Peace Corps Part deux: Moroccan Nights

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

As American as Celine Dion

As a very American looking American living abroad people often immediately ask me where I am from. This is then followed by a question or a comment to their friends about their first impression of America. Sometimes this first comment is about politics or America’s role in the world, sometimes it is to ask if we drink tea or not in America but usually people’s first instinct is to ask me about Justin Timberlake or Celine Dion. It is especially amusing to me that the biggest supporters of Justin Timberlake, the Back Street Boyz and friends are teenaged or 20-something boys. The same boys who in America would be listening to death metal and disrespecting authority.

People’s perspectives of Americans are based on both television and the little that they interact with actual Americans. Americans travelling through Morocco have several objects that are unique to them. The number one prize of course goes to the Nalgene water bottle but following close behind is the frisbee. While Americans might think of baseball or apple pie as symbols of American and might not have any idea what a frisbee is Moroccans immediately identified the frisbee as an American game. After a game of catch with a fellow volunteer who came into my town for an errand I was walking through town with a frisbee and I was expecting to be met with surprise or at least lack of recognition. Instead everyone seemed to know what a frisbee was and while I doubt the accuracy of the average Moroccans upwind hammers they all seemed to have a general idea of how to throw a frisbee. I think a lot of this comes from the nature of people that travel through Morocco and Taroudant specifically. While Taroudant definitely sees its fair share of busloads of Middle-aged French and German tourists a good percentage of tourists in Morocco are of the frisbee carrying hippie type. Just enough hopefully to change the image of America from Justin Timberlake and Celine Dion (who is Canadian by the way) to my favorite disc-shaped object.

Yesterday Moroccans and their brothers throughout the Islamic world celebrated aid il-kbir. The holiday commemorates Abrahams devotion and his willingness to sacrifice his son Issac before a ram was put in Issac’s place. If you think that story sounds familiar you are right. The holy books of Abraham’s three sons share a similar narrative as well as many similar moral lessons. To remember this story everyone slaughters and eats a ram. Think Thanksgiving only imagine that the turkey is a ram and that the ram lives on your roof for the week before he is eaten. The atmosphere throughout the city was crazy last week as all of my fellow urbanites rushed around to buy, transport, and house their sheep. Kids rushed around with carts deliverying sheep to people’s houses and the weekly market last Sunday contained enough sheep to make the biggest American ‘Animal feeding operation’ look puny as everyone from the surrounding countryside brought in their animals to sell.

In the past year and a half a lot of embarrassing things have happened to me but I am not sure if any of them have been more embarrassing than what happened to me during my last session with my Arabic tutor. My tutor who speaks excellent English was describing to me in Arabic A Moroccans sheep cooking method. He mentioned a word in Arabic that I didn’t know so I asked him to clarify in English and he said that it was a ‘hearth’. I racked my brain to think of what a hearth was and came up empty. As I was thinking he spelled the word out on my paper-- h-e-a-r-t-h-- because he thought that he might have been pronouncing the word incorrectly. I told him that yes he was pronouncing the word correctly it is just that his English was better than mine. Note for the record that English is my tutors 5th language and that a hearth is a type of oven used to cook meat.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Do you Americans eat this?

The other day I was introduced to someone new. She asked me if I was French and I responded that I am in fact American. She then turned to her friend and said: "like Oprah?" and then started laughing.

On Novermber 12th I finished up my second round of Peace Corps training. Although I wouldn't recommend that anyone go through two rounds of Stage, as us West African volunteers like to call our training, it was still nice to through a little party to thank our host families and host communities for being so kind and generous and sharing their lives with us for the past two months. In order to say thank and bid adieu we decided to make a bunch of American food for the party. To me and to several others in the group American food meant one thing: pizza. While some Italians may have objected to our labelling we went ahead with the cooking. As a non-chef I quickly found my place in the cutting section of the preparation room. I was joined by some members of a stage-mates host family as we hacked away at enough tomatoes to make pizza sauce for our guests. In Morocco people usually cut the skins off of their tomatoes before cooking them. When I say they usually cut them off I mean that people look at you like you are crazy if you leave the skins on. Note that this makes perfect sense in a culture without shoprite and the FDA. I told my ten year old assistant to leave the skin on and she looked at me with shock, but after some convincing did as she was told. After the tomatoes, the next step was cutting, and grating the cheese. My assistant turned to me and with a very confused face asked, "do Americans leave the wax on their cheese, since they leave the skins on their tomatoes."

