30 August 2010

Am I a Judgmental Fascist?

Doubt. It festers. You try to push it away, try to reason it out of existence, but it sticks, like burnt milk on a stove. Impossible to fully scrub off.

I’ve been having an ongoing conversation with people lately, and I can’t really decide what I think about it. Actually, it’s not really lately, it has come up on and off for the last couple of years. But two recent conversations are causing me doubt the things to which I am trying to dedicate my life: service, compassion, cross-cultural exchange, making a difference in the life of people, etc.

I mean, I know that I can come across as judgmental of people who don’t choose to live their life like I do, and I don’t ever pretend to be some saint who’s given up everything. I don’t expect everyone to give up things to participate in long-term service… I’m the first to admit I’m as selfish as the next person, and part of what drives me is that good feeling I get when I know I’ve helped someone. But I get extremely frustrated when people attack me for suggesting that they should just LOOK INTO traveling abroad, or getting out of their bubble, and, I don’t know, going down to a soup kitchen for once. Cliché example, but still. I find myself saying things like, “Service is important.” And

I’ve been told (and I’m using their words here), by people I thought cared me, that I was judgmental, snotty, hypocritical, ridiculous, fascist, and stupid, in conversations where I started out talking about wanting to try to change things, and ended in encouraging them to try too. I’ve been told I’m ignorant and a jerk for thinking everyone should value service and travel. Travel, I can understand. Travel is a luxury, and a blessing. But service? “Helping people”? I don’t understand. I don’t believe they are attacking me because they are feeling guilty on the inside or something arrogant like that. But I have this sneaking suspicion that if more people did things like this, the world would be better. And I really don’t understand how people can see all this war, all this poverty, all of this pain, and all of this hate in the world and not want to do something to “make it all better:. I can’t believe that I’m that rare of a person that my desire to change things makes me different from everyone else. Am I being naïve? Are people truly content and satisfied in their lives without these things? Should they be?

In the end, the conversation always seems to come down to the following: Who are we responsible for? Do we only have to take care of ourselves – because if we don’t, no one else will? Or do we have some kind of inherent to our fellow human beings? And can one believe that we have a responsibility to others without being religious (usually I am existing within an American monotheist/atheist/agnostic paradigm), can a staunch atheist believe that we are ultimately responsible to and for others? But, because I didn’t pay enough attention in theology and philosophy, I always end up losing this argument, or give up because I don’t feel like having people continue to chip away at my soul.

This isn’t a “poor me” blog post, but just an attempt release my feelings, and to try to understand people. My apologies for over-simplifying the matter and having my argument be more emotional than logical.

27 August 2010

Squatting is Good for You

The turk. A volunteer term of endearment for what is also knowns as the turkish toilet or the squat toilet. Toilets in Morocco are a curious thing. For the most part, you will find people in the countryside have either a cement or porcelain hole-in-the-ground. These toilets, obviously, don't flush, but have somehow, magical water pressure keeps a little water in the hole, and to flush you just throw some water down there, and poof, it disappears! Most of your upscale bathrooms in the city will have a chair toilet (with a button on top, no lever) and a bedé. There are also the middle class bathrooms where you can tell someone has "upgraded" to a chair toilet, either because they can afford it, or because they live with an old person who can no longer squat. A lot of these toilets don't flush, and so you have to pour water in them after you are finished.

As you may have guessed, squat toilets evoke mixed emotions from Westerners living abroad... much of this feeling is due to how much time your average volunteer spends squatting over one. It is considerable. Even the healthiest of travelers can get a parasite, an amoeba, or just your run-of-the-mill vicious bacteria. But, recent studies have shown that squatting may actually be healthier for you. No, I'm not joking: Read this Slate article.

Now, I was told once by a visitor that there are acupressure points in your feet that control your bowels, and the way we use our feet on a squat toilet activates those points. I'm not sure if this is true, but I was pretty convinced by this article that a squat toilet, would, in the long run be healthy for me. Not to mention a great conversation piece at parties!

The Jellaba

Recently I wrote about the jellaba (gel-aa-ba) bzouia, but I then realized I never really talked about the jellaba in general.

