19 June 2015

Why Are You Fasting?

If you’ve been a long time follower of this blog – are there even any of you out there left? – you have been told my Ramadan story.  How I came to Morocco during Laylat Al-Qadr 2005, over Halloween, and my life changed.  How ever since those four days, Morocco has been twisting and turning my life in ways that I could have enver predicted, pulling me in, pushing me away, back and forth, not like the waves, but like the leather sack that Amazigh women in the mountains use to make buttermilk – often violently, and producing something that not everyone can love, but that I do.

Was that too much of that metaphor?  Anyway, I digress…

Other years, I have fasted to understand Moroccans, to test myself if I wanted to become a Muslim (I don’t), to create some kind of stronger connection between myself and Morocco, to fit in, to show people I love them, to seek out God, to show people they weren’t fasting alone in America, and to be able to tell myself and other people that I did it.

This year, I’ve broken into a new community, where people don’t know me, Moroccans that haven’t had previous exposure to my particular brand of crazy half-Moroccan-even-though-yes-not-one-of-my-parents-is-Moroccan-ness.  No one expects me to fast, and perhaps there is no other non-Muslim foreigner in Casablanca who is.  But I wanted to this year.  And thus, I am obliged to come up with a reason, true or false, to explain WHY.  Why would you do this thing that many of us consider a burden, and try to get out of in any way we can?  Why would you culturally-appropriate this religious act of ours and not convert to our religion?

So here, for all the blogospheres to read, I’ll say “I don’t really know why I am fasting this year.”

I’m in Morocco, so it’s not like I miss it.  I miss my family in American, and my Moroccan family in Marrakech, and low blood sugar and no water for 16 hours a day just make me miss them more.

I’ve made pretty clear already I’m not converting to Islam, so we don’t have to even go into that.

Is it because I want to gain creditability with our volunteers and staff?  Maybe, but I think that the work I’ve been able to do with CorpsAfrica is some of the work of which I am most proud, and I’m not worried any more about what volunteers do and don’t give me credit for.  Haters gonna hate, and lovers gonna love.

Is it to impress my new Moroccan boyfriend’s family?  Let’s not kid ourselves, yes of course.  But he doesn’t care (hamdullah I finally found one) if I’m Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, Buddhist, or Pagan.  He respects my spiritual practices and I respect his, and I am excited for us to share this holy time together more than I am excited to show off my ability to not eat or drink to his family.

Is it because I want to get closer to God and the divine, and back to the spirituality of my teenage years.  Always.  There’s a quote I can’t quite remember from Dogma, about how faith is like a glass that keeps getting bigger as you get older.  When you’re a kid, it’s really easy to fill your faith glass, but the more you grow, the more your glass grows, and you have to do a lot more to fill it.  I’ve clearly even had to look outside of the confines of the suburban Lutheranism and socially-liberal Catholicism in which I came of age.  I desperately want to feel God’s grace like I used to.

There’s not one reason this year, even though there are some reasons that didn’t exist in previous years, and some that did.  I suppose that every year was a mishmash of reasons, and I shouldn’t worry about justifying myself to other people.  I suppose the calm I feel and the time I have to read and write and  the way I love that I have time to sit, think, and seek the Divine should really be the point of this month.

Maybe next time a taxi driver asks me why I’m fasting, I’ll just say: “Because I like it.”

09 January 2015

A Video Speaks A Million Words?

This blog is one of those "I'm poking my head up for air" blogs... I'm in the middle of training now, but I wanted to share two videos that my wonderful colleague Garrett has made for us at CorpsAfrica/Maroc.  Garrett is our design-thinking expert/consultant, and has become a true friend to us at CorpsAfrica and to me as well.

The first video he made for us back in October, and it features our first group, and his first time training Moroccans.  It features the song Zina by Algerian singer (group?) Babylone that was a huge hit in Morocco over the past year.

The second video feature the second training he did for us, and features the song Lulla by the Touareg group Tinariwen, as well as Dima Labas (Always Okay) by Cheb Khaled.

Catch you all on the flip side, where I hope I get a chance to talk more about our wonderfully inspiring volunteers.

For more about CorpsAfrica, please check out the volunteers' blogs:


15 December 2014

A Eulogy of Sorts

Usually, you get just 40 days of mourning.  They tell you that 40 days is how much a widow should mourn her husband before she can move on.  They originally did it because it would be a way to determine paternity, the cynic in me feels the need to remind you, but there was also a way to go through the states and stages of grief, and process the death before moving on.  This time, however, I needed a year.  A year to remember Youssef, to talk about him, to miss him, to grieve his passing, to be angry at the world, and to move on.  Maybe I have, maybe I haven’t, but the hole he left isn’t so raw now, and I feel I can finally write about him. I want to write about the wonderful things I remember - though I would be the first person to tell you the faults I also saw in him - and keep him alive in the eulogy of sorts.

A long time ago, my pastor gave what became one of my favorite sermons.  What do you do when life hits you in the face with a metaphorical “two-by-four”?  How do you go on when faced with tragedy?  The sermon is too long to summarize here, but the point of it was to get people to think about how can you appreciate the wake-up call from God, and how can you appreciate what you still have?

During Ramadan of 2008, when we were learning to discover each others' religions, I asked Youssef about this, and he told me that he agreed, and that he felt that falling sick for him was a message from God.  When he was in the hospital in 2007, recovering from a very serious clot in his leg (a symptom of the disease I believe eventually killed him), he told me that he gained a new appreciation for life, especially for the love he felt when his parents visited him and stayed with him in the cold, bare Moroccan state-run hospital.  He told me that these kinds of “slaps in the face” bring out you out of your selfish state of mind and obsession with the small things like nothing else, and they make you appreciate all the other gifts from God you have in your life.

