but this last week I made a discovery so mindboggling I can’t help but write about it. A few weeks ago I played “Blackbird” for my sophomores as a listening exercise. Since we’d been talking about metaphors in previous classes I was very happy that they quickly realized that the song is not about a bird. They got pretty close, actually, saying it was about some person who didn’t have freedom or opportunity before but now had a chance for it. This led us to talking a little bit about the Civil Rights Movement (my 30-minute spiel in simple English with Darija clarifications on the Civil Rights Movement still needs work), which they knew absolutely nothing about. This has put us on a kick talking about social issues in Morocco and on racism. Keep in mind that at the beginning of the year these kids couldn’t say “hello” and still only have a tenuous grasp on the past tense, though they kill in the present and present progressive, so we’re not talking high theory here.

            Keeping on this topic, last week I said an English word they’d never heard before. Assumption. “Younes,” they asked, “what does ‘assumption’ mean.” Realizing that I actually didn’t know it in Arabic, I defined assumption as something you believe without having a reason to believe it. Then I asked them how to say it in Arabic. They thought for awhile. Then they thought some more. Their eventual conclusion was that there simply wasn’t a word for it in Arabic. I found that a little hard to believe, but we moved on and they used it correctly for the rest of class. Since their first language is Tamazight, I decided I’d ask one of my English-speaking friends whose first language is Arabic what “assumption” is.

            He’d never heard the word before. So I explained it to him the same way I’d explained it before, giving examples of bad assumptions (an American who has never lived in an Arab country or met any Arabs might think all Arabs are terrorists, or boys in Morocco often assume girls who dress “loosely” are asking to be harassed) and good assumptions (if the next town in one direction is the same distance away as the next town in the other we can assume that it takes the same amount of time to drive to one or the other, but even this can be wrong because one might be uphill and the other down). He said that this was an entirely new concept to him, but that good assumptions could be covered by a certain word, however as we talked more about that word it seemed like the better translation was “conjecture.”

            Still unsatisfied I took to the Internet. On Facebook, Peace Corps Morocco has a group where PCVs can ask each other and various LCFs, tutors, and other English speaking Moroccans language questions. I explained that the word had come up in class and how I’d defined it. The first response from one PCV was this: “ ‘something you believe without reasons’ is oftentimes ‘fact’ here.” Rather flip, but sadly often rather accurate as well, which is part of the reason I want to talk about assumptions with my kids. Another enterprising PCV got an answer from Google translate, but we wanted confirmation. Another PCV suggested that since there isn’t much of a cultural context here for it just to go with “beliefs” or “opinions,” but I still wanted an answer. Eventually one of the Moroccan group members chimed in. His response was laughter. So as far as I know, there is no word for assumption in Arabic (any Arabic speaker reading this please comment and let me know if I’m missing something here).

            Now, this might be assuming too much (yeah, I groaned as well, but it was too easy), but I wonder if part of the problem the first volunteer brought up, that things you believe without reason are oftentimes “facts” here is because they don’t have a word for assumption. There is a lot of distance between fact, not fact, and outright false, and assumption is an important concept bridging that distance. Maybe I’m reading too much into the limits of language, reading Orwell too much at an early age will do that to you.

            In other news, a couple of weeks ago I was in Rabat for my Close of Service Conference. There isn’t really too much to write about it here, but it was an interesting and reflective time. Really highlights how close to the end I am. In fact, I realized, I have no more than 6 sessions left with any one class at this point. Less with some of them. Hopefully, most of those sessions won’t be solely mine anymore either, providing the bus system follows through the volunteer who is to replace me in site should be arriving later today!

            To finish up I’ll put in a Joha story since I haven’t in awhile. This is one of the ones I’ve used in play form in class, in this case with my freshmen to follow-up on their lesson on clothing:

            One day, Joha went to a shop that sold clothing. There he saw a beautiful pair of pants that he wanted to buy. After haggling for a good price the shopkeeper started to wrap up Joha’s purchase.
            “Wait,” said Joha, “I actually think I like that coat better, how much is it?”
            “For you,” said the shopkeeper, “I’ll say the same price as the pants.” Joha thanked him and took the coat. “Wait,” cried the shopkeeper, “Joha, you haven’t paid me.”
            “I’ve left you the pants,” replied Joha.
            “You didn’t pay for those either,” said the shopkeeper.
            “Of course not,” said Joha, “why would I pay for something I didn’t buy?”