31 May 2010

Money Money

Since this blog is about me returning to Morocco, it seemed only appropriate to show how I pay for things while I'm there! Yay dirhams! Here is a list of some Muslim countries and/or Middle Eastern and/or North African countries and the currencies they currently use:

Afghani = Afghanistan
Dinar = Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Tunisia
Dirham = Morocco, Western Sahara, United Arab Emirates
Franc = Djibouti
New Lira = Turkey
Ouguiya = Mauritania, Western Sahara
Pound = Egypt, Lebanon, Syria
Riyal = Iran, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen
Shekel = Israel

The story of Moroccan money is not a simple one, however. Any current or returned volunteer from Morocco will probably groan to themselves while reading this, because they know what's coming.

For the rest of you, let me begin by saying that, to us in the States, if you see, for instance, a "20" on a bill like the one pictured here, and you know the currency of a country is "dirham," you would probably assume that that bill is worth 20 dirhams. And you would be correct. But, in our case, you would also be only half correct. Because that bill is also worth "400 riyals" and "20,000 francs." HUH?

Two of the previous currencies before the dirham was introduced were named, as you may have guessed, "riyal" and "franc." But, nowadays, riyals and francs don't exist in an actual bill or coin form anymore - although I have heard rumors of them being part of people's coin collection. Anyway, if you did the math from before, you know that there are 20 riyals in 1 dirham, and 100 francs in 1 dirham. As odd as this may seem to us, many Moroccans still think in riyals and, to a lesser extent, francs. Even if you are an Arabic- or Berber-speaking foreigner, you seem that much more fluent by being able to "speak" riyals (or francs) instead of dirhams.

From talking to people and other volunteers during my 2 years in Morocco, I have somewhat decided that there are a few different reasons for this. The main reason is illiteracy. Many people in poorer towns can't read. But let me be more specific: a lot of the women are the ones who do the shopping, and the majority of illiterate people in Morocco are women. So to them, the "20" symbol on our aforementioned bill means nothing. So they just memorize that the purple bill is 400 riyals, which is how they've been "speaking," money-wise, for generations.

This leads us to our other explanation: habit. Riyals are just how things are done in most small towns, and they really don't see a reason to change, because there isn't exactly an influx of new people, and everyone understands prices given in riyals. A friend of mine explained it like this:

She asked me: How is it that you type on your computer without looking?

I answered: Well, I just automatically know where the letters are.

It's the same with us, she told me, we just know that the green bill is 1000 riyals, and the purple bill is 400. We don't even think about it.

For those of you still paying attention, there is an added way of calculating large sums of money by counting in "centimes" or the cent of the dirham. Meaning, because cents are 1/100 of a dollar/Euro/whatever, 1 centime is the same as 1 franc.

For example, someone may tell you, perhaps, that the price of a Swing motorcycle is 1.5 million. But they will never say 1.5 million what. When I saw the price for this motorcycle on a price tag at a store, it said 15000. How is that the same as 1.5 million? Well, if you are counting in dirhams, yes, it's 15,000 dirhams. But, if you are counting in centimes/francs, it's 1,500,000. Just at the two zeros for the cents.

It works, trust me. It just makes for a giant zero-induced headache when I have to convert the price of a house from centimes/francs to Euro or dollars.

I don't even want to think about going from francs to riyals or the reverse...

By the way, as of today, there are about 9 dirhams in a dollar. And the coins in the picture above are 10 dirhams, 5 dirhams, 1 dirham, and 1/2 dirham coins. There are no centime coins shown here.

And so there you have it, a mini-explanation of the money situation in Morocco. Kind of ridiculous, but at least I am now very good at multiplying and dividing by 20 and 100.

25 May 2010

Saudi Arabian Youth

Last night I had my TV on as background noise as I was organizing my room, and since True Life was on when I flipped to MTV - one of their less offensive shows - I decided to just leave it on. But then, as I was picking up my running shoes, I heard the adan (call to prayer), and turned around to discover that True Life was airing a special on the lives of youth in that country. Mumtaz! (Fantastic!)

The show was actually more fantastic than I could have hoped... Not only did I get to hear, for the first time, the accent of people speaking the Saudi Arabian dialect of Arabic, but I also got my first look (besides the movie The Kingdom, which doesn't count) at what cities in Saudi Arabia actually LOOK like. You read so many stories about things happening in Saudi Arabia, but it's all politics, or when you do see news reports, all they get is a picture of guys in white robes walking around or oil burning from a tower against the backdrop of a huge setting sun or black ghost women scurrying into their houses. You never see the houses or the schools or the offices or any other glimpse into the actual lives of these people.

