Friday, October 12, 2007

Culture Based Training

After an adventure-filled weekend, the next few days were a bit more "regular," if you will. We hit our one-week anniversary in country. I remember it well, it was a Tuesday... That night a Sex and the City marathon started with a lot of the girls in one of the lounging rooms. I just remember overhearing one episode talking about one of the women giving blowjobs whenever and to whomever she liked. Right...and I'm supposed to feel guilty about watching "guy movies?" Anyways...

Apart from four hours of language per day (at this point, two 2-hour sessions per day) we also had "technical" training, though weeks later at this writing I can barely remember most of those first sessions. Something about an iceberg being 75% under water, something else about "coping strategies" though what we're supposed to be coping with, I have no clue. And so on.

However, Thursday began to loom on our calendars because that was the day we would find out where we would have our Culture Based Training, or CBT. CBT is where we travel to a village or town to learn to integrate into a community. We stay with a host family, who provides us with meals and is also a good source to practice language and observe various cultural practices. The parents of my family, for example, are religious and yet liberal, so through that juxtaposition I have learned a great deal about two different strains of Moroccan culture. We also have the requisite language training, as well as our first opportunity to interact with local youth at what is called the Dar Chebab, or youth center.

Most Dar Chebabs, or in Darija dar sh`bab, or "youth center" loosely translated, are actually not that different from what you might find in America. Their setup is very much like what you would find at a traditional community center. For example, for my UVa crowd, if you were to go to Newcomb Hall, imagine somewhat the level the Pav is on, with a few little all purpose rooms, an administrative room, and bathrooms. For the Vienna crowd, the community center there (minus the basketball court) has a similar layout. The one here in Fez (pictured below) has a half-dozen classrooms, some offices, a computer lab, a cafeteria, dormitory, and lounge. Most all have a game closet as well, with ping pong, cards, chess, checkers, and the like.

During CBT, our schedule looks roughly like this:

9:00 - 1:00: Language

1:00 - 2:15: Lunch

2:15 - 4:30: Technical Training/Language

4:30 - 8:30: Studying/L-ftur/Self-Directed Learning

8:30 - 10:00: Dar Chebab

It's a pretty full day most of the time. Self-Directed Learning can be whatever you make of it, such as wandering around the community, playing sports with the local kids (which has been my big draw), going to a café after L-ftur for coffee or tea, talking/practicing language with your homestay family, etc.

Anyways, I'm getting ahead of myself. There are three major times during training to be a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) when there is a considerable amount of stress, and they all relate to what you'll be doing next. For example, in Philadelphia we were stressed about language. For CBT, part of it is where you will be stationed, and the other part learning to fit in to a foreign culture. Lastly, for assignment, it's about where you'll be living for the next two years of your life.

So we were now come to the point where for CBT, we would be finding out where we would be living, learning, and eventually, working, for the next few weeks. Everyone was anxious not only about where they would be going, but who they would be training with, and which Language and Culture Facilitator (LCF) they would have. And let me just say up front that my group is awesome. Three weeks later, I can say that we've gotten a lot done, and we have a lot more planned for our final two weeks and a bit here.

Now, I can't tell you where my CBT site is on here, because I'm still living there. However, here are plenty of pictures to give you an idea!

As you can see, we're down in a little valley, and it's pretty temperate here usually. Imagine California weather, where it gets between 80-90 during most days, and then plummets down into the 50s-60s. There are a couple of thousand people here, and the Peace Corps deems this a "medium-sized" site for volunteers. There are lots of cafés, which deserve an entry all to their own. This is a big football town, and when we got here, a big tournament had already started at a field near my house.

And no, you're not seeing things. The field really is built into the side of a hill. Besides football, there is also a little bit of basketball played here, and in the salon des jeux, or kind of a game room, the kids are ravenous for fussball and gouvaseur (pool.) The Dar Chebab hosts a variety of events, from clubs and associations to game nights just about every day of the week. Its hours are pretty wacky during Ramadan, but during the school year it can get pretty packed once the school day is over.

Overall, this looks like a place where I could really fit in. Football, cafés, a quiet pace, and a family eager to take an American under their wing and help them learn about their culture. I don't want to get into too many details and spoil upcoming entries, so for now enjoy the pictures!

Marjane: A Slice of Home

So after an adventure in the oldest parts of Morocco, we were about ready for a taste of Americana. A few days later, reports were trickling in from other volunteers about several supermarket style franchises on the outskirts of Fez. And wouldn't you know it, a few of us were missing the comforts of home and decided to go check out what we could find.