What I will most remember about Youssef goes so much deeper than the relationship we had.  I will remember how he was a man of respect.  How he went out of his way to respect his family:  letting them find out about us slowly, giving all his money to them when he could.  His respect the people of Tahannoute:  as a young man with his roots in Marrakech, he came to Tahannoute at 13 and learned Tashelheet, the language of the majority there.  And the respect he had for me and helping me protect my reputation, by keeping his distance at times – even when it infuriated me – and reminding me to be careful about our relationship because it wasn’t ALL about me.

But of course, just because I remember him fondly and respectfully, doesn’t mean that the relationship, which ended over 3 years before his death, won’t stick with me.  He said that he fell in love with me – or he realized how he felt, or something – when he saw me cry.  He couldn't have known what he was getting himself into, because I must have cried at least 6 days a week during our relationship (Peace Corps is hell for your emotions, especially if you’re a crier like me) but, I think he said that before he hadn’t realized how sensitive I was, and he liked it.  Not sensitive in the way we use it, to indicate weakness, but sensitive in the way of sensing and letting myself be affected by things, sensitive as in aware and vulnerable and…  Well, if he were here maybe he could explain it better. It took his death to make me realize that he was one of very few people that I’ve ever let see me in this kind of raw emotive state.  And I was okay with that, because of his maturity, my impulsiveness, my tears, my passion didn’t freak him out.  He was just there for me when I needed him.  The lack of drama in his life had a calming effect on me.  That, and his smile.

Youssef gave me his time.  Whenever I really needed him, he came.  I wasn’t aware enough to realize how much I was asking of him, or the cultural rules that made it hard for him to say no to me, but he gave me all of himself.  He came when I was drunk, when I was sad, when I was happy, when I was annoying, when I was boring.  He never liked saying no anyway, but I like to think that – most of the time at least – he wanted to come anyway, and was just trying to give me some control in the situation, especially because I would always feel so out of control of so many variables in my life.

Hugs.  He was tall, but not absurdly so.  He was muscular, but not built.  He was gaining weight, because he was employed and eating well, and so he had a little bit of a squish to him.  And that made him the perfect hugger.  His arms would envelop me, and I never felt overweight around him, because he was just big enough to make me feel like I FIT right under his arm.  I would have stayed there forever, embraced by this man.  He used to try to get out of the hugs and I wouldn’t let him, and then he’d try to get me to smell his “manly sweat” from his armpits, as a way to drive me away.

He believed in love.  He always told me that.  He wanted to love his wife, and that was really the only dream he had for his marriage or his love life.  He was one of few who really went after that dream – no arranged marriages for him.

Seeing the world with a sense of humor – at the time it was hard for me to accept that one should just laugh at the sexual harassment because it is the tactics of boys, but Youssef knew me and he knew Moroccan boys and he always told me that only little boys would harass some girl because they were afraid…  but a real man, so to speak, knew to treat a woman with respect and talk to her… It’s not in anyway an excuse, or the best way to deal with a problem, but when you’re walking down the street in Marrakech, and a old man grabs your crotch so hard it lifts you off the ground, Youssef taught me that I have nothing to do but laugh.  There were so many other pursuits that needed my time and my energy, and he taught me not to waste this valuable energy on men who didn’t deserve my time.

On my 24th birthday, we were walking to the Dar Chebab, on the dirt shoulder on the right side of the road.  He was singing something, I don’t remember, off-key, and I made a face, or swatted at him, or something, and told him to shut up.  His response, I’ll never forget it, deflated any annoyance I could possibly have with him:  “If you don’t like my singing, you can shut up your fucking ears!”  And then he giggled.

27 November 2014

Throwback Thanksgiving

Another Peace Corps Thanksgiving.  I'm on the train on my way from Casa to Rabat, about to have Thanksgiving supper - I say that because it's from 2pm to 5pm, so "supper" feels like the appropriate antiquated word for eating at that time - with hundreds of Peace Corps volunteers that I've never met.  And I'm reflecting on both my last 7 Thanksgivings, since Peace Corps came into my life, and also on what I'm thankful for this year.  Since it's technically #ThrowbackThursday, I'll give you a bit of a look at where I've been for the past few years.

The Thanksgiving of 2007 will always stand out in my mind - we were at the end of our training, and although I can't quite remember if we had already sworn-in as Peace Corps volunteers or about to swear-in, I'll always remember that all 68 of us took over the kitchen of the center in Fes, and made Thanksgiving for over 70 people.  I don't know why I didn't help much, but I have photos of my friends Danice, Diana, and I hanging out with our CBT counterpart, Idriss, and making hand-shaped turkeys and feather headbands.  There are also pictures of people who would become my life-long friends in chef coats and hats, as well as POTS of mashed potatoes.  It was definitely a delicious night, and will stand out as one of the best Thanksgivings I could have had being so far away from family.

Thanksgiving 2008 involved 2 celebrations - one with Danice (again!) her friends from Notre Dame, and my host mom-sister.  I have distinct memories of us taking two-day-old bread and using a rock to make it into bread crumbs for green bean casserole.  This was the year that my mom was a champion and sent me a whole box of Thanksgiving fixin's and called it "books" so customs would let her send raw cranberries overseas.  Probably the only "unethical" thing she's ever done.  And it made everything worth it because after a year away from home and without seeing family, the taste of MSG-filled cream of mushroom soup and freeze-dried onions were much welcome.

The next year's Thanksgiving was also epic, because we had just COS-ed and begun our 3-week no-airplane journey back home.  We were in Barcelona, renting two apartments in the Gothic quarter, and had some of the best chefs of Peace Corps with us to make a lovely dinner for 21 culture-
shocked, slightly tweaked out RPCVs who were about to board a two-week cruise back to America.  This Thanksgiving also featured a rendition of "Do Re Mi" rewritten for Peace Corps Morocco that deserves it's own blog post, and much love and warmth in the candlelight of our Barcelona apartment.

