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.

No comments: