17 July 2010

Behind the Veil

When I talk about Morocco, for the most part, I don't talk a lot about Islam. To me, after almost 3 years experience with the country, it is such an integral part of the fabric of life here, that I almost don't even think to talk about it. It has become a literal "matter of course" to me. Plus, I don't know as much about it as I would like to, and so I need to be careful where I step.

I do, however, want to post here about a Muslim issue that a lot of Americans and Europeans seem to focus on: The Veil. My audience here is people who know nothing or very little about Islam and Muslims, and so if I say something wrong, or misquote someone, please DO correct me.

Personally, before I lived in a Muslim country, I thought very little about this piece of cloth these women wore on their heads, and when I did think about it, I had an attitude of pity - these poor women, someone made them cover up... that sucks for them.

As time passed, however, and I began to know more and more women who wore hijab (the headscarf) - although I just recently made my first friend who wears niqab (the full face veil) - I began to see that this little piece of cloth didn't change how these women acted, or saw themselves, in very many ways at all. They still joked, laughed, cried, sang, learned, danced, loved, and lived, just as much as women in any other place. The only difference I've really seen is that these women seem to respect themselves more than the ones who don't cover, because they are making a choice (for the most part) to commit themselves to their religion, and making a choice to respect their bodies.

Does that statement seem contradictory? I think many of us in the U.S. would say that if you like your body, why don't you show it off? But I have found that these women and girls who choose to wear hijab have a higher self-esteem and a higher self-worth. Aren't we always bemoaning how obsessed our culture is with sex and skin, and how girls have such low self-esteem in high school? I've seen my hijabi students vocally fight with men, challenge them academically, and truly value themselves for their brain. Now, of course, much of this is a generalization, and I know many Moroccan women and girls who value themselves without wearing hijab.

"Hijab" in Islam actually means more than just wearing a scarf on your head:

قُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنِينَ يَغُضُّوا مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِمْ وَيَحْفَظُوا فُرُوجَهُمْ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ أَزْكَىٰ لَهُمْ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّـهَ خَبِيرٌ بِمَا يَصْنَعُونَ وَقُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنَاتِ يَغْضُضْنَ مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِنَّ وَيَحْفَظْنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ

"Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them and Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty..."
[Quran 24:30-31]

So if you read the Quran, you will actually see that "hijab" or the concept of modesty in Islam also includes men, AND includes them to the same degree as women. It has been culture, tradition, and the passing of 1400 years that have given us what we know today as hijab.

But I am not a Muslim, and so, if you are really interested in this topic, I would recommend reading this recent New York Times article about what it is like to wear niqab in the United States. Here is an excerpt:

"I do this because I want to be closer to God, I want to please him and I want to live a modest lifestyle," said Ms. Ahmed, who asked that her appearance without a veil not be described. "I want to be tested in that way. The niqab is a constant reminder to do the right thing. It’s God-consciousness in my face."

But there were secular motivations, too. In her job, she worked with all-male teams on oil rigs and in labs.

"No matter how smart I was, I wasn’t getting the respect I wanted," she said. "They still hit on me, made crude remarks and even smacked me on the butt a couple times."

Wearing the niqab is "liberating," she said. "They have to deal with my brain because I don’t give them any other choice."

Reading this article has reminded me that there is so much more to women's lives - whether Muslim or not, hijabi or not, niqabi or not - than what they choose to wear (or what they are coerced into wearing by their culture). I think it is limiting of Americans and other people to focus solely on clothing. Yes, it is the most visible reminder of the differences between us, but to these women, it is as natural as putting on a coat or sunglasses before you go outside would be to us non-hijabis. To me, hijab is only a symbol of a deeper well, and, considering the problems problems between the Western and the Muslim world, and the problems that the Muslim world faces all on its own, then a piece of cloth should be the least of our worries.

15 July 2010

Packing the Schedule!

I really want to apologize to all of you out there... I so thought that I would have more time available to update this blog, but I have found myself working - or being present and "on" - from 8am until 7pm most days except for Sundays. And Sundays I have been using to visit friends and family, so I haven't had time to sit down and reflect on my experience here yet. At least in any meaningful, written way.

Things are going well, last week we were in Rabat, learning 5 hours of Arabic a day, and taking side trips to other locations. The goal of going to Rabat was twofold, one being to show the kids another side of Morocco, and the second being to give them a chance to focus on their studies in a cool, host-family-less environment. My personal preference would be to have as much time with the host families as possible, but because these students are here to learn as much Arabic as they can, they do need time to focus solely on their studies. Many of you who have visited Morocco, or who have at the very least talked to me about my experiences in Morocco will recognize that living with a host family can present certain problems for those who want to study.

This week, we are back in Marrakech, and are spending just 3 hours a day in our Arabic classes. We are also, however, exposing our students to more in-depth looks at Moroccan society. So far this week, we have attended lectures on the experiences of various ethnic groups in Morocco, the new family code and laws regarding women's rights in Morocco, and on Arabic calligraphy. Today we took a trip to the Jewish Synagogue in Marrakech (a visit worth a whole blog post in itself...) and this afternoon, the students are divided into two groups - one visiting an orphanage to provide smiles and cuddling to babies, and the other revisiting and learning more about calligraphy. Tomorrow we will inchallah be attending a lecture on the education system in Morocco, which, having known many teachers in my time here, I am excited to hear. Maybe I'll learn something new!