Thanksgiving of 2010 I don't think I have photographic evidence of, but it involved another turkey tagine.  I was working for Morocco Exchange and it was the first day of one of our 4-day trips.  I had gone to a fairly swanky restaurant the day before, and asked them to prepare a late lunch for us that involved turkey tagine, to surprise the students.  I knew the feeling of having your first Thanksgiving away from home - I had experienced that while studying abroad in Spain, just as they were doing at the time - and so I wanted it to be special for them.  We felt the same warmth with new friends and eating turkey despite being away from home, and this dinner made it one of my favorite trips that I hosted with MoEx.

In 2011, I was back with Peace Corps friends.  We met at a friend's mom's apartment in Evanston, Ill. and my dad and his new wife got to meet some of the most important people in my life.  We had wonderful food, talked about Thanksgiving/Christmas movies we used to watch, and of course, drunkely Skyped those who were far away from us, including "real" family, Peace Corps family, and other loved ones.

2012 was a big year for me.  I was with my sister in San Francisco, and she brined the turkey by herself - it was amazing by the way.  I also got to have a little Peace Corps flavor in my life that year because my friend David was also living in San Francisco at the time, and came over as well.  Before I left Philly, however, I also met my new friend, Fer, an Iranian at Penn who I came to see as one of my best new friends from that period, and who I hope to visit one day in her home.  We met that night when she asked me what I was drinking, and then we talked for at least an hour about education, pedagogy, and I recommended that she read Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  The beginning of a beautiful friendship.  I'm so thankful to have her in my life - even though we don't see each other that much - because she constantly reminds me how awesome women scientists are, as well as Iranians.  She's the one in the funky hat sitting across from me.

And now we're up to last year, 2013.  I went home to visit my mother and had a lovely Thanksgiving
with just her and me.  Before I flew home from Baltimore, though, I had a pre-thanksgiving meet up with Peace Corps friends - in line with the theme of this blog post of course - and we talked about how we had come, and that's where the idea for the reunion we had this past May really solidified.

So there you go.  My trail that has led me to today, my 8th Thanksgiving since I embarked on this experience that changed my life.  I hope that this will be another memorable event in a line of wonderful memories for which I am so thankful.  And now, in no particular order, my Thankful list - for those of you who are still with me:

  • This year I'm thankful for Whatsapp, because it allows me to stay connected with the most important people in my life.  I mean, I guess I'm thankful for the internet in general, but if we had to be specific, I couldn't have decided to embark on this next adventure without knowing that I could maintain the relationships that are most important to me.  I am especially thankful for Whatsapp group chats and the comfort they give me, every morning, when I wake up to 22 messages from my best friends.  How did people do the Peace Corps before the internet, I mean really?
  • This year I'm also thankful for my volunteers.  They say when you're volunteering, you always get more than you give, take more than you could ever bestow upon people.  And it's true even in this management role, with these young Moroccans.  They inspire me every day with their optimism, their patience, their willingness to do something that is so outside of their cultural context and their comfort zone.
  • I'm also thankful for Morocco, and especially Peace Corps Morocco.  Some people never find direction in their lives, never find a purpose, and it is because of this country that I have a guiding principle and, if we're being honest, a reason to keep on "keeping on."
  • Finally, this year I'm thankful for the hard things that have happened to me in the past year or so.  I don't have a hard life, and I'm very aware of my priviledge, but I have faced what are ,for me, some of the most difficult situations of my life since leaving Penn, and I am thankful for the pain they brought, the lessons I learned, and the fact that they remind me how lucky I am to have the good things in my life that I do, and that I am lucky just to be alive.
Thanks for reading, dear friends and family, and I hope you have a wonderful and warm Thanksgiving, wherever you are.

23 November 2014

Training, Training, Training

Warning: Long post!

Finally - and sadly - our training for CorpsAfrica is over.  Much like my original training, it went by in a whirlwind of meetings, PowerPoint presentations, hikes, glasses of mint tea, guitar circles, scrambles to get things accomplished, and laughter.  It may not be the formative experience for me that my own training was, but we did our very best to make sure that it was that kind of experience for our volunteers.  I feel supremely confident that they are ready to go out into their communities and make a difference, and as I've been telling them for the past five days, I've never been prouder of a group of people/students.

Week 1:

We spent the training in Casablanca at a Ministry of Youth and Sport Facility in Bourgone.  The facility became our home in Casa, and although we were comfortable enough, much of my memories of training will be of (1) searching for food that was NOT paninis or schwarma or pizza and (2) chasing the stray cats that lived in the center out of our room.

Before I even arrived at training, the volunteers attended at Red Crescent training that - I think - began the bonding process, as well as got them in the mindset of how much they would have to invest in this training.  They spent two days fighting Casablanca traffic to go to the suburb of Ain Sebaa and learning basic first aid and CPR skills.  We lost two volunteers after those days - they gave the excuse that they hadn't actually finished their Master's theses, as they had originally told us - and our group was down to 10 volunteers.  I actually never even met them, because they had left while I was still in Rabat, preparing to come down to Casablanca.

I arrived on Thursday of that week, and was quite happy to be thrown in the mix, helping coordinate and set up for 2 days of presentations by various NGOs in Morocco who work on projects that our volunteers might be interested in once they settle into their sites.  We meet with the International Youth Foundation, the UN Volunteers program - who are sponsoring my UN counterpart here - the Moroccan Center for Civic Education, The Anou, INJAZ Al-Maghrib, Travel with a Mission, and a few others.

It was the week of beginnings, and the group had already started to bond and form inside jokes about the Heimlich maneuver. I remember feeling like I had come home, and I was - and would continue to feel the joy of being back into Morocco, and moreover to be busy and useful.

Week 2:

The second week of training was definitely a highlight of the training.  On Sunday morning we welcomed Garrett, our design - thinking trainer, into our group.  He and I had been working together since I had decided to come back to Morocco to put together a comprehensive training for our volunteers.  To remain true to the CorpsAfrica motto of "Development. Redefined."  we wanted to take what we had learned from our own experiences as volunteers (he had been a volunteer in Liberia from 2010-2012), as well as feedback from last year's CorpsAfrica training, and integrate design-thinking into the pre-service training of this groups.  We started out getting them to think differently, by having them re-design a wallet in pairs, introducing them to the concept of design for innovation, and (what turned out to be most powerful for them based on their feedback later on), showing them one of my favorite TED talks, "The Danger of a Single Story."