The jellaba is the most prevalent traditional clothing item from Morocco. I guess in English you would call a jellaba a robe, but it's so much more than that. When I hear "robe" I think of something you would wear around the house, but the jellaba is so much more than that. Usually it has a loose-fitting body that goes down to about the ankles, with long sleeves that taper out and usually will reach the wrists or the fingertips. And, of course, 95% of jellabas will have a hood. Some people will use it as a coat that you put over your head instead of zipping. Some people will use it as a more traditional dress when they are feeling more pious. Some people will use a modern-fit version when they are dressing up to go to a wedding. It really all depends on where you are going, and what kind of impression you want to give.

A traditional, more formal, men's jellaba.

Detail of embroidery on a women's jellaba.

My new shorter-sleeved, just below the knee jellaba.

Often, volunteers will buy a jellaba during their service, either having it tailored and embroidered to their specifications - like my burgundy one above - or will just buy a pre-made one that fits them well. It's a very handy garment to wear during the summer months, especially if you buy one that has a light fabric. The dress-like quality of it keeps the air moving around your body, and the hood often serves as a great shield from the sun.

This article about women's jellabas observes a trend that I myself have noticed, about that fact that despite their traditional history, modern women are still buying and wearing jellabas. Sometimes, you just can't abandon a classic.

23 August 2010

Yes I'm Going to Write about It: Polygamy

So. *awkward cough* Let's talk about polygamy. Specifically in Islam. Although, I should say, I've actually met and spoken with 0 Muslim polygamists, but met and spoken with more than one non-Muslim person in a polyamorous relationship. I must say, if I'm wrong in my facts or my opinions offend you, let me know! I do not shrink from criticisms.

Where to begin? I've heard that a lot of people assume that Muslim men can just marry as many women as they want. Not true. Many of you may know that there's a stipulation that men can only marry four women. I have, however, been told that Mohammed himself married more than that, including some shady business with a 9-year-old girl named Aicha who later grew up to be one of the most revered women in Islam - this has never been fully explained to me, and I've never found a writing on it that satisfied me. But I digress.

Until very recently, this fact that men could marry more than one woman really bugged me about Islam. Well, who am I kidding, it still does. But, since it has been explained to me, I can at least understand why and where it came from. The explanation of why the four-wife rule exists comes from the fact that, IN THE DAYS BEFORE ISLAM (I kind of imagine a 40s-movie God voice here), Arab culture said that a man could marry as many women as he wanted, not counting slave-girls, of course, and that he could treat them however he deemed worthy. It would also be important to note that a widow stood little chance of inheriting anything from her husband. Then, along comes Mohammed and is like, "No way José, that's not cool." (Or something, I don't speak pre-Islam Arabic) and God sends him a revelation that becomes part of the Quran:
"And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice between them, then marry only one or what your right hands possess: this is more proper that you may not deviate from the right course" (4:3).
The problem here brings us really close to the sticky mess - both academic and theological - of textual analysis and criticism, but as it was explained to me, God was saying that monogamy in Islam is the rule, and polygamy is the exception. The loophole exists in the "if you fear that you will not do justice between them" part. Here, apologists will tell you that it is written somewhere that Mohammed explained this to be God advocating for monogamy, because how could anyone (well, he probably said any man) love and treat two people equally? No two people are THAT alike. So, a man should not marry two or three or four women, because he never support or love them equally.

But, as we all know, men did marry more than one woman. What gives? Well, in that time, (and honestly, in a lot of times before, well, now) it was really difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to (a) be single her whole life, (b) be an orphan, or (c) be a widow. In pre-Islamic Arabia, these women wouldn't survive, because they needed to be supported, financially and socially. And a lot of husbands died in wars - they say more than women died. So Mohammed's explanation of the polygamy rule is that the men are saving the women by marrying them, protecting them from death or a life as an outcast, in a time and a culture when they needed saving.

In all honesty, I've seen a lot more detailed and thoroughly researched articles that poke a lot of holes in this loophole theory and question the whole polygamy revelation in general, but this is how I think a lot of my Moroccan friends understand it. They can also extrapolate this idea to modern Morocco and say that, in dire circumstances, if a woman is widowed or divorced, and there is little chance of her being married to anyone else, it is preferable for her to become someone's second wife. In the same vein, I have been told that a man should take a second wife if his first wife is unable to have children, because it is better to be a first wife than to be a divorced woman in Moroccan society.