Initially we were told we could walk to the Marjane, but for some reason I didn't buy it and insisted we take a taxi. A fifteen minute cab ride later, vindication was mine!

We pulled up to a giant parking lot, something we hadn't seen in Morocco yet outside of the airport. At the back end of the lot was a dull building, and immediately my mind said to me, "holy shit, since when did Wal-Mart get to Africa?" But no, my friends, Marjane is much more than Wal-Mart could ever wish to be. Marjane is a superstore
and a mini-mall, all rolled into one!

Unfortunately, half of the stores were closed because it was a Sunday morning during Ramadan, but inside were cafés, high-end clothing stores (including a Lacoste store!), teleboutiques, even a toy store; all of it was outside the main section of the building devoted to the Marjane itself. The main area of the store was divided as you would find a Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target, whatever. There was an area for linens, home furnishings, electronics, appliances, crappy books, school supplies, sports, toys, auto repair, beauty and toiletries, and, at last, a supermarket!

I trolled the aisles, finding goodies from home and from Europe. Kinder chocolate, Mars (Milky Way in the States,) Crunchips, Lay's, Coca-Cola, Pepsi (including the new Pepsi Max, surprisingly) and dozens of other types of junk food. And actual food, REAL food: Barrilla pasta, Kikkoman's soy sauce, ketchup, gnutella (but no peanut butter, alas) and on, and on. We even found pork, in a section divided from the rest of the meats.

I dug hard, and found processed cheese so I could make cheeseburgers, though finding buns is proving a challenge.

In the end, we bought quite the variety of goods, and have been back on several occasions. One mini-adventure I've had that was Marjane related, I bought a set of hair clippers because for the last year or so I've cut my own hair, and the set I had back home were not dual-voltage. I found a decent set on sale and grabbed them up, because they came set with what appeared to be all the necessary lengths (1/4", 1/2", 3/4", 1", etc.) Alas, I'm halfway through cutting my hair later in the day when I realize that the extensions only go up to 1/2". Oops. After covering my hair with a hat the rest of the day, I trekked back to Marjane the next night, but of course, they didn't have just a set of extensions I could buy. I was all set to sell my clippers to another guy who had come to buy the same set, and then thrown down for a more expensive set that I had just verified had what I needed, when all of a sudden I spot in the bottom of the case a bunch of extensions just lying around. Not attached to a set of clippers or anything. So I'm asking the clerk in broken Darija and gesturing wildly trying to get my point across, trying to figure out if I could just give them some money for those and be done with it and such, when suddenly he reaches in and just hands one of them to me. Safi. That's it. I ask twice what I owe, and he just replies "you need it, take it. Safi." Moroccan hospitality, indeed! So I went home and cut my hair, yet somehow it took everyone here a good week to notice...

Later that day, it was back to the mdina to check out the soukh, or weekly market. They're usually on Sundays, and in the towns there's lots of veggies/fruits and second- (and sometimes first-) hand goods for sale at dirt cheap prices. In the cities, all the shops will open up and it's a veritable buyer's market, with lots of haggling, insulting of the other person's relatives twice removed, and goods exchanging hands.

Other volunteers had tons of adventures to which I was not a part, sadly, such as one of the guys who was with me when we got lost in the mdina the first night in Fez. This time, he found a snake charmer performing his act and took a picture from the back of the crowd. As he's staring down at the picture on his camera, the music stops and the crowd in front of him parts wide. And there's the snake charmer barreling towards him, one empty hand outstretched and demanding money, and in the other hand the snake. After he pays up for watching the performance, the snake charmer little dumps the snake around his shoulders and saunters off to take a break, leaving the volunteer completely flummoxed and with nothing else to do than just stand calmly and give his camera to someone else so he can get another picture.

For myself, I had my first run in with "tour guides," people who come up and argue they're not there to "guide" you, but just to show you around their city and practice English with you (since technically tour guides are against the law.) They may lead you around for a while, but in the end will always demand money for "showing you around." Eventually the ones pestering us got so bad and upset my group so much we had to leave the mdina and enter in through one of the other gates (the modern one for cars that I mentioned previously.) After that, however, things went smoothly and we were able to mill around all the shops. It was so packed I was afraid to stop and take a picture for fear of pickpockets, because we've heard that the Fez mdina is one of the roughest around. Considering other groups got tons of pictures and plenty of adventures in the leather tannery, or with snake charmers, or haggling, that here's my advise for all you future world travelers: take your precautions just as you would traveling somewhere in America, but remember to have fun and not let anything (or anybody) get in your way!

