30 May 2012

CLS and Omani Factoids

During our pre-departure orientation, we had the usual sessions with the usual PowerPoints and speeches.  In order to save you a day of speeches, I'd like to share a few numbers I learned from our two-days of orientation:

631 students were accepted from 5280 applicants for this program:  11.9% acceptance rate.

This is the 7th year of the CLS program

In the world, 60% of our population of 7.2 billion people is under the age of 30.

International students contribute $21.3 billion to the U.S. economy every year.

We have spent the last 2 days with 42 students going to Tunis, Tunisia and 30 students going to Salalah, Oman.

8 to 12 million condoms can fit in a 20 foot shipping container (this was during the career panel, from a public health worker)

80% of Omanis have government jobs.

The population of Omani is somewhere between 3 and 4 million people, and it's roughly the size of Kansas.

A former CLS student was convicted to 18 months in jail for getting in a swearing fight with a Omani woman in Salalah in 2008, and this is the first year CLS is going back to Salalah.

Hours of studying Arabic, inshallah:

We'll be studying Modern Standard Arabic from 1.5 to 2 hours per day.

We'll be studying Media Arabic from 1 to 1.5 hours per day.

We'll be learning Omani dialect from 20 to 50 min per day.

The Search for the Shawafa

This is not a story of Oman, but rather, one of the most amazing days I've had in Morocco since before I was a volunteer.  I leave for Oman tomorrow, but, until then, I hope this story will keep you entertained.


A shawafa is a Moroccan witch.  Although Islam forbids the practice of witchcraft, with Morocco's Berber heritage, the connection to witchcraft, and black (and white!) magic is still pretty strong.  So strong in fact, that it has been an informal research project of mine to find out more about this side of Morocco life for the past few years.

One day I spent 5 hours talking with our van driver (one of my most favorite people in all of Morocco) about the kinz or treasure that is supposedly buried throughout the Arab world, and curses all those who find it with djinns... or is it that you have to be cursed with bad djinns to find it... I forget.  For those of you who don't know, a djinn is a spirit that inhabits the world, and shares it with humans.  Jinns can be evil and good, but tend, in most peoples characterization, to be evil.  Although all Muslims are required by a creed to believe in jinns, the Moroccan pictures of jinns and how they interact with humans tends to take on more of a magical, folklore-ish bent.

Another day I spent listening to a male colleague's complains about how many Gulf women think the Moroccan women who come are using black magic to bewitch their Gulf husbands, and entrance them into sex with them.  I don't know many Moroccan women who use black magic, but this rumor definitely shows how the fear/use/belief in black magic is not confined only to Morocco.  Perhaps (and I really have no way of validating my guesses) this accusation of magic is a way for these Gulf women to deal with the fact that many Gulf men do travel to Morocco to participate in sexual tourism in Morocco, a practice which ultimately led to the Saudi government revoking all visas for Moroccan women under the age of 40, except for those who were participating the major pilgrimage or the Hajj.

But my story now is not one of black or good magic.  At first I thought it would be, but it turned out to be something so much different.

It begins on a hot day in Chefchaouen.  My companion and I were sitting, Spanish style, in the shade of the cafe, enjoying our cigarette and coffee (respectively), watching both Moroccan and Western tourists mosey lazily across the central square.  He got a call from his boss, saying that he had one last task to do in Chefchaouen, which was to find a shawafa to talk to the group of students who were going to arrive in June.  These students wanted to learn about all kinds of medicine in Morocco, including traditional medicine, much of which derives from beliefs about magic and jinns and Islam all mixed together.

I had heard about shawafas, so I was very excited to find one, and perhaps meet her, and know more about the customs about which I had only read or heard gossip.  My companion and I got up from our cafe, and went first to visit a guy he knew at the spice shop.  Of course, this was a spice shop I had frequented many times in my various visits to Chefchaouen through work over the past year, but I had never thought to ask about their connections with shawafas, even though the shop was full of herbs, soaps, and incenses of all kinds.