Let me just say, for those of you whose jaws are dropping right about now, that the people who told me these things have never considered taking a second wife. They told me they want to find one woman that they love and be her partner for life. One of them even told me he tried (I don't know if he succeeded) to talk a girl out of marrying a man who already had a wife - this guy knew that that kind of a marriage would just lead to pain. So I'm not saying that Moroccans are for polygamy, per se. But they seems to be able to justify its use. The law in Morocco has a similar outlook, and polygamy is legal only in certain cases, and a husband must seek the approval of a judge to get a second marriage, and the first wife has to be notified, and, if I am not mistaken, legally sign something that says she agrees to the second marriage.

So where does this leave us? Well, I got started on this blog post because of an article in the Guardian about an Saudi woman who published an article - mostly as a satire - about her right to marry four husbands. It got everyone all up in arms in the Arab world, especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. I applaud her bravery for publishing this.

Personally, I usually have a live and let live attitude about relationships and marriage. If you can't tell by now, I'm not the biggest fan of polygamy because of the way it considers women less than fully human or fully able to take care of themselves - that could be a whole other blog post - and I know that non-monogamy, even the most progressive forms of polyamory (the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved) is not for me. But I will leave you all to make up your own minds.

22 August 2010

Facebook Revelation

Welcome to the 12th day of Ramadan! I haven't been posting really, because nothing new of significance is happening. The Cordoba Project debate hasn't really gone anywhere, and summer + Ramadan in the Arab/Muslim world always means life and news slow down a little bit.

I did buy my ticket for my return to Morocco (yay!) so that I will be there Eid Sghir/Eid Al-Adha. In case you don't know, this is the second most important (single-day) holiday in the Islamic calendar, and in Morocco, I would liken it to a family holiday such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter - depending on your beliefs and when you feel the need to go visit family.

Yesterday, after breaking the fast with my mom at a tavern (I feel kind of proud I successfully turned down alcohol), I came home to do my usual quick Facebook scan, and I saw the strangest of pictures posted right next to each other:

Some of you may recognize these men, but since I try to protect privacy here, suffice to say that they are people from very different times in my life with very different effects on it. Still, somehow, I was struck by the simplicity and similarity of each picture. Although the "Christian" picture doesn't show it, I know from experience that there is a similar gathering of believers as in the first one, also probably sitting in a circle. In both, I also find a feeling of peace and hope in the actions I see. Yet, I am also slightly troubled because I am not drawn to one picture or another, but rather I am drawn to both because they were next to each other.

I guess that this post is mis-titled, because I really had no revelation here. More accurately, I found a kind of visual representation of my personal faith struggles. Enlightening or not, it is fun to share.

What do you think?

18 August 2010

Short Catch Up

(above, the best card i've ever gotten from an ex)

So when I came back to the U.S. after Morocco, Round 2 (3? I can't keep track...), I thought that I would have tons of time to update. Whoops. Turns out I went to Atlanta to visit some friends, and that having friends means you don't have time to sit at the computer all day.

The fasting is going well, and, surprisingly to me, I'm really enjoying it. It was so hard to fast two years ago when I was just sitting in my house by myself, hot and sad and alone (well, not ALL the time), but now, I enjoy the thrill of turning down food and water. It's not actually that much easier, but now, I enjoy the struggle. And, I enjoy even MORE the thrill of eating at "break-fast." I was at dinner tonight with family, and, trying to be good, I turned down alcohol. And I found I didn't NEED it. I mean, I was able to participate in the conversation and be joyful just because I was so grateful to have food. I know there are people that read this that don't believe in God, but that feeling of love and connecting right there, and the fact that it was heightened by the energy of my nourished body... hot damn, God was there. At least, for me, this act of fasting - or its end - brought me JOY. Take that, Cordoba Project aka Ground Zero Mosque naysayers! Islam is f-ing cool.

And now, for some interesting news stories:

An opinion about the Cordoba Project written by someone who isn't me, but who is very very much like me. Sadly, I have been I have too many open-minded friends, so this won't change anyone's mind... I mean, no one on my Facebook feed is a fan of the protests happening.

The first link I've ever recommended from Fox News. (American Muslim Leaders Visit Concentration Camps to Learn About Holocaust, Pay Respects to Victims) Am I missing some bigoted subtle commentary? Maybe the fasting is rotting my brain...