Because of my experience and training in Experiential Learning, we wanted them not only to learn about the principles of design-thinking, but also to put them into practice in a 'real' context.  So, because one of our board members is the founder of The Sidi Moumen Cultural Center, we decided to take them to Sidi Moumen, divide them up into small groups, and see what they could learn about the center.  We wanted them to work to understand the deeper issues that the center and the community were facing, and suggest innovative solutions to these issues.

For those of you who don't know, the neighborhood of Sidi Moumen is somewhat infamous in Morocco for being the location of the largest shantytown in the country.  It is also known throughout Morocco as the place where Salafist groups recruit, to the extent that it is commonly known that the bombers of the May 16, 2003 bombings in Casablanca were mainly from Sidi Moumen.  The Moroccan government has long been trying to invest in moving people out of their shantytowns into housing projects, but it is still an area that faces many urban poverty challenges.  For long-time followers of my blog, you may remember my two articles a few years ago where I reflected on this issue.

Our group came and spent two afternoons/evenings meeting as many people as possible in the center and practicing interviewing and understanding techniques that they had learned.  They really loved being able to speak with so many people, and having a chance and a reason to ask deeper questions, trying to understand the challenges of the center and the surrounding community.  They also were able to visit people in their homes, including some who had lived or still lived in the shantytowns.  There they were able to get people to open up a little more than they might in the center, far from ears of the leaders of the center who they might be afraid of offending.

In the end, they came up with three varied ideas of how to address issue they found:

  • One group felt that there were a number of children who came from broken homes who needed youth leaders in the center to reach out them in a more concrete way
  • A second group felt that there was a group of housewives who would like a cooking class and they could use the class as a way to make some money that they could keep for their own
  • A third group talked about the desire of the youth volunteer leaders in the center and how they could use job training
All solid ideas right?  Well, one of the most powerful experiences of this week was the presentation we made at the end.  We wanted the volunteers to share their ideas with the community and receive feedback for moving forward.  Time constraints and Moroccan etiquette, however, turned the presentation into something much more formal than we probably should have attempted.  And because of the stage and the way in which the ideas were presented, it came across as an "us vs. them, insiders vs. outsiders" situation.  Some of the parents and older members of the community center, having seen their children grow and benefit so much from being members, became quite defensive and during the middle of the presentation, it devolved into a very useful back-and-forth about what the purpose of our presence in the center even was.  There were apologies on both sides, and our volunteers ended up taking the line that this was just a training and that the members of the center need not worry.

Like I said, a wonderful learning experience, with many "what not to do" lessons to take with them to their sites.  We had a small party for Garrett on Saturday before he left, and then we were off to the mountains for our third week of training.

Week 3:

The majority of the volunteers told us that the third week of training was their favorite.  This week we spent in the High Atlas Mountains above Marrakech, living in a village that is now the site of one of our volunteers.  We also went up there for the volunteers to have a second chance to practice their design-thinking skills.

On Monday, we drove down from Casa to Kech, and then had our minibus driver (my friend Salah who I used to work with through Morocco Exchange) take us to a town above Asni called Tizi Ourgane.  There we met with the president of our board, Omar, and the owner of the shelter - called a jeet - where we would stay for the week.  It was a beautiful 4-5 hour hike from Tizi Ourgane to the village, Tiziyane, and it was such a relief for us to get out of the pollution, noise, and humidity of Casa and up into the warm but not hot, dry air of the mountains.  As is common in these mountains, we had two mules to carry our bags, so we had a lovely hike up and arrived before sunset.

Much like the previous week, we spent the third week getting to know our surroundings.  Our second day was pretty much spent hiking to and from - and visiting - the village of a previous volunteer to meet her and see the project she had completed.  Because we had seen and discussed many examples of failure before this, it was lovely to see the example of her success.  She had worked with her local associations and leaders to build a preschool, but more importantly, she had successfully navigated the social and cultural pressures of her village, and come out of her year there as a stronger, more confident, and more capable person.

Inspired by her success and story, our volunteers gave their full effort that week, reviewing and re-practicing their design-thinking process. In coming up with their ideas, they worked much harder to get the community involved this time, and were able to take more time to figure out what resources the community had.  Their ideas this time were:

  1. to start a trash clean-up campaign that would run co-currently with a sensitization program to not only get the people of the community involved in cleaning up their own village, but also in understanding why it was important, and changing their behavior
  2. using a only-slightly-run-down building near the mosque as a community center, using it for after-school activities, tutoring, and parent association meetings
  3. hold a community meeting for jeet owners throughout the valley and have volunteers from Marrakech come up to teach them how to improve their touristic services in order to attract more clients, and make the clients feel more at home when at the jeets.

Although we didn't hold a community meeting this time, our ideas were clearly much better received by the community.  So much so that we were able to mobilize a contingent of young boys as well as some older men to help us and go around the community, picking up trash.  The volunteers also worked on sensitizing kids not to throw their candy and cookie wrappers all over the place after we had finished about two hours of trash pick up.  It was also quite a learning experience, because before we could say "plastic bag," the community leaders who were helping us had started two trash piles on fire. So instead of talking about and figuring out a way to get the trash out of the village, we had a village that smelled like trash smoke for the next 24 hours.  Baby steps, baby steps.

At this point, I was still feeling that floaty, honeymoon feeling about being in Morocco, and, because of the beauty of the mountains, the ever-growing closeness of the group, the nightly philisophical dinners and talks on the roof of the jeet, and one special trip down to the river - complete with guitar-accompanied Moroccan rai and American classic rock songs, that feeling only grew during this week in the mountains.