True Life, Resist the Power! Saudi Arabia actually shows you that. You follow young men and 1 young woman doing their best to live modern lives within a traditional culture. I don't want to give away much, because the full episode is available online (at least right now it is...), but the way these people live makes me very thankful for the "liberal, tolerant" version of Islam that is prevalent in Morocco. It is just another example of how no faith, no ideology, can exist as a monolith.

Obviously, the story of Fatima was my favorite. Fatima is a 20-year-old woman introduced as trying to start a colored abaya business. We soon find out, however, that Fatima is a rebel in many respects. I see her as a strong role model for other Muslim women in the Middle East, and very representative of the educated, upper-class women I have come to know in Morocco and beyond. My friend and I watching the show together decided that we (1) now more than ever wanted to travel to Saudi Arabia, and (2) needed to become friend with Fatima.

A full episode version is available here, on MTV's website. It seems to be viewable in most countries. Any thoughts you have after watching it would be most welcome here!

24 May 2010

Nasser al-Bahri

I just finished reading Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes by Victoria Clark. I wanted to read it because of all the recent news stories involving Yemen, plus two of my PC friends had visited there, and told me really interesting stories related to their experiences and the culture.

With this book, however, I was a little disappointed, because instead of the look at the culture through anecdotes of the author's experiences there, like I thought I would be getting, I got a long, and a little bit dry, history of the country. Granted, I respect her travel and her experience, and enjoyed her simple yet academic writing style, but I had a lot of trouble concentrating on the mostly military and political history.

Anyway, it was a useful book to provide me some context for all the news articles I read about Al-Qaeda (though not much info about AQIM, Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghrib, in which I am most interested, being that I am going back to live in Morocco aka the Maghrib).

One interesting tidbit that I got from it was figuring out the names of some of the major players in the chess game between the "West" aka the US and the "terrorists" aka mainly Al-Qaeda. And recently, in one of the English, online newspapers from Morocco that I read, there was a translated interview with Nasser al-Bahri, the (moderately) famous ex-bodyguard of Osama bin Laden. I've put the link to the entire interview as the subject of this blog post, but here is the introduction for your consideration:

Nasser al-Bahri spent several years working as Osama bin Laden's bodyguard, fighting alongside the al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan and helping him enlist and indoctrinate youth from Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Following a disagreement with bin Laden, al-Bahri left al-Qaeda and returned to Yemen in 2000, where he was imprisoned for 18 months and then released as a reformed jihadist. Al-Bahri today is still reaching out to youth, albeit for a different reason: to dissuade them from choosing the path of violence. In interviews with media outlets, al-Bahri acknowledges "ideological differences with the West", and speaks of "injustice" committed against Muslims. However, the man who started his jihadist career in Bosnia, and had short stints in Somalia and Tajikistan before joining bin Laden in Afghanistan, now says that dialogue, not violence, is the answer.

Interesting how he seems to think YOUTH DEVELOPMENT is the answer. I knew I was working in the right field.

17 May 2010

An Inspirational Letter

Below I am including the email letter that my Program Letter sent me and the 9 other girls in my group a few days after we returned from Morocco after that fateful trip in 2005. I hope you can see why it was inspiring to me at the time, and still!


So, as program leader (hey hey), I don't feel it is my role to tell you what to do now, but instead to go and do something, whatever you may be moved to do. All of you have wonderful ideas and the true challenge is to avoid falling into an apathetic space where the world appears to be this gigantic pile of shit and there's nothing we can do about it. If the world indeed is a big pile, we happen to be the ones sitting on top, and luckily we have access to shovels. Alright, the analogy sucks, but my point is that each one of you can do something, whether that be telling your little sister Jenny or writing an article for the school newspaper.

Other things to find out more about could be the things we consume, whether that be food, clothing, toys, games and whatever else you can think of. If they're made in the Third World, why do we have these things and they don't? By buying these things am I supporting the economy of a starving nation or am I supporting a system that intentionally exploits the Third World so that I can buy affordable shirts at Zara? Once again, I don't have all the answers, only my own ideas that may be different from a lot of yours.