More information about AQIM (Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb). Interesting to me because my friends couldn't get into Mauritania back in November 2009 because AQIM had kidnapped some tourists right before these girls tried to cross the border.

A really interesting article about Islam in Europe in 2030. It's taking me back to my 2007 undergraduate thesis on immigration. Also, according to this professor, the world will actually NOT end if Muslims become less of a majority.

Nothing too surprising here. Moroccan government being hard on suspected terrorists and being used by the C.I.A., but it always interests me when Morocco is mentioned in the NY Times.

11 August 2010

Ramadan's Beginnings

Happy Ramadan, woo! (That’s Ramadan Kareem (generous) or رمضان كريم in Arabic).

I would think that, by virtue of the fact that you know me if you read this blog (although I always hope to reach a new pair of ears with my writing…) then you’ll know what Ramadan is, and that you may have heard that I am planning on fasting for this month. But, I won’t assume anything, and so if you want a short summary of what most Muslims believe Ramadan is, please go here. It’s a little bit out of date, because Ramadan begins this year August 11 or 12 (depending on the country), and will end around September 10, 11, 12. We don’t quite know when because Ramadan is actually the name of the 9th lunar month in the Muslim calendar, and you can only tell lunar months from looking at the moon. For more on this, check out this post on the moon sighting in California.

The most common conversation I’ve had with American non-Muslims when I tell them I’ll be fasting for Ramadan involves one question: “Why?” Most of these questions come from people who have never experienced a Ramadan for themselves, and so they don’t quite get why you would abstain from all food, drink, smoking, kissing, marital sex, etc. during the daylight hours. And they don’t quite realize what a personal question this is… But, protected as I am by the quasi-anonymity of this blog, I will try to answer it here, in no particular order.

A lot of why I’m fasting is because I have a need to make things in my life more challenging. My mind works a lot faster than a lot of people I’ve met in my life, and I get easily bored with my situation unless I’m challenged. So, because I’m back in the US for a month between my jobs in Morocco, which almost perfectly coincides with the month of Ramadan, I thought to myself, why not? I have no good reasons not to fast. But that, of course, is pretty theologically lazy.

Another reason I’m fasting is to be a kind of ambassador for Islam during this month, when a lot of conflict seems to be emerging related to Islam in America. I’m really saddened and frustrated every time I see some bigot on Fox News – or even the regular news – talk about burning the Quran or the violence of Islam or doubting if it’s even a religion. I know that those people don’t know anything about it, and have barely picked up a Quran or even met and talked to a Muslim, so they don’t bother me as much.

What bothers me is the seed of doubt they place in the minds of rational people I know. It takes a lot of time and a lot of reading to understand a religion, even your own, and most people just don’t have the time for that, so why wouldn’t they start to believe, on some subconscious level, what these people are saying? Even a lot of the feminists I know – of which I consider myself one – focus on the oppressive cultural practices in Muslim countries and call it Islam. So I want to be visible to talk about the religion and defend it. Maybe that’s arrogant of me, not being Muslim and all, but that’s the truth.

It’s funny to me that when I tell (Muslim) Moroccans I’m going to fast this year, they never ask why. My friend just said, “God will help you.”

My answer was, “Well, I mean, this is something I am doing, not something that God is doing.”

She replied, “No, I said God will HELP you, not do it for you.”

That certainly put me in my place, but I think it demonstrates two important facets of why I’m fasting: self-control and the search for a connection with God. I feel like the self-control part is pretty clear – giving all that up during daylight while existing in a country that doesn’t take a break for the month is going to be really difficult.

Connecting with God, however, is a personal quest I’ve been on (and off) for a while. Maybe it’s a "mid-20s in America" thing, but a lot of stuff has happened in my life to cause me to doubt. I still consider myself a Christians, but I guess I’m not a great one if we’re being honest. I mean, that whole “Jesus-son-of-God-messiah” thing? Yeah, it’s never been high on my list of spiritual priorities. I never want to say that I don’t believe in something, because that would indicate a certainty that I don’t have. So I’ve been searching.