Overall it was nice to see both sides of Fez in one day, and even nicer to see the mdina when it was light out and everything was as busy as could be. We were through with one full day of language, and all that now loomed in front of us was a full immersion into Darija, with Ramadan serving as a great introduction to local religion and society at the same time.

Sh'wiya Darija

After regaling the other volunteers with our adventures in the mdina, the need for sleep soon pressed down upon us. The next morning dawned with a fresh perspective: it would be our first day of language. Sure, a few volunteers versed in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or "Classical" as they say here had to date given us a few lessons in script, but for the most part none of us had a clue about Darija, or the Moroccan dialect, apart from a few basic sayings.

sbaH L-xir (TSba La-kher) - Good morning

salam u 3likum (salam oo áhleekoom) - Peace be upon you (or "hello" or "greetings")

By now you're easily confused by some of those letters. Don't worry, so were we! There are more letters in the Arabic script (which is used for MSA, and all Darija words are written in it as well) so simply you have to substitute letters that in English we can understand. Below are a few more examples, with my best attempt at a phonetic conversion.

3 (áh) - This is kind of like a double "A", or "A'A," but there is a stress there. Use your diaphragm emphatically when pronouncing the first of those two "A"'s to get it.

3G (ghr) - In script, this letter is written exactly the same as the one above, but with a dot on top of it. I find it easy, since the pronunciation sounds like it has a "G" in there, to write it thus in English. The sound of a "ghr" is kind of a mashing of a "G" made further down your throat combined with the "R" in Paris if you were pronouncing it like a Frenchmen. The best way to try this letter is to gargle. If you imagine the sound you make gargling as a syllable, that's pretty close.

x (kh) - There is no "X" in Arabic, but the pronunciation of the character itself comes kind of close. Throw some phlegm from way down your throat at a "kh" sound to get it. The easiest word I can think of to do so is ankh.

H (hu`h) - This letter is literally the sound you make when you sigh audibly. Go ahead, try it. *sigh* It is an "H" made without vibrating your throat. Try to say hat out loud. Now say it with a whisper. See the difference? A lot of the time when you're speaking fast, you won't even hear it, especially if it's at the end of a word.

Sound fun yet? There are plenty more letters that form their own category, including a few above, which I'll get into later. The really important thing is that yes, we started in earnest to try to master at least part of a foreign language. Starting at the end of our first week, and running for five of the next seven weeks, we would be having four hours of language per day six days per week (and for four days a week the other two weeks.)

Our first class was simple. "Hello, how are you? I am fine. My name is...what's your name? Nice to meet you." And so on. And then after our first break, we got to nationality. And then to age, and occupation. It was a bit to digest, you might say.

After our brains were more fried than the chicken at KFC, the cannon sounded and it was time for L-ftur. A few people went exploring, but for me it was straight to the cyber. I'd had a seemingly brilliant idea to take my laptop and just plug that into their network so I could use my QWERTY keyboard and actually get something done. After failing miserably to get my laptop connected, since apparently only one side of the room was technically able to allow outside computers on the network (don't ask why, I've been at this for weeks with others to try to explain it), I pounded away in frustration on the AZERTY keyboard. It took me two hours, but finally I had sent a half-dozen e-mails, updated fantasy sports for the next few days, and finally got news of the outside world via CNN and ESPN. Apparently you all can survive without us, so that was good to know.

Sunday we would have off, so I spent the rest of the night relaxing, and promptly decided to host a viewing of "The Man Who Knew Too Little" in my room. Laughter abound, though I realized that a few more nights of such activity on my laptop and I would blow the speakers out. Luckily, I had heard of a place nearby that just might sell speakers...

Moroccan Whiskey

Ok, so after that "brief" introduction to Ramadan, back to our story.

The road between Rabat and Fez is quite different than any other part of the country that I have seen thus far. While much of the country reminds me of California (with red hills and dusty plains,) here it looks more like the Negev Desert, in southern Israel. Sand-blasted hills, an occasional farm compound, and few other signs of life along the main road until, suddenly, civilization springs forth at the feet of a massive set of hills.

The Negev Desert

The Road to Fez

Coming into Fez, I see for the first time a building more than about four stories tall. It's still being built, but somehow it was still a welcome sign when that type of construction is what you're used to back home.