We met with one man in a white, wool jellaba named (of course) Mohammed, who, in his guise as a tourist faux guide, also wore the more traditional red tarboush (hat), but you could tell from the jewelry he wore and the way he talked that as soon as he went home at the end of the day, he would probably rip off these traditional clothes.  I also remember noticing he had big hands.  Anyway, my companion told our story, and what we were looking for, and because I speak Moroccan Arabic, and, probably because I am European-looking, Mohammed kept trying to justify to me, and not to my Moroccan companion, why this guy, Abdo-something, he knew, was the best for the job.

"Oh yes, he speaks English, oh yes, and he's very knowledgable about witchcraft, but no no no, he doesn't practice it himself.  No, no, he's a very good Muslim, yes, very good.  He's like a fiqh (expert in Islam) in his spare time, and his English is so good because he's an Official Guide, yes yes."

At least that's how I imagine his spiel in English would sound.  And I didn't know a shawafa could be a guy... but apparently that's how it goes.

We arranged for Mohammed to bring us Abdo-something, the English-speaking, non-black-magic-practicing, fiqh, and we would meet and talk for coffee later in the day, or perhaps tomorrow morning for coffee.

We then spent the rest of the afternoon before kaskroot (6pm non-dinner snack-meal) walking around to all the store owners and cafe owners and restaurant owners we knew, asking them if they knew a shawafa.  We even asked Mohammed-with-the-dreads, who sells mainly sells bracelets to stoner tourists.  They all said they knew of someone who knew of someone, but wouldn't we be better served to go to Fez or Sefrou or some other town?  My companion told me later that because he looks like a touristic-police guy and because I'm obviously a foreigner, everyone was automatically reluctant to tell us directly where the shawafa could be.  Even so, the people we deemed to be genuine could not help us, and so we were forced to wander back to our first cafe, sit, and wait on the good graces of Mohammed to bring us Abdo-something.

We waited, and waited, and waited.  The sun had set by this point, and the cool, relaxing night mountain air was coming in.  And still we waited some more.  We were sitting at a table so close to the square I almost felt like we were in the square, and eating our chicken kabobs for dinner, when Mohammed finally came by, dragging his young son behind him.  Unfortunately, he was not dragging anyone else, and I assumed that an 8-year-old could not be a shawafa.  After a rather unconvincing explanation about how Abdo-something was not free, even though he actually WAS a "real" shawafa, my companion got very frustrated - not obviously, he only told me later - and decided that interacting with Mohammed was not worth his time.  I should have realized this, because he didn't even offer to buy Mohammed a coffee, but trying to concentrate on fast negotiations in Moroccan Arabic was taking up all of my brain power at this point.

And so the search continued.

Imagine here a movie montage of us running around Chefchaouen, the next morning, before we were ment to leave, asking everyone we could both think of, "Do you know a shawafa?"  "Do YOU know a shawafa?"  Again, we were met with either reluctance or a genuine sad look of, "Sorry I can't help you."

After what felt like the 16th person we'd talked to, we finally shrugged our shoulder, and hoped that Abdo-something would appear.  At least we had, in all our running around, arranged for the American students to visit a licensed herbalist...

But then our luck began to change.  It was one of those situations where you can feel that things are going to work out.  It was, at this point, 3pm, and the sun on the back of my neck, almost sizzling, was making me slightly tired and yawny.  We found the owner of our hotel, to pay, and, in a last ditch effort we asked him.  After explaining that, no, we didn't want to find our long lost exes and get them back for dumping us, and no, we just wanted to show American students the many ways that Moroccans approach health, the man, also conveniently named Mohammed, smiled widely and secretively, and brought us in.

"I think I know someone who can help you! Come, follow me."

He took us through the infamous windy, blue streets of Chefchaouen, back and forth, up and down.  I could feel the anticipation in our walk, I could feel that finally, we were on the right track, and that I might actually meet a shawafa today.  In talking with my companion, he realized that we did not actually want a shawafa, but actually would prefer a woman less witch-like, and more steeped in "good" and "traditional" Islamic methods of healing. Skreeeeeetch.  We made an abrupt stop, took one fork in the maze instead of another, and suddenly, we were back at our hotel.


As it turns out, we were actually across the alley from our hotel, knocking on a very modest door of a very modest house.  A woman stuck her head out of the window above, looked down at two men and a foreign girl, and asked suspiciously what we wanted.  After Mohammed clarified who he was, the cousin of her cousin's cousin or something, she lit up into a smile, and disappeared.