Anyway, what appeals to me about Ramadan is very well summed up in this blog post:
The month of Ramadan is a time in which we hold our bodily compulsions and instincts under strict control, together with our thoughts and our mental states, our moods and desires. We submit ourselves (our nafs) and our accustomed patterns of life to a higher template, one that fosters a regimen of self-restraint within the body and mind and correspondingly seeks an intensification of the life of the spirit. The body is ordered to fast from what it needs, from what is normally allowed to it, from what it desires, from what it craves, from what it may seek on a whim, and from what it habitually seeks - from all that leads to an intensification of the activities of the nafs.

During the interval of daylight, halal (the allowed) transforms into haram (the forbidden) and whatever nourishes the physical body becomes haram. As for the nafs, it undertakes a psychic fast from anger, backbiting, gossip, harshness towards others, from reaching in any manner through any of the senses towards that which is disallowed. […]

And so the qur'anic command is issued - "...fast until the night...." (Qur'an 2:187) Fast from what the nafs needs and desires. Let the nafs know that there is a truer aspect of yourself, a center capable of overseeing and stabilizing all the intersecting mental systems of the mind and all the material/chemical/habitual/hormonal systems of the body. Proclaim to it that there is a guardian and owner and ruler over the nafs and over the physical form with which it is integrally co-mingled. Let it know that the form and the stirrings of need and desire within the nafs have to submit to this guardian in seeking their satisfaction. The wants, needs, and desires that spring from the material form must submit to the governance and tutelage of a higher form - to the spiritual form indicated by the hadith that states: "God created Adam in His own form...." (hadith)
So what this writer is saying, basically, is that, by denying the self (what he calls the nafs or نفس) of all these temporal, physical things, a fasting person can (a) show the self that there is a higher power in control – for a Muslim (or really, any monotheist) this power would be God – and (b) can, over the course of a month, train the body to exist on spiritual sustenance during the day, due to the lack of physical support it is receiving.

This is a fairly advanced theological concept that I don’t know if many illiterate Muslims who fast would be able to articulate. I do know, however, from observations and from personal experience, that many of them are able to feel this heightened spiritual state. In a majority Muslim environment, this spirituality infects the whole atmosphere, and no one can deny that the nights of Ramadan have a special energy to them.

There are a lot more things that I could say here, but I think that I have summarized my feelings about fasting pretty well. I’m no religious scholar, and I’m sure any kind of skeptic could poke 5000 holes in my arguments. All I can hope is that I’ve offered a glimpse for my readers into some of the complexities of Islam and religion in general.

06 August 2010

Hunky Turks and Moroccan Housewives

Turks Put Twist in Racy Soaps

Turkish television has given the soap a fresh twist by making the connivers, kidnappers and canoodlers Muslims. And it is Arab audiences, even more than Turks, who have been swept off their feet.

One of my good volunteer friends emailed me this article a while back, and now I want to share it with all of you. I remember first hearing about "Noor" (which means holy light in Arabic, and is also the name of the main female character in the series) during the summer of 2008.

I was visiting my host family in a small town above Fez, and nothing much had happened that day. We were eating dinner, and then suddenly, and seemingly randomly to me, one of the cousins did a little shriek and grabbed for the remote that her brother was holding. He exclaimed the Arabic equivalent of "What the hell!?" and almost didn't give up the remote until she reminded him that Noor was on. He gave a resigned sigh, and she quickly grabbed the remote before he could change his mind.

She flipped to MBC4, a sometimes-English Saudi Arabian channel that shows mainly "women's" programming, and just like that, all the women and girls in the household materialized out of nowhere and sat, quietly and still for a full hour, watching this soap opera, saying only a few things like, "What did she say?" or "When did that happen?" To most of you, this might not be too remarkable, but you probably haven't watched TV with Moroccan women before. They are never quiet while the TV is on, even if they are actually watching the program, and, moreover, before that night, I'd never seen them turn on a specific show exactly when it started. It was so weird, and weirder that they were watching a show the way we used to watch Friends or Grey's Anatomy or something.

I don't know if people still watch Noor with the same dedication, but I did hear that the actor who played Muhannad (Kivanc Tatlitug) has moved on to a new show, grew a beard, gained too much weight in his face, and lost a lot of his female fans. Still, you can see a faded cardboard cutout of his head swinging in some stores, because he was the spokesperson for Head and Shoulders in the Arabic world for while. Equally amusingly is that whenever I told people that I'd been to Istanbul, they asked me if I'd ran into him or Noor herself.

I love pop culture!