Weeks 4 & 5:

Week Four and Five kind of blend together in my mind, mostly because they became less planned.  Simply due to the nature of the work we do and the country in which we work, we were forced to be more flexible with our plans and change many of them at the last minute.  Our volunteers really rose to the challenge of these weeks, and thus the training carried on and we were able to fit in even more than we planned.

Two of these days we sent the volunteers out to a farm outside of Marrakech.  Our idea was not only to give them an opportunity to ask farm workers and owners questions about the business of farming, but also to give them a tiny taste of how HARD farming is, especially due to the monotony of many of the tasks involved.  As you might expect, they weren't so happy about spending a day pulling plastic tubing out of the earth so that the farmers could water their fava beans, but I know that they (and I) will never look at fava beans the same way again.

We also brought them up to a site of a PC volunteer in the mountains above Ait Ourir, and gave them another chance to see a successful project - a women's doll-making cooperative and an early-education project.

Another two days were spent in Ifrane, the Switzerland of Morocco, meeting with professors and student leaders at Al-Akhawayn University.  We talked to some true experts, who spoke about community integration, development, anthropology, and the UN from a more academic perspective, and helped our volunteers see their work in the larger context of human development projects throughout Morocco and the world.

Our final major event of these two weeks was a day-long training in Setting Expectations.  Taught by a business school type, it was one of the most valuable activities - in my perspective - that we did that week.  Not only did the volunteers get a chance to voice what they expected of us, but we also got to work with them to clarify what we expected of them, and I believe they went forward with a much clearer idea of how they were to proceed once they got into site.

Site Assignments & Swearing-In:

And, just like that, our training was over.  We gave them site assignments, a weekend off with a chance to go home, and hosted a swearing-in ceremony in a fancy, seaside restaurant in Casablanca.  This end-of-training period affected me much more than other endings have in the past - except the end of my own pre-service training - because I had not only spent 24 hours a day with these wonderful young people, but also because I felt deeply invested in what we had taught them and their lives and future service.  It was a bit of a bittersweet goodbye, seeing them with all their bags at the Casa Voyageurs train station, but mostly sweet because I was - and still am - ridiculously proud of them, and hopeful about what they will accomplish in their sites.  So we shall see how things progress from here.  Two months of integration.  Another training group coming in December or January.  Much travel to visit them in their sites and make sure they are set up and feel supported.  It's going to be a great great couple of months!

16 October 2014

Flipping the Switch

I'm back in Morocco.  This fact has ceased to surprise anyone: me, returning to Morocco, where it all started, but for me, every time is different, and I am very excited about the year ahead.

For those of you who don't already know, I'm going to be working for the organization CorpsAfrica/Maroc.  CorpsAfrica is a non-governmental organization that seeks to "provide young adults across Africa the opportunity to serve as 'Peace Corps Volunteers' in their own countries and help drive solutions to poverty at the community level (like 'AmeriCorps' for African countries)," and I will be serving as the Training and Volunteer Support Specialist for their second cohort of volunteers in Morocco.  It's a perfect match for my passions and experience, especially because I get to incorporate everything I've learned so far in my professional life and put it to good use.  And, you know, help some people or something while I'm at it.

I also feel quite honored to be where I am because I am technically serving as a Peace Corps Response volunteer, which means much of my funding and support will be provided by Peace Corps Morocco. This does a lot to assuage any fears my family might have about my safety and security, and also gives me great medical care and an 'out' if things get sticky here.  Which I don't really expect them to, but you never know.  On the other side of the Peace Corps coin comes the restrictions and responsibilities that come with receiving funding from the US Government - less talk of politics, travel restrictions, and making sure someone knows where I am at all times.  It is worth it to me for now, and a sacrifice I am willing to make for the benefits I get, and the people with whom I am privileged to work.  At least this time, there's no 5 Person Rule! (Back in 2007, we were not allowed to be more than 5 people in any city in Morocco except Rabat...)

Another part of this experience for me is how much I more I know, how much more aware I am going in.  I've lived in the city, I've lived in the semi-rural areas, I've visited the VERY rural areas and the completely empty areas.  I have a network of friends and 'family' that I can call if I need something or even if I'm just lonely.  I've been in Rabat since Monday and already hung out with six different people!

I can read Arabic - kind of - and I know about the politics and I feel I have a good handle on both sides of many of the controversies that exist here.  Morocco to me is not what it is was five years ago: I now see it as "normal" and a place where, at the end of the day, I can be myself in many ways that I wasn't able to in the United States, because my Self has changed and molded into a new kind of Third Culture global citizen.  I can, as the title of this blog suggests, flip a switch and become Zineb, my Moroccan identity, with the language and the polychronism and the traditionalism and the conservativism that describes many Moroccans (though not all, of course).  Or, I can remain Colleen, a young American woman who has fought hard for what she wants, is always 3 minutes early, and loves to engage in controversial discussions just to get a rise out of people.

Speaking of which, as I spent my first few days in Morocco here in Rabat, this article really struck me as a good one to share for starting out this blog - again.

Morocco's Mawazine Festival: Exposing Class Tensions and Social Unrest

I attended Mawazine in 2010, because hey, one can put up with a little groping and crushing crowds to see Shakira for free in the prime of her career, and Joe Cocker for free in honor of her father!  But, as I mentioned, I feel that in coming back to Morocco now, I have to take a step back when I consider whether or not to participate in these Western and popular events.  What does it say to people around me when I complicity support this festival that many believe is a complete waste of the government's money?  Am I being a hypocrite in working to empower and educate the rural poor of this country, and yet attend this "opiate of the masses" kind of event?

Today I go down to Casablanca from Rabat, and jump right into Corps Africa training.  Hopefully I will have plenty of time to post more about my job and my ruminations soon!

23 July 2014

How was Beirut?