The very modest door of the very modest house opened, and two smiling women ushered us in.  As soon as we were out of the sun, I could feel the chill of the adobe/cement house, and I felt just the slightest bit less anxious, though no less excited.  And then the negotiations began.  These two women we had met were the daughters of the old woman of the house, and at first, my companion thought that one of them was the medicine woman.  "Why do you want to talk to my mother?  Who are these people who are coming?  What do they want?  No, it's not me, it's my mother?  Ah, here she is."  As soon as their mother poked her head out of the curtain that led to the living room, we could both tell who she was.

Visually, there was nothing unique about her.  She was like any other ambiguously old Moroccan woman I had ever met.  Less than a full mouth of teeth, white cloth tied on her head, pajamas stained with food from cooking, and a light cloth hastily thrown over her head at the sound of male visitors.

Spiritually, emotionally, however, she took my breath away.  Perhaps it was her smile, or her eyes, or perhaps it was the respect and awe she instilled in Mohammed and my companion.  In subsequent descriptions of her, I fail for words, and usually end up joking.  But she was just.... full of light, full of God.  You could feel it, even though my eyes were telling me everything was "normal."

We three visitors immediate bent down to kiss her hand in greeting, and her smile got wider and wider, especially when she saw me, the obvious foreigner, follow the correct, respectful Moroccan protocol.  I couldn't have greeted her wrong if I wanted to, but I also couldn't think of a single word to say, except mumbling some rather half-hearted greeting and a "thank you" when she called me "kind-looking."

During my mini-revelation, my companion and Mohammed were talking with her, explaining the program, what we wanted, and who we were.  I barely remember much of this part, just that she had the same questions as everyone else, but was very excited to be involved.  "I have the baraka," she said.  "It came from Allah, and I am blessed with this healing ability.  I don't have much money, and my husband (God rest his soul) died a few years back, and so I, Allah's humble servant, use my gift from Him to support me and my girls."  Baraka is this case is truly what she had.  It means blessing, but it was more than that in this case.  It was that light, that spirit, that love, that essence of God.

We finished our meeting with this amazing woman, and we all left, almost falling over ourself, backing out of the house, and we all had these stupid grins on our faces.  I kept talking and talking, and my companion and Mohammed smiled knowingly.  I caught their smiles, and fell into silence as we made our way through the downward-sloping alleyways towards the bus station.  The two men made arrangements to make sure the medicine woman was available on the day in June when the students would come.

All I could think to myself was, "Damn, if this woman is for real, she'll have the students either smiling or balling for the rest of the day."

The story really ends here, and yet, it's still going on.  That day, a tightness in my chest that I carry with me whenever I am nervous or stressed went away, and it hasn't been back since.  Moreover, any feelings of dread and worries about the future lessened, and every time I think of her, or Morocco, or even my upcoming trip to Oman, I am taken back to that "happy place."

In someways, I believe it was my love for Morocco returning, in a powerful way, to remind me, in a very stressful time in my life, why I fell in love in the first place, and why I keep coming back.

My enduring memory of that day is during the grande-taxi ride home, despite the winding roads and normally nausea-inducing curves through the mountains, I was perfectly content, joyous even, so happy and so in love with everything in life.  The sun was beating down on me like it usually does, but it was an enjoyable warmth, and with the breeze in my face, and love in my heart, life was good.

18 May 2012


Arabic:  ajnabi, "people to avoid"; also ajami, meaning foreigner, barbarian, bad Arabic speaker, Persian; also gharib, stranger, "from the west."
More from Paul Theroux's The Tao of Travel