After that, we have one full week in Essaouira, and then a few days to pack up and say goodbye... The kids are talking amongst themselves about how fast this has gone, and how little they are looking forward to leaving. I empathize, because I have felt that way so many times before... thank goodness I'll be returning.

I hope this helps you all get a slightly more clear idea about what I've been doing. Hopefully when I'm back in the states in August, I'll be able to post more, and express this experience in more detail.

Until next time, take care of your heads!

12 July 2010

The Red City

We've been in Rabat all week, working, studying, traveling, and bonding. Which leaves very little time for blogger-ing, sadly enough. But we're back in Marrakech, and were welcomed yesterday by a 111 degree day, joy!

A more in depth blog post coming soon, but one of my students is a great writer, and I couldn't help wanting to share this with all of you:

From the moment you arrive in Marrakech, you'll get the distinct feeling you've left something behind - a toothbrush or socks, maybe? But no, what you'll be missing in Marrakech is predictability and all sense of direction. Never mind: you're better off without them here. Marrakech is too packed with mind-boggling distractions and labyrinthine alleyways to adhere to boring linear logic. If you did have a destination, you'd only be waylaid by snake charmers, out-of-control donkey carts, trendy silver leather poufs and ancient Berber cures for everything from relationships to rent.

UPDATE: My student isn't such a good writer after all, just good at copying and pasting from Lonely Planet... sad.

04 July 2010

Week Two is Done Already!

Finally, I have a few minutes to update my blog here. I guess I was wrong when I thought I'd have plenty of time to ruminate on the facets of Moroccan life. I'm not a volunteer anymore, I guess.

Anyway, when we last spoke, our group was learning the Darija (Moroccan Arabic) that they would need to be able to tell a taxi where to go and how to tell their host families that they were full, and no, please don't make me eat any more. As someone who has spent too much time in Marrakech previously, I can say that these are very useful phrases/vocabulary to have.

This past Monday and Tuesday, we took a "Yay we're done with
Darija" side trip to Imlil and Ourika. We took a rest stop in my old site (yay! ) and I was touched thatone of the younger guys at the cafe remembered my (Moroccan) name. Hamza asked me if it was weird to be back, and until that moment, I had forgotten that I was "back." As I think I mentioned before, it feels pretty much like I never left... except for all the memories I have of 6 months in America, and the fact that I'm training still for the half marathon.

Anyway, in Imlil, we took about an hour hike, stopping at a
waterfall, and ending at our guide's house for a delicious tagine lunch. After hiking in the fresh aire of the High Atlas, a tagine always tastes better. It was fun to be able to see the kids in a different light, as well as remember that I had been hiking the same trails exactly a year earlier, but with volunteers my age, and also in much worse shape. I don't mean to brag too much, but I felt so good hiking, and although I was sweaty and sun-tired by the end of the hike, I didn't feel the same kind of "out-of-shape" tired that I did last year. Woo for running!

After lunch, we piled back onto our mini-buses and headed down to Ourika Valley, where the center director and his wife own a large farm house. Let me say, however, that when I talk about a farm house, I really mean a luxury-country-escape-from-the-city house with four bathrooms, a giant balcony, and a pool. Jamila, the wife, was telling us it took them 30 years to complete the building of the house, and directing work crews was the best Darija lesson she ever got.

The reason we were staying at the farm was so that the next morning, Tuesday, we could go to the closest elementary school where the mudir (director) had asked us to paint and clean up some classroom. I love community service like this, and so it was weird for me to be there directing our kids and finding things for them to do if they were bored. I'm so used to putting in my all... But I was glad I chose to step back, because during a tea break (this is Morocco after all), a few of the kids told me they had never done something like this before, and that now they were inspired to look for such opportunities in their cities back home! If I don't accomplish anything else in this job, hearing that is enough for me.

That pretty much brings us up to the beginning of this "week," which began on Wednesday and finished on Saturday afternoon. Except, of course, for the part where we started learning Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). I won't bore you with all the particulars, except to say that it's just 3.5 days in, and already the grammar and short vowels are driving me crazy. The first day I walked out of class and my eyeballs hurt as an extension of my overworked brain. Why am I taking the classes and working too, you may ask? Well, first of all it's our job to try to know what the kids are doing and feeling and thinking, but also, um, duh, free MSA classes? Who wouldn't??

Stay tuned for a concert, a spider bite, and a return to the heart of it all!

01 July 2010

Quick Updates

Because we started studying Modern Standard Arabic this week (which is only the second hardest language to learn in the world), I don't have a lot of time to write the updates I would like. So here are some of my Facebook status posts from the past week and a few days:

  • June 30: Things that are great in Morocco: Tashelheet hanut owners across the street from me, jokes about the Statue of Liberty telling immigrants to LEAVE America, belly dance classes at Lady Fitness, and The Tudors on MBC 4.

  • June 27: Cafe football match with Americans (too bad we lost), 8 hours of sleep, dried chick peas, honey sesame (aka crazy) peanuts, 8.2 mile run, crunchy peanut butter, and now cleaning my apartment. Life is good in Marrakech.

Hopefully I'll be able to write some more thorough posts when my 1-day weekend happens on Sunday!

Picture of the Day:

Our group painting one of two classrooms we painted this past Tuesday morning. It's at an elementary school near a small town outside of Marrakech.