Martyrs' Square Panorama

(In case you needed another) Disclaimer:

Every since I was young, I have been fascinated with stories.  Mostly, I consumed stories like I eat: passionately, too quickly (sometimes uncontrollably), and with an almost reckless abandon that can lead to losing connection with the "real" world.
Graffiti as advertisement

Because I have recently begun to be able to articulate my love for stories, I decided that I wanted to try to tell the story of Beirut in this blog.  In every effort to be transparent, you must know that this is my best attempt to show Beirut as I see it, and - as I mentioned before - it should not be taken as truth or fact - like any good pseudo-intellectual, I am unconvinced that facts actually exist in the way that the Enlightenment has taught us to see them - but merely as one enthusiasts' view of what happened to her during her time in a new city.

In coming back, a lot of people have already asked me (including my friends at the nail place, bless them!), "Oh, how was your vacation?" As with any trip, I am having the trouble finding words... how do you explain to someone in nice little American soundbites this wonderfully complex and fascinating city, let alone the whole country and its history and how it's so connected with the region?  No one has time to listen to me recount the past 4000 years, let alone the past 30...

I should just start carrying around an index card with this written on it:

Beirut is such a fantastic city--a place of such unbelievable possibilities. You can be sitting by the pool or listening to techno in a club one minute and having a wary conversation with Hezbollah ten minutes later. Its a very short ride. For all its problems ( all the problems and all the evils in the world in miniature, basically), it's an absolutely magical, gorgeous city. Impossible to not fall in love with. It's pheromonic. Some cities just smell good the second you land.

Near the Pigeons' Rocks
I'm not sure if stealing a quote from Anthony Bourdain is how I should be writing this blog, but it struck me as a great, rather concise way, to describe many of the things I did over these past two weeks.  To answer the question "How was Beirut?" might be essentializing the place too much, taking out the rich context and flavor of it

I think, however, my answer might be something along the lines of:

I loved being there, although I usually don't love big party cities. I wanted to explore every small alley and street for hidden gems, especially once I discovered brunch was a thing that Beirutis do. It was safe, but you could still see the scars from when it was not a safe place.  My feet were filthy every day, but my mind felt clearer.  People I met were more open or "modern" in ways than many of my Moroccan and Omani friends, but yet I was surprised at how sectarian strife seemed to make people less tolerant as well.

And thus I present the beginning of my answer, which I hope to finish more in depth throughout this blog series.  Drop by drop, the river rises.

20 July 2014

Another Return to Murrica, Another Intestinal Bug

Last sunset over the Mediterranean

So clearly my attempt to blog every other day while in Beirut failed, and my grand ambitions of beginning the blogging on the plane also failed - gosh darn you traveller's tummy - but never fear.  As a Millennial, I have a near-compulsive need to share my experiences in the "public" eye, and thus I am planning a blog series.  I have a list over a page long that I hope to be able to turn into some kind of useful and interesting reflection.

Suffice to say that this trip out of the US reminded me why I do what I do, why the Arab and Muslim worlds continue to fascinate me, and how I need to work harder to be better at being a pseudo-intellectual.  I was getting into an unhealthy rut here, in the US, of drinking and television and other forms of mindless entertainment, and I could feel my brain atrophying, and yet could not seem to care enough to do much about it.  As I told family in a text, this trip has intellectually invigorated and inspired me to do better and to be better.  That and the fact that the bad news from many quarters jolted me out of my self-imposed exile from the world.

I hope you are as optimistic about the future of this blog as I am, and I look forward to feedback, discussion, and debate.

09 July 2014

First Days in the Middle East

So, after almost 8 years of hearing about the place, here I am, in the "real" Middle East. I say that because I spent so much time in North Africa and the Gulf that it seemed almost comical that I had never spent any time as a student of the various Arabics and Arabic cultures in the Levant or thereabouts.
I'm almost afraid to write and publish this blog because of the polemic that surrounds this ancient place. One of my biggest fears about becoming a Euro-American academic is being discredited by earning the reputation as an Orientalist. I figure, however, that since I'm not claiming to be an academic yet, or really, any kind of expert on the area - having spent less than 48 hours here - that I'm in the clear, at least for now.
I thought, before arriving, that I didn't really know what to expect, and that Beirut would be completely different than anything I could have imagined - based on my complete (and stupid) surprise as to how different the Gulf was than Morocco - but of course, I was wrong again. Things feel quite... familiar here. Perhaps it's the neighborhood, Gemazyeh, in which I've spent most of my time so far, and the "chi-chi" European feel to it, or perhaps is the physical buildings and streets and weather, which remind me mainly of Rabat, full of construction and both new and crumbling buildings, mainly made of concrete. Or perhaps it's running around with my former Moroccan partner in crime, as she and I enjoy the fact that we can wear the same clothes we would wear in the US, or marvel at the fact that we can chew gum and drink water in public during Ramadan (as much as we are aware that we're in a Christian part of town).
I suppose I also hoped to find more of a bohemian Parisian feel, as some of my stereotypes about the Lebanese include nights spent in pubs, discussing important political and literary issues, perhaps sipping on a brown liquor of some sort while half the table smokes French import cigarettes. I'm guessing that this happens somewhere, but I also had to remind myself that this is the 21st century and people have lives and jobs and less time in general to sit around and be intellectual for a living.
The best thing that DID happen to me in this vein of intellectualism was a conversation with a tour operator we met at a Couchsurfing meet-up, when the group finally got past the awkward stage of "Where are you from?" (France, Kurdistan, and Lebanon were represented) and "What do you do?" (banking, NGO work, and education). We brought up the idea of violence here, and in the region, because we were talking about all the places we wanted to visit in the world, and I said something to the tune of "I'm really excited to be here because people in the US are freaking out about Lebanon and the safety issues, but in many ways, Chicago, New York, and LA are more dangerous than here." and I also mentioned how I relieved I was to find less cat-calling and street harassment than even Washington DC. The tour operator broke out into a huge grin and gave me the most genuine THANK YOU I've heard in a long time. We both agreed - as I have so many times - that "The Media" distorts everything, and travel makes you realize what bullshit the whole thing is, but how hard it is to escape the bullshit when you're entrenched in such an internet and image driven society. Of course we didn't use those words in that moment, after 2 beers and a margarita each, but still.