Then we come to the main boulevard, and suddenly into a whole other world. This type of modernization was something I think none of us really expected to find in this country, and I can safely suggest I have never seen this type of city planning anywhere in the United States. From the pictures, you can see what I mean. Thinking hard, it reminds me of some places in Florida where palm trees line the streets, but never in quite this fashion. The King of Morocco's wife is from Fez, so apparently Fez has not always looked like this, but all I can say is "wow..."

We eventually reach the Dar Chebab, the youth center, and it's nestled in a busy portion of town. We get our introduction to the staff that will be training us for the next ten weeks, and once we settle in we take part in an activity called "community mapping." This is a process where you walk around your new community and, quite literally, draw a map and label important looking buildings or resources as you go along. Usually you stick to the main streets, but from my 30 minute journey around Fez, I would gather there was quite a bit down the side streets that we missed. We saw everything from cafés to teleboutiques (cell phone shops) to cybers to Hanuts to private schools, and even heard mention of a giant supermarket/mini-mall somewhere in the area. Believe me, you'll hear more about that one later.

Soon after we get back is sunset, and our first ever L-ftur. At that point, I mightily enjoyed the hrra and the assortment of oddities as this was my first truly Moroccan meal. And for the first (and only) time I tried dates. It seemed apparent at the table that most people were done in for the evening, despite us having free time right after dinner. At this point I should clarify, during Ramadan we are under curfew during the hours of L-ftur (the half-hour before sunset and the first hour afterwards) while in Fez, so it is approaching 8pm and is fully dark by the time we're able to go back out and explore on our own.

I'm not tired for some reason, and with two other guys decided we would try to find the first of the Fez mdinas. That's right, Fez is so large it has two historic walled city centers. The one nearest to us was also the home of one of King Mohammed VI's royal palaces. Ironically, the nearest other building is McDonald's, and that gets its own entry at some point. Reminded me of how in Egypt, the first building at the base of the Pyramids is a Pizza Hut (which also is in Morocco.)

Anyways, took us a while to get there and we didn't bring any cameras but we were still pretty pumped to be the first people in our group to get a look at the mdina. Unbeknownst to us, adventure of the highest quality awaited us!

You can enter the mdina one of two ways: through the old Jewish Quarter, or straight through the center of the walled city via a modern road. That night, we chose the Jewish Quarter without knowing where in the heck we were, having been smart enough to attempt to navigate without a map. One of the other guys had explored the Rabat mdina to some depth, and even he was floored by the absolute change in atmosphere once you step through the first archway. Having walked through the narrow markets of the Old City in Jerusalem (see below) that was what I was first reminded of, but somehow here in Fez everything seemed both bigger and somehow more dense at the same time.

We got quite a ways through the streets and then seemed near an impasse when suddenly we hear someone asking us, "English? English?" We turn around and a man is excitedly gesturing for us to come over and talk to him.

"I am Aziz. You are English? American?" he asks us. We all look at each other before deciding he looks like a decent enough person to stop to talk with. He welcomes us to Morocco easily a dozen times, and after learning we're here with the Peace Corps, invites us into his shop, which is through a short alleyway off the main street.

"Come, sit, it is time you learned of the famous Moroccan hospitality," he tells us. In the fairest sense, Moroccan hospitality usually means lots of tea and snacks and hours of storytelling...and we only have a few minutes before we need to be getting back for the night. We say we need to be going in a few minutes, and Aziz replies, "You are sure you do not want whiskey?"

I look sideways at the other guys, kind of one of those expressions that questions why a gorgeous woman at a bar would come up to you out of nowhere and offer to go home and have sex with you.

Then Aziz laughs. "Ah, that is what we call tea here! Moroccan whiskey!"

We all laugh in turn and have to politely decline. Before we can get up to go, Aziz starts telling us about how his brother runs a business where he takes tourists out to the desert on camel trips. He tells us to make sure we bring our friends back to him if they are interested, and the like. As cool as a camel trip into the desert really does sound, a few minutes later we're back onto the main street and wanting to continue our journey into the mdina.

At this point, however, we're not so sure where we are, but in the spirit of adventure we decide to keep going forward (and thus eventually make a giant circle around the old city since the road seems to be slightly curving the whole time) and try to see everything. We do pass after a few more minutes what appears to be the very back of the city, with a giant entrance to the palace off to the side. We're emboldened, we're afraid we're running late, and we're silly Americans. We plunge on ahead.

And promptly, the soukh section of the mdina ends and we end up clambering around a residential portion of the old city. With no map, in the middle of the night, and not knowing more than a half-dozen words of Darija between the three of us.