Only a few days ago, all of us walked through a tiny village, through the mountains, and arrived at a house where we spent the afternoon with a Moroccan family. Remember that although the family we spent time with has a bathroom and running water, most of the families do not. Few families have refrigerators. Most have a solar panel that supports one or two light bulbs at most. Every adult we met at that home besides Abdo is illiterate. Fortunately all of the kids we met have the opportunity to go to school, but remember that villages 10 miles or more into the mountains with no roads also exist in Morocco leaving it considerably more difficult to receive an education. And Abdo, one of the first persons from his region to get a college education, is now facing unemployment and struggling to find a way to put his skills to use.

To put our experiences into a global perspective:
-More than 50% of Africans live on less then one dollar per day.
-115 million children on this planet are not able to go to school.
-20% of the population in developed nations consumes 86% of the world's goods.
-Western Europe and the US spend more money on pet foods then all countries of the developing world combined are able to spend on basic health and nutrition.
-Less then one percent of what the world spends every year on weapons would be needed to put every child into school... and yet it does not happen.

So, like I said, the first time I went to Morocco, I had an overwhelming experience and came back to Spain feeling like there was nothing I could do about all the problems I saw. I know that all of us have different "change views" and I can only speak for myself. And although I don't see flowers springing out of all of the shit tomorrow, I do think that some of the things I'm doing could eventually make things improve. Hopefully some of you feel empowered from the trip, and if some of you don't, talk to each other about what you've seen and what you can do. If you've gotten this far in the email, word. You're all wonderful people. Big smiles.

15 May 2010

Unwilling Subjects in the Algerian War

My first link.

Think about how a person would feel if they had grown up covering a part of themselves, and then they were forced to sit for a photograph, exposing that very part of them they had shown only to immediate family...

Then think of how they might react if a law (passed, perhaps, by a certain francophone parliament) said they could not appear in public wearing a that particular article of clothing.

For us in America, it might be, say, as integral to our identity as pants.

Try not to question WHY they were wearing it in the first place, just the fact that they had grown up that way. "Visual rape" this article calls it...

14 May 2010

And So It Is

Three years ago today, in 2007, I had finished my last year in college, and at mid-day, Eastern Daylight Time, I went to my mailbox at BC and pulled out a FedEx envelope from PC Headquarters in D.C. I found out that that I was officially an invitee to PC Morocco. I remember sitting at the Eagles’ Nest, a usually busy restaurant, empty at that time of exams, and opening the envelope to find another (now all too familiar) blue envelope with everything they thought I needed to know about my impending departure for Morocco. Then, I was to depart for Philadelphia for two days of “staging” on September 8, and for Casablanca on September 10, landing on the bright and sunny morning of September 11. Also the day my parents’ divorce was to be finalized.

On November 2, 2005, I had written in my blog at the time: Four days in Morocco was a watershed. A paradigm change, if you will. Things are different now.

And on November 3, after some time to mull over my experience a bit more, I wrote: I want this trip to be a true watershed in my life. I realized how ignorant I was about Muslim countries, assuming that I knew it all because I had taken a tourist trap trip to Egypt five years ago. I am embarrassed of my prejudice. I know that I am not done with Morocco. I want to return and spend a significant about of time there, doing service-oriented work, living with a family, and learning Arabic.

Can you tell I had just learned how to use the word “watershed”?

Returning to the present, today is May 14, again. Today, around 11am, Central Daylight Time, I stepped out of Conference Room B at Raynor Memorial Libraries at another Jesuit Institution. I had been waiting for my phone to ring all week, but, on a whim, I decided to check my email on my phone – an expensive proposition for me because I don’t have a data plan. And I saw this subject line on the most recent email in my inbox: ALI POSITION. And the email read: I am writing to let you know that I enjoyed reviewing your application for staff member position with the Arabic Language Institute and the follow up phone interview. I think you will be able to apply the goals of the ALI program and bring your experiences to it and therefore, would like to offer you the position for group escort to Morocco.

I jumped up and down inside the library. It was not until this evening, however, that I realized how many parallels were occurring in my life at that moment.

Now, granted, on April 4, the same organization with which I had traveled to Morocco in 2005, had hired me to be a program leader for their organization – with a year contract and a salary in Euro, I might add. But I craved this job with ALI (which I will be explaining in detail later) more so than the job with MoEx. I enjoyed my time back in the US more than I thought I would. I know now the reasons for which I was sent back. My heart, however, has been tied to Morocco, tighter and tighter with every passing month, since that trip in a rainy, foggy fall of 2005, and I cannot stay away for too long.

So here we go.