As far as what we've done, mainly running around and getting used to the place. That and sweating a lot - so much humidity here, being on the Mediterranean and all. Visiting Saifi and eating and drinking our way through various neighborhoods nearby. My second favorite thing so far has been getting back to a place with food so full of flavor I almost teared up. In the States, I can take hummus or leave it, but here... dear god. I suppose I should have expected this, how amazing the hummus and tomatoes and, well, everything, would taste, but when you're away from the Mediterranean for a while, you forget.
Today, advanced Lebanese dialect class (what did I get myself into...?) and sushi iftar. Wish me luck!

06 July 2014

Ya Lubnan!

I'm going to Lebanon! Beiruit to be exact. I'm not one to get very excited about things, but I've wanted to go to Beirut ever since I took two classes in the 2006-2007 school year with one of my favorite professors - who is Lebanese.

I wanted originally to go to Iran, to spend time with my dear friend from grad school and her family, but, as I am a US citizen, I wasn't deemed worth by the Iranian government to come to their country. Probably for the best anyway, considering that if I pass the Foreign Service exam I'll have to get Top Secret clearance, and a trip to Iran would definitely jeapordize that application.

As Lebanon is the first country in the actual MIDDLE of the Middle East that I will visit, I hope to be able to do a little bit of blogging while I'm there. Not only that, but it's not the most peaceful time there right now. We had planned a trip to Baalbek, and a fantastic vineyard that serves brunch, but we had to cancel that trip because a group called the Free Sunnis of Baalbek Brigade want to free the region of "crusaders." Oh, and they've also pledged fealty to the new ISIS caliphate. No big deal, but no brunch is worth dealing with a group that is so violent that Al-Qaeda is telling them to calm down.

But enough about scary violence and thoughts of impending explosions. I've already got a few dinners planned, Lebanese Arabic lessons, a sushi iftar groupon purchased, a planned outing to a night club that was/is a bomb shelter, and a tentative plan to visit a turtle refuge where you camp in chalets on the beach and they deliver hookah to your chalet. Stay tuned to this blog for more updates about first impressions of a city I've heard so much about for so long.

05 July 2014

The Empty Space Makes the Wheel

"Ramadan is a limited time of spiritually powerful days"

It's Ramadan again, and because it's an "even" year, I'm fasting again. At least for part of it. This year, I am not sure why, but it seems more important that I fast, and I fast well. (Well, except for that time that I accidentally ate a pre-packaged meal with pork in it for suhoor because I was so tired...)

I often face many questions - mostly from people who don't know a lot about Islam, but also from a lot of Muslims - asking me not only what the Muslim fast is about, but more so, why do I fast if I'm not Muslim? Fasting a full Ramadan seems to be this big accomplishment for someone of European descent, but not so much considering the millions of Muslims who fast every year. Why do I do it? To answer that question, go back to why do Muslims fast.

The logistical answer is that Ramadan - the 9th month of the Islamic lunar calendar - was the month in which God revealed the miracle of the Quran to Mohammed. So Muslims fast in the month that is considered so full of blessings, you can almost physically feel them in the air. By switching Day and Night, by removing the mundane and the profane to make room for the spiritual, Muslims believe - at least the ones educated enough to get this deep into theology - that:

As the Taoist saying affirms, it is the empty space of the wheel which makes the wheel. It is only a certain degree of restraint from the material objects of the senses that makes even the life of the senses balanced, not to speak of making possible an opening in the human soul for the spiritual life.

Ramadan is also quite a special time for me personally because the first night I ever spend in the country was Laylat Al-Qadr (The Night of Power) or as I like to call it, "The Mighty Night." This is 27th night of Ramadan in which, according to Moroccan theologians, it is possible that God, through Jibreel (aka Gabriel), originally revealed the first suras (verses) of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed. I came into the country on that auspicious day from study abroad in Spain, and everything was slow during the day, but came alive at night. That was also my first time in a developing country and walking through the market that night - surrounded by the stereotypical scene of shouting merchants, smoke from meat for sale on barbecues, and crowds of Moroccans taking advantage of the lovely late October night - I knew my life would never be the same.

So why do I fast? Getting back to answering this question, I've developed a pattern of fasting for a significant number of days every other year. I've done 2 full Ramadans, in 2008 and 2012, and I hope to continue this tradition for the rest of my life. Below is my reasoning for fasting as I remember it each of the 4 times I have fasted.

2008: This was the first year, and in learning what Ramadan was really about, I decided I wanted to participate in what everyone around me was doing. I did not only want to sympathize, but, after fasting only Laylat Al-Qadr the year before, I wanted to empathize, and to truly understand what my friends and host families were going through. I spent most of that Ramadan sitting around my house, staying up all night, sleeping until 1pm or even 2pm, and going to L'ftoor (Iftar or Break-Fast) at various houses around my community. It was quite tough that year, mostly because I had no air-conditioning, and the fact that I couldn't drink water made it that much more difficult.

2010: This year I was back in the US, and it was the August between my time in Morocco with NSLI-Y and Morocco Exchange. I fasted this year mostly because I missed Morocco and my time as a volunteer that much - even though I was in Marrakech for parts of it - and because I wanted to see if I could do it in the US. There were a lot of lonely l'ftors that year, but I did manage to have some good ones with my Arabic mentor at the time, and with some volunteer friends who were living in Chicago.