Also from my recent final paper on Language/Gender in Narrative:
 Baynham (2007) demonstrates positioning (specifically “interactional” positioning, or how people locate others, as opposed to locating themselves, which is commonly known as “reflexive” positioning) by his retelling of a conversation with a Moroccan immigrant family living in the United Kingdom.  
As he was waiting for the father of the household in the sitting room, he heard the father call out to his wife, “Ja dak an-nasrani?”  [Has that Christian man arrived yet?].  Baynham reflects that in English, and considering he himself is “relatively secular,” it would be rather strange for him to position himself as a Christian.  According to Baynham’s analysis of Munson’s (1984) (rather essentializing and outdated) research, however:  “In everyday speech, Moroccans almost never speak of themselves as ‘Moroccan’ (Mgharba), but as ‘Muslims’ (Msilmin)…Religious and national identity are not distinguished by most Moroccans” (as cited by Baynham, 2007, p. 140).   
Since religious identity is not as separable from national identity in Morocco as it is in Baynham’s native Britain, the Moroccan father does not see a distinction between European and Christian, and therefore, according to Baynham, does not see a difference between calling Baynham “nasrani” or “britani” [British man]. 

17 May 2012

T.E. Lawrence on Englishmen

"T.E. Lawrence:  "We expect two chief kinds of Englishmen," he wrote in the Introduction to Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta,

who in foreign parts divide themselves into two opposed classes.  Some feel deeply the influence of native people, and try to adjust themselves to its atmosphere and spirit.  To fit themselves modestly into the picture they suppress all in them that would be discordant with local habits and colours.  They imitate the native, and so avoid friction in their daily life.  However, they cannot avoid the consequences of imitation, a hollow, worthless thing.  They are like the people but not of the people, and their half-perceptible differences give them a sham influence often greater than their merit.  They urge the people among whom they life into strange, unnatural courses by imitating them so well that they are imitaed back again. 
The other class of Englishmen is the larger class.  In the same circumstances of exile the reinforce their character by memories of the life they have left.  In reaction against foreign surroundings they take refuge in the England that was theirs.  They assert their aloofness, their immunity, the more vividly for their loneliness and weakness.  They impress the peoples among whome they live by reaction, by giving them as ensample of the complete Englshman, the foreigner intact.  Doughty is a great member of the second, the cleaner class.

And T.E. Lawrence was a member of the first, the gone-native class."

Excerpt from Paul Theroux, The Tao of Travel

16 May 2012


Recently, the Times of Oman posted a story about maids in Oman abandoning their legal employers in search of better salaries and more opportunities.  Although the article does not portray the maids in a favorable light, it does offer some perspective, and interviews one maid to tell her side of the story.

For those of you who don't know, many of the more wealthy families in countries in the Middle East are able to employ full-time "maids", women usually from out of the country, to work as house cleaners and nannies.  Many of them come from the Philippines, but there are other countries represented as well.

The topic, especially in Saudi Arabia, is a controversial one, because of many reports of abuse and mistreatment of these maids by their employers.  To read more about the controversy, take a look at this blog:  The Blue Abaya.  It is the perspective of a Finnish woman who works as a nurse in Saudi, converted to Islam and is married to a Saudi man.  I have been following her blog for about a year, and I think she does a good job of offering both sides of the story.

I'm not quite sure where I stand on this issue, but I am more curious about what Omanis think.  Do most Omanis employ maids?  Only the super rich?  How does the situation differ between Saudi and Oman?  Is it okay for me to even ask these kinds of questions while I am there...?

15 May 2012

A Not-So-Exclusive Club

The test of an adventure is that when you're in the middle of it, you say to yourself "Oh now I've got myself into an awful mess; I wish I were sitting quietly at home. And the sign that something's wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home wishing you were out having lots of adventure. 
― Thornton Wilder

14 May 2012

Let Women in Hijab Play Sports

Here is an update on the situation of women who wear hijab being allowed (or being forbidden...) from playing in the Olympics.

Paul Bowles: "The Conflict between Writer and Place"

"The subject matter of the best travel books is the conflict between writer and place.  It is not important which of them carries the day, so long as the struggle is faithfully recorded.  It takes a writer with a gift for describing a situation to do this well, which is perhaps the reason why so many of the travel books that remain in the memory have been produce by writers expert at the fashioning of novels."

08 May 2012

Did You Enjoy Your Story?

Papers are turned it, exams are finished, it's time to fill a suitcase again, and head to the airport to embark on the next journey.  I'll be in Morocco until May 24th, and then on May 30th, I'll be off to Oman!  I'm so excited to visit a new country - my last new country was Peru in 2007 - and go back out into the unknown.