05 August 2010

Jellaba Bzouia

Once in a while on this blog, I want to try to plug some of my friends’ projects in Morocco. One of my good friends is a small enterprise volunteer who works with weavers. But not just any weavers… Rebecca works with the women weavers of a very famous product in Morocco, the Jellaba Bzouia.

Up in the Northwest corner of Morocco’s Azilal Province, Bzou (bzz-ooo) is a semi-arid collection of hamlets (douwars) just off the main road between the major cities of Beni-Mellal and Marrakesh. The commune of Bzou is composed of various Tashelheit, Tamazight and Arabic speaking douwars dotting the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. The name Bzou is derived from the Berber root word "lbz"(البز) which refers to a process of spinning silk thread.

Jellaba Bzouia (or Kharka Bzouia) is a garment created from the fine woven fabric the women of these douwars make. The sheer fabric is traditionally made from handspun wool with silk stripe accents. Moroccans typically use the fabric for a tailor-made jellaba (long hooded robe) and sometimes for a silham (formal cape). The King of Morocco, high-ranking Moroccan officials, brides, and grooms custom-order Jellaba Bzouia for special occasions. Recently, some weavers have begun experimenting with natural dyes and with making finished products such as scarves/shawls. One piece of 1.5-2 m x 3 m fabric sells for $100-$250. Scarves and shawls sell for $32-$50.

Click below to see Rebecca’s slideshow illustrating the making of the Bzou fabric!

04 August 2010

Reverse Culture Shock

A lot of people talk about reverse culture shock when they come back from trips abroad, especially if you travel to a place that is significantly different than your home country, and if you stay there for longer than a month, and get used to the way life there works.

The nebulous “they” will tell you that reverse culture shock varies for everyone, and I have found this to be true. But in general, people have some similar experiences – feeling out of sorts, not feeling like they fit in to a space they used to occupy so comfortably, shock at things that they feel wouldn’t normally shock them. The difficulty with reverse culture shock is that you don’t expect coming home to be so hard. I mean, this is HOME, it should be the same as it was when you left it. But we forget that time has passed for everyone at home just as it has passed for us. It’s a double edged sword, because everyone involved has changed, but we who’ve traveled have changed in different ways than the people to whom we return.

Personally, I experience reverse culture shock in a different way now that I’ve gone back and forth a few times. I am no longer shocked at the change in myself and in people – I know now to expect it – and I am no longer marveling at things in America like way-too-short skirts or how addicted everyone is to their SmartPhones. For me, it is more like what my mom used to call being “camp-sick.” When my sister and I used to go away to camp for the summer, we would come back and be homesick for camp and the pattern we had established in our lives. This campsickness would last a few days to a week, depending on how long we had been away, but eventually it would fade.

With traveling abroad however, the campsickness lasts longer – especially the first time I came back after being away for 2 years! It’s not that you got used to a routine and new friends, but you also got used to a new language, new food, a new family, new music, a new city… and you actively worked to integrate into that life. Then, you come back, and you feel like a stranger in your own country. In Arabic, they have a word for feeling like a stranger in a strange land (combined with a feeling of longing for what you left behind): ghorba (الغربة). Reverse culture shock is feeling that “ghorba” in your home country…

As a look into what my students might be going through right now, take a look at what one of the girls wrote before she left Morocco:

“This is the last official day we have to spend with our host families, which is such a weird feeling. I cannot believe in a few days I will be at home. I am worried about the culture shock coming home this time more than I have ever been on any other trip. The American group is talking a lot about it, and how each person deals with it.

After talking about it with a few people, I have realized that the biggest part of returning culture shock for me is the fact that people don’t understand my story. Of course my family and closest friends will listen and appreciate to what I have to say, but its the others that bother me. There is no real way that I can convey my story to them and make them genuinely appreciate the experience. So what I think I am going to focus on is not telling those people every detail of what I experienced, but what I learned and what I want those people to learn. I want to make them realize that the world outside of America is actually not that bad of a place, and not everyone hates us. And that there are other, better ways of promoting the US that do not include war.

I am so happy to have a group like this one on NSLI Y because all of them have something in common with me and most feel the same way I do about traveling. I can talk to most kids at home and none will understand why I do this kind of stuff. But the students on this trip know and understand, and also want to pursue the same things I want to. It just makes this whole trip much more meaningful and purposeful.”