2012: This was one of the best years of fasting for me because again I was in a Muslim country, this time Oman, and this was really the first time I did it while "working" and amongst a group of friend who were doing it together with me. I loved the experience of waking up for sahoor and remembering the peace and quiet and watching the men go to the mosque and hearing the adan (the call to prayer) float in through the open windows on the humid breeze of the Gulf. This was the first time it really meant so much, spiritually. Not only is Oman a country with a very strong religious tradition, but I also spent the second half of the month in Morocco, staying up all night, listening to the Quran being recited in the next room. This was the year I learned that devout Muslims read or recite a 30th of the Quran every night of the 30-day month, and listening to it being recited really showed me how much it is liturgical and mean to be heard rather than read.

2014: This year, I probably will not fast the whole time, but I wanted to fast because I want to reconnect with a part of me that I have set aside recently: the spiritual part, the part where I sit and commune with God. I'm also fasting because it will be easier at work, knowing our IT manager is fasting too. And the fact that my roommate is out and about also, doing his first fast, makes me feel like I have a tiny little family in this white bread town. On the second night, we hosted a few people for l'ftor, and I was oddly proud to be able to serve l'ftor to a Moroccan and when he was finished, hand him the prayer rug I own and have never used and have him accept it without question. I felt like my hospitality was put to the test and I passed, quite high on a scale of 1 to Arabian Peninsula. I'm also still feeling the loss of Youssef (which I have yet to write a blog entry about, but I am planning one) and the posts his siblings make on FB make it all the more poignant this year. I suppose I am looking for a way to hear/feel anything from him, and so being closer to God makes it seem like perhaps He might pass my message along to Youssef, even though in the end, I have the sneaking suspicion that all my thoughts and prayers are going out into nothingness.

And so that is my Ramadan history. A special time, based on the experiences in my life that have coincided with it, and this year will be special as well, because I'm going to be in Lebanon with one of my best friends in the whole world. New Arab country, new experiences, old friends. Again, a limited time of spiritually powerful days.


03 June 2014

A Heartbreaking Journey

Nicole Anderson, Colleen Daley, & Elizabeth Whitton
Morocco 2007-2009
Youth & Small Business Development

I once read a blog post that said, “Peace Corps will break your heart.”  Truly, heartbreak has followed us all through our journeys.  Injustice and sadness in the world broke all our hearts, and drove us to join Peace Corps.  The stories of people we served while doing “toughest job you’ll ever love” broke our sprits yet we weathered it with the support of our new volunteer family.  Stomach viruses and street harassment and insect invasions and sun poisoning broke down our personal boundaries and brought us closer together.  And now, five years after our close of service, it is again my Peace Corps family that has healed the biggest of all the holes in my heart: the truly crippling break that came when I left Peace Corps.

There is something inherently risky about reunions.  They are notorious for being a theater through which you must show how great and beautiful you have become, or a forum in which to seek revenge on your high school bully or ex-boyfriend.  Reunions risk being composed solely of awkward interactions wherein the only thing holding anyone together is nostalgic reminiscing about the past.  Our Memorial Day Weekend in Holland, MI was nothing of the sort.  Because we lived together-but-apart for so many grueling months, when we got back together, it was not awkward or competitive, but easy, full of joy and love. 

We knew it was a success from the very beginning: it is hard to find the words to describe what I felt, the first morning, being amongst this group of 30 after five years, eating a sublime breakfast strata and standing around the kitchen talking like we used to in Morocco.  I kept having to mentally pinch myself to make sure that it was all real – that the most glorious two years of my life did actually happen – and that we were back together again.  It only got better from there:  There were lawn games, field trips to the beach, dancing, singing, and even late night games of Cards Against Humanity.  In keeping with our commitment to the Peace Corps and the third goal, we shared our adopted traditions, dress and food with our new extended family members.  During our Saturday night goat party, I was thrilled to see the non-RPCV guests dressed in djlabas and tkshetas and eating our freshly slaughtered goat, some who had never tasted goat before
What really struck me, however (as tends to happen in Peace Corps) was the people.  I found myself listening so much.  I found myself craving to learn about my fellow RPCV’s lives, because this reunion allowed us to come together over tea (or wine, hooray, since we are no longer in Morocco) and reconnect in a way not achieved through Facebook status updates, tweets, Instagram posts, and LinkedIn profile updates.  I had forgotten that crucial rule of Peace Corps, that ‘time spent’ is perhaps the most valuable work of all.

And from this time spent, I re-learned how unique our group was and still is.  Many of us continue to live overseas working in development or the US Department of State.  We have been awarded Fulbright and Presidential Management Fellowships, contributed to Public Radio International, and translated works of literature from their original Arabic language.  We have started families and are raising funny, mature, precocious, and adorable children.  We are entrepreneurs, researchers, government employees, nonprofit professionals, graduate students, and educators.  We work in sustainable farming enterprises, promote green building practices, and aim to incorporate sustainability into supply chains and product life cycles.  We have earned graduate degrees and are pursuing PhDs and medical degrees.  We are brilliant artists, masters of the written word, and talented actors.  We are community organizers, volunteers, and neighbors.

During Peace Corps, I was constantly amazed at the people I had the pleasure of serving with.  They challenged me to be a better volunteer and a better person, and they still challenge me.  I am amazed at how much they have accomplished, the lessons and values they promote and share, and their visions for what the future holds.  These people inspire, cajole, and peer-pressure us to be better, work harder, reach further in our personal and professional lives.  And I am as inspired and humbled by them six years and 9 months down the lines as I was on that fateful day of September 8, 2007, when we first met in Philadelphia.

By letting such a special group of people into that little crack that started us on this journey, we commenced a journey that will never end, a journey where we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  We let our hearts to break for the sadness of others, in hopes of tempering their pain.  We let the joy, goodness, and beauty of their broken hearts fill the cracks in our own.  And this journey continues to test the capacity of my heart to hold an immense amount of happiness and love without bursting wide open.  It is truly this network of journeys that allows volunteers and returned volunteers to live life so fully, inevitably experiencing heartbreak and simultaneously finding the fervor, strength, and integrity to live the purposeful and intentional lives that we do.  With excitement and anticipation I look forward to our 10-year reunion for which the planning is already in the works: May 23, 2019!