03 November 2010

The REAL Letter I Wanted to Send

Dear Volunteers-

I am a YD ’07-’09 still living in Morocco, so of course I want to meet up and hang out with volunteers. It’s been great the past few months, to still be welcomed into the groups of new and older volunteers, and invited to come out to dinners and such while people are visiting Rabat. Lately, however, I’ve been hearing some disturbing rumors about behavior in the volunteer community, and within the administration, and it distresses me.

Maybe you know where I’m going, but let me give you an example. This is of one of my dear friends who was dating a man, not from her site, and decided to get married. One weekend group of volunteers was at her site for VSN training and decided they needed to tell her their opinions about her relationship and her decisions. Then, these volunteers, who were all supposed to be learning how to listen non-judgmentally in order to support their fellow volunteers, decided to go and complain to her brother-in-law about the very same issue. Fortunately, he was supportive of her, and helped her smooth things over with the volunteers.

Volunteers and their romantic relationships with Moroccans: It happens, everyone knows that it happens, and yet there is so much fog and mystery surrounding all of it, that often, there is also a lot of “collateral damage” resulting from these relationships. My thesis here is twofold: We as friends and volunteers need to support our fellow volunteers and not judge them based on their relationship choices. I would say that this is also true for staff and official policy in Morocco (but that is always a touchy issue). We, who have been or are currently in relationships with Moroccans, also need, as guests in this country, to consider the implications of our actions, and work to be more respectful with our relationships, especially towards our communities.

The idea that dating a Moroccan is somehow shameful or makes a volunteer less worthy or less effective in their work has always struck me as ridiculous and more than kind of racist. We are supposed to be open-minded and openhearted to all kinds of new experiences. I think that, during my service, I was lucky to have a very accepting staj who were too involved in their own projects and lives to worry too much about who I, or anyone else, was dating. Because of this, we were able to introduce our significant others to our staj-mates, so that they could “meet the other” so to speak, and see what cool people they were.

In my observation, this has not been the case in other stajes. I have had many people come to me and ask me for support and for advice regarding their Moroccan relationships. What struck me the most was how reluctant they were to talk about anything in the beginning, and how most of them made me swear to keep the relationship a secret, especially from their stage. I even know two girls who, like me, stayed in Morocco after they finished their service, and still were very protective of their relationship within their group of friends.

My suggestion is for people to mind their own business, first. Gossip in the volunteer community is notorious for being vicious, and we definitely don’t need to add to it. Just because you think all Moroccan men are horrible – which they aren’t – and could never find that intellectual and emotional connection with anyone in your site, province, region, doesn’t mean that someone else has had the same experience. Maybe they met a goofy Ph.D. student from Rabat who regularly uses words like “fiasco” and has read Foucault in French and in English (true story).

Second, if you do have a friend who is dating a Moroccan, be supportive of them. You may disapprove of the relationship, it is our duty to support our fellow volunteer – and not to judge them – no matter what decisions they make. Dating is challenging in any context, and balancing a relationship in addition to the struggles of volunteering that we all face is no easy task. And you never know when you may be in their position: I had a friend who swore up and down that she would never, could never date a Moroccan. She’s now engaged to one.

Now I want to speak to my fellow “daters of Moroccans.” For us as volunteers, being in a relationship with a Moroccan in Morocco means that we have to follow the Moroccan rules of dating. You are only here for two years, and your primary responsibility is to work. Whether it’s putting on two conferences in your region a year, or just going to tea with your neighbors, you should not let your dating get in the way of your work. You CAN make sacrifices, and if you end up marrying the person, you will have the rest of your lives to negotiate between American-ness and Moroccan-ness in your relationship.

In my case, as YD volunteer, I was very visible to impressionable teenagers, I never spoke about my relationship to my kids, or anyone in my community. Additionally, both my boyfriend and I had seen the volunteer I replaced and HER Moroccan boyfriend be very public (holding hands in the street, him coming in and out of her house during all hours of the day and night) with their relationship. We had seen the damage it had done to her reputation and that of other foreigners in site, including me, and the increased harassment it had caused in both her and my lives.

Very early on, he and I decided to keep our relationship secret, and respectful. We didn’t want to cause problems in the community for me, OR for my replacement. We also didn’t want to cause problems for him and his family, because he was a teacher and he too had a reputation to maintain. We often met in Marrakech, and if we did work together at the dar chebab, we kept a “brother-sister” distance from each other. If he came over to my house, he always came at night, and then left again at night, or if he came during the day, he would only come and leave with a group of people. It wasn’t ideal, but I would have rather had a secret relationship than have lost relationships with my neighbors and host family. I don’t know if it would be safe to say that NOBODY saw us, but I do know that I worked very hard to gain the respect of my community, and no rumors got back to me about people seeing me with him.

My suggestion here is clear. Date a Moroccan sure, but if you are dating someone from your site, be VERY VERY CAREFUL. Better even to date someone from a nearby city instead. Explain to him or her that you want to be respectful of the community, that you want to be overly conservative in the way that you date. Just as you wouldn’t walk around in your site in a tank top and shorts, you can’t go parading your relationship around either. To Moroccans, it’s a matter of respect. So, if you want or need to go on “dates,” go to another city. Don’t hold hands in public with them, don’t let people see them coming over to your house, and don’t tell anyone in your community that you don’t trust with your life. It’s not our way of having a relationship to be sure, but patience and flexibility is key, and, trust me, you will be glad you kept it a secret. In addition, hopefully your friends will have read this article and will be willing and able to listen to your struggles and joys. :-)

Finally, closing a site because a volunteer and a Moroccan choose to get married is a truly abhorrent practice. If anything, sites should be closed where people dated and DIDN’T marry. If this were true, almost every region from the Zagora to Oujda would have to be closed. Yes, harassment happens, and it definitely can be worse for a volunteer to follow a marriage in a site. But a practice like this is basically saying that staff doesn’t approve of Moroccan-American relationships, but is too worried about their image to actually tell their volunteers they don’t recommend it.

Being a volunteer is not easy. We all need support and a kind ear at one time or another during our service, and no one should have that support denied to them. Dating is a choice that adults are free to make, and we should respect them in that. That being said, we should also be aware of our responsibility to ourselves, to our communities, to Morocco, to our friends, to our replacements, and to admin. When dating, especially in Morocco, we should stop and take time to consider the repercussions of any of our actions, especially our public actions in a culture where there is such a dichotomy between the public and the private.

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