As I just mentioned I have never been known for my cooking, but as a gesture of goodwill a few weeks ago I offered to make my host family a spaghetti dinner. I made the meal my family pretended to enjoy it and I thought the subject was finished until last week. We had a small gathering before the pizza party to discuss how the training went. My host sister claimed to have had a good experience and mentioned that she had enjoyed having "real American spaghetti with vegetables." The next day the normally shy, reserved cook who makes our lunch every day and makes incredible dishes that I could only dream of making, nearly jumped on me to make sure she got the recipe for how to make, "real American spaghetti with vegetables."

After having gone through two Peace Corps trainings and one year of service I would like to point out one flaw in the cross¬cultural training. I realize the necessity of making Americans more culturally sensitive (especially the ones who insist that pizza is an American food), as well as the difficulties in developing cross¬¬¬cultural materials that are applicable for the wide range of cultures in the countries that Peace Corps serves. In this training Americans are stereotyped as the epitome of direct speech while Host Country Nationals (as Peace Corps so diplomatically calls the "natives")are seen as very indirect saying yes to any idea that the volunteer presents and then voicing disagreement by not showing up to meetings, etc. I have now served in two Peace Corps countries as well as lived in New York for most of my life and I can tell you that both Moroccans and Mauritanians can put the bluntness of the most forward New Yorker to shame. The other day a fellow trainee came to my house for some tea and my family flatly, firmly and kindly, told him that his Arabic was terrible. An experience that even the most fluent volunteers in either Morocco have surely had multiple times. It is not that my family was being mean, in fact they said it with a smile and offered him more cake, it is simply that the style of communication is more direct and honest than any New Yorker I know is used to. That being said I could still use a training session on figuring out how to be nice to people from the Midwest.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

screaming pumpkins

Like any proper bureaucracy Peace Corps has its share of acronyms, jargon and words that nobody outside of the Peace Corps community could possibly understand. The one (often funnier) difference between Peace Corps and your average overly-bureaucratized organization is that PC works in many different countries that speak hundreds of different languages almost none of which have good translations for words such as, “counterpart, sustainable, or feedback.” Since there are no proper translations for these concepts Peace Corps staff who, in Morocco at least, speak both English and the local languages fluently usually just use the English words while they are speaking with each other. So if I hear two Peace Corps staff speaking too fast for me to understand it often sounds something like this, “skdjkqdklsj feedback erekkkjrke sustainability sdksjkdlsklj computer skills.”

Last week as part of my training I taught an English lesson at the local youth center to intermediate level English students. In preparation for Halloween I adapted this lesson on the past tense to incorporate some Halloween specific vocabulary with words such as scream howl, and carve. The lesson went well, the students appeared to understand and my demonstration of howling was a particularly big hit. The next day at the Halloween party at the youth center I was standing next to a Jack-o-Lantern and I made a carving motion and asked what I thought was one of the better students how the Jack-o-Lantern was made. She said, “you screamed it.” Well at least she got the past tense conjugation correct.

In preparation for the party a few of us went to the market to buy the aforementioned pumpkin that would one day be screamed into a Jack-o-lantern. In Imouzzer there is a “souk” twice a week. This means that farmers come into town from the country selling their produce for absurdly cheap prices. Pumpkins are one of the kinds of produce. Pumpkins are not a stable of the Moroccan diet like eggs, cous-cous or tomatoes, instead pumpkins are a supplement usually added to cous-cous or in combination with other vegetables. Thus pumpkins are usually sold by the kilo which means that the farmer will sell 1/8th or 1/16th of a kilo. When we explained that we in fact wanted an entire pumpkin he wasn’t quite sure what to do and thought he had misunderstand. We then restated that yes we did want the entire pumpkin. Finally he ended up weighing the pumpkin and so we paid 4 dollars for the 20 pound pumpkin. As we left the market carrying the entire pumpkins peoples looks of astonishment reminded me of the looks on people’s faces as my former Mauritanian sitemate carried his pet turtle through the Tidjikja town center.

Last Monday Peace Corps announced our permanent sites where we will be leaving in Morocco for the next two years. Up until now I have been living in a training site where I have been studying the local Arabic Dialect and doing other training activities. In two weeks I will move to Taroudant a city in southern Morocco. It seems like it will be an interesting place to spend the next two years as well as good place for a visit or a short vacation if anyone is thinking of planning a trip to Morocco. Before the staff made the site announcements everyone was feeling some combination of dread, anticipation, excitement and nervousness. In order to calm the nerves of this group of 20-something future professionals the staff gave out bags of American brand name candy in the same style as t-shirts are flung in the stands at B-level sporting events. The twix bars floating into the crowds distracted us enough that they were able to make the announcements to a relatively calm dread-free group very different from the anxious, panic-stricken group that existed a mere 10 minutes earlier.