Speaking of the unknown, I've been encountering a lot of stories lately about people's journeys through hiking, camping, rafting, climbing, etc. and I miss it.  I was never a huge "outdoorsy" person, but I think I'm ready to start again, especially after watching this video.  Who wants to go to Chile and Argentina with me?

02 May 2012

Love and Respect in Islam

REFLECTIONS with Imam Yassir Chadly - "Love & Respect" from Ta'leef Collective on Vimeo.

One of my best friends from Morocco sent this to me, saying I would probably like it, and encouraging me to share it.  So I am!

From the website:

"Love and Respect" is an intimate dialogue with Bay Area Imam, Yassir Chadly, about the role of culture in Islam. He speaks about the importance of an Imam or religious leader having a firm grasp of the local customs of a place before giving any Fatwas or religious edicts. He explains how love and respect are pillars of the faith and that if left, "the whole house will fall and Islam will fail."

01 May 2012

A Letter from a New Friend

Here is an excerpt from an email with a cousin of a friend of mine from high school.   She is American, born and raised, but became Muslim in her 20s, then married an Omani man and moved to Oman.  She now lives with her family in a town about a 300km drive from Muscat, the capital of Oman.  The lines in bold are my questions, and the italics are her answers.

My first question would be, how would you prefer me to address you?  Moroccans don't use the name format of "Oum" [Mother of] or "Abu" [Father of] very much, so I'm not sure which is more polite?  Would you call someone "auntie" or "uncle" as a way of respect, or is that more for family?  Would you use "sidi" [Mr.] and "sida" [Mrs.] (Moroccans use "lalla" for ma'am, but I think that is only a Maghreb thing)?

You may just call me J. We don't use 'sida/sidi' or 'lalla' here at all, but 'Oum' and 'Abu' are used often. Among women, women of the same age call each other by their first names, though a younger woman will often address an older woman as 'Oum ...'. I address most of the older women in our town as 'Khaaloo', [aunt] and my daughter's friends address me this way. My husband's young nieces and nephews call me 'Khaaloo J' or 'Amoo [uncle] J'. Out of respect, men here prefer not to address a woman by her first name, if a kunya (ex, 'Oum A') is known. Similarly, if a woman is mentioning something about me to her husband, she would usually refer to me as 'Oum A'.

I'm thinking a lot, for now, about what to pack.  My goal is to be able to make a friend or two, and I feel like perhaps, the more conservatively I dress, the more respected I will be, but does that apply for foreign 20-somethings wanting to make friends in order to practice language and culture too?

It is more like the more conservatively you dress, the more comfortable others will feel around you. What is 'conservative' varies from region to region here. Almost anything goes in Muscat now, and people there are used to that.  Here in Ibri, it is much better to dress on the very conservative side, with a scarf on one's head even if it is only loosely so and half of your hair is out.  Things were much more conservative when I first got here back in 1993 but have been changing a lot since then.

It used to be here in Ibri that women always wore long pants under their dresses, pants which zipped at the ankle so that nothing showed above the ankle.  And women in Ibri used to see Salalah women as 'immodest' because it was said that they didn't wear anything under their dresses.  In Salalah, the women all wore small niqaabs to cover their faces and the Salalah women used to say that the women up here in Ibri were 'immodest' because they didn't all cover their faces!  But things have changed and all areas of Oman get lots of visitors now from other parts of Oman and from outside Oman.  You will notice many different kinds of styles in dress among women.  In fact, you can tell a lot about where an Omani woman is from by her dress here, though there is not so much difference in the way Omani men dress.  Then there is the dress of Western expats, Indians, Pakistanis, etc. You will see a lot of variation in dress here. 

I think that you will find that Oman is quite different from Morocco. 

I noticed the dates of your trip.  I encourage you to try to spend some time in Muscat and this 'northern' part of Oman before you head down to Salalah.  It looks like you'll be finishing up during Ramadan, and while it is nice to see how Ramadan is in Oman, you will get a much better feel for the lifestyle here if you can see it outside of Ramadan, too.  True Omani life really revolves around the family and home and during Ramadan most observant Muslim families won't be out and about much, except to do necessary shopping and go to the mosque.