03 August 2010

Essaouira and Very Important Visitors

Hello from America! That’s right, six weeks have come and gone, and the Arabic Language Institute is over! It’s hard to believe it all went by so fast. I know that as I get older, times seems to go faster, but even so I am was amazed at its speediness this time. I think that because (a) I love Morocco, and (b) I loved my job, it made it seem much faster than six weeks as a volunteer would have gone.

We spent our last full week in Essaouira – a small, cold, windy city on the ocean. Some of our kids couldn’t believe that this city was in the same country as Marrakech. On the same day they experienced 110 degree weather, and then, after a 3 hour bus ride, 75 degree weather. Amazing. Essaouira also has some fantastic history. Like much of Morocco, it has been inhabited by many powers and civilizations over the centuries. From the Phoenicians to the Portuguese, each group left behind something. Most of the historical sites now are from the Portuguese and Jewish inhabitants of the medina (old city). There is also a musical heritage left behind by the decedents of slaves brought up by the Portuguese to be shipped out from the port of Essaouira. For more about Essaouira, there is a pretty accurate summary and history here on Wikipedia.

During our stay in Essaouira, the State Department really went all out, and provided us with a 27-star hotel (or something like that). I enjoyed staying there, of course, because it was quieter and cleaner than a lot of hotels I’ve stayed in throughout Morocco. But, those of you who know me well are probably able to predict that I also felt very uncomfortable and very out of place in such an expensive hotel. Everything there served as a reminder of the separation between foreigner/upper class in Morocco, and the small middle class/poor people.

For example, my single room was 2300 dh a night (roughly $270), and I was staying in it by myself. That is the monthly salary of a first-year middle school teacher EVERY NIGHT. I will admit that sometimes I can be overly critical of people spending too much, and that I need to relax. But I think that, concerning this hotel, more people would agree with me than not when I say it was excessive. There are so many other nice hotels in the area that would have readily accommodated us (and our need for classroom space) for 1/2 or even 1/3 of the price.

In order to balance this blog post a little bit, I should mention that in our fantastic hotel, wereceived a visit from State Department Officials, and also from the US Embassy in Rabat. This was the first time such high ranking government people had visited our program, and we were honored with the chance to be heard by those who were funding us. From my experience with meeting VIPs as a volunteer, I wasn’t expecting much. Usually they breeze in, speaking in a very much neo-colonial way to all Moroccans they encounter, give us a pat on the back, and then jet off to some meeting which they make sure we know is much more important.

That was not the case this time. Since our students are receiving their scholarship from the NSLI-Y (National Security Language Initiative for Youth) program, and national security in the form of language learning and cultural exchange is important to this administration, I think that the officials came into this really wanting to know what was going on. They had an hour meeting with just the students, to get their HONEST feedback – positive and negative – about the program, Legacy International (the grant recipient organization in Washington) and The Center for Language and Culture (CLC, the educational subcontractor of Legacy in Marrakech). And, humdullah, when we staff met with the representatives, they told us that they were supremely impressed. They said they had never seen a group of students more happy, content, and excited about an NSLI-Y program – in the whole world. They said the teachers were excellent, the group leaders committed (yay! It’s so true.), and the organizational staff on top of things. They also asked CLC what they could do to get a year-long program ready for five students by the fall. Apparently the other NSLI-Y program in Morocco was not doing so well.

In my opinion, the new tone of the Obama administration also made all the difference in making this meeting more enjoyable than my previous ones. I may be biased, but I honestly believe that the fact that Hilary Clinton is the Secretary of State has changed the State Department. The kind of people that are attracted to her ideals and her ways of working are, at the very least, impressive and motivated. All of the representatives who came to visit us were women, and the leader, who I think was the Deputy Secretary of Cultural and Exchange Programs, and her assistant were both political appointees who worked on Clinton’s campaign in 2008. No matter what is said in the media about the Clinton camp during that time, these women appeared to me to be truly dedicated to their jobs, and, although their background isn’t in International Education, they also appeared to be committed to learning as much as they could and supporting the successes and mending the few failures of our program. I was relieved to know that there are people in our government like the strong women.

In the next blog post, look for reflections about the end of our trip, ruminations on reverse culture shock, and examinations of the expectations v. the actual behaviors of hijabi girls.