Logic at this point is telling us to keep to the largest streets because they probably lead somewhere. But then we get to a point where everything just keeps getting smaller. And just when we've about convinced ourselves to turn around...

"Aji! Aji!" a little boy is calling out to us and waving us over. He knows we're lost. We gesture wildly with our hands about wanting to get out of the mdina, and eventually he gets it, and says, "outside?" We get excited, he gets excited and calls over his little brother. Then we point back the way we came, and he shakes us off, "no, this way!"

Of course, he wants to lead us further into the mdina, into those small alleyways.

Somewhat reluctantly we start following. Along the way, we get out of him that his name is Mohammed, but the only other words he can say in English are "football! David Beckham!" His little brother is Rashid, but he doesn't speak a word of English, so we just blunder along talking at them in English, and they're talking at us in Darija. A merry old time.

After a few minutes, I start to notice that as the streets are becoming narrower, there are fewer lights. And then the buildings start to get a bit more dilapidated, and here and there entire sections of walls are held up by T-beams. And little kids are pointing at us, staring and laughing as Mohammed and his little brother guide us who-knows-where. And after much further, people are looking out of windows and doorways at us like, "why are you in our home?"

While one of the guys is up chatting away with Mohammed, or at least trying to, I'm looking at the other one. At this point we're both thinking, "holy shit, we're about to get knifed in a dark alley and tomorrow morning somebody will be reading about us and going 'oh, those stupid Americans...'"

And then, suddenly, the mdina ends. Really, right out of nowhere. The street opened up, and we were at the far wall, by a giant taxi stand. We thank the little boys and eventually get out to a main boulevard. With cars and other glorious signs of technology. Sweet.

Our adventure is nowhere near over, however. We continue along the sidewalk on the outside of the walls to the mdina, and across the street there is nothing whatsoever. We're clearly at a different entrance, but my sense of direction is as I like to claim quite impeccable. We keep going and going along this wall, and finally hit a corner, turn around it, and...

More boulevard. More city walls. No sign of city life. Crap.

We keep going, and going, and going. We've been walking along these walls for easily what seems to be over half-an-hour, and then we get to a corner, turn around it, and...

More boulevard. More city walls. Crap. Thanks, Mohammed, for depositing us at the ass-back end of the city. But this time, there are a lot more cars. And ahead, lights! We eventually come to yet another corner and there is a bridge in front of us, and to the left more of the same city walls and another boulevard. Every ounce of the human map is telling me to go straight, away from the city walls and under the bridge towards a set of buildings. The other guys are telling me I'm full of it, but I get more and more convinced.

Eventually we go forward like the human map suggests. A few minutes later we're at a city intersection and already more at ease. And then I see a sign. And I rejoice. We're at the far corner of the section of town my community mapping group sketched out earlier! The other guys are still not convinced, until from memory I start calling out what buildings are coming up. And then we're nearly home, and walking faster, and finally back to the Dar Chebab.

It's 9:30. For our first true adventure in the city, we were only gone for an hour and a half. And inside, everyone is getting ready for their first second dinner of Ramadan. And I can already smell the Moroccan whiskey brewing.

A Brief Introduction to Islam and Ramadan

Granted, I am in no way a scholar of Islamic studies. Yet being in a country that, generally, is traditionally more religious in public life, we've had our crash course both in the classroom and in our everyday interaction with our local counterparts. Since Islam really plays such a large part in the lives of the people I am meeting here, I will of course be referring to many of its traditions and rituals at any given point over the next few years. So here's a crash course in Ramadan, which has a slight misconception in the United States, though its general device is well enough understood.

Of course, at this point I have to clarify that the following are my own observations or are the result of conversations I have had thus far.

Ramadan is actually the name of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Its role is very much that of the Christian Lent, wherein both celebrate personal sacrifice as a way to become closer to the prophet, be he Jesus Christ or Mohammed. Ramadan does not celebrate an ultimate sacrifice on the part of Mohammed, but rather the sacrifices he made when he would often go into the desert to fast and become one with Allah, and in that manner purify himself.

Thus, Ramadan is about far more than just fasting. While fasting does occur between dawn and sunset, the purification ritual goes to such an extent that a Muslim may not ingest any substance (or in many cases allow it to even pass their lips,) and thus do not eat, drink, or even smoke during the day. For more fervent believers, they will even refuse to swallow excess spit in their mouths! They also abstain from sex during the day, due of course to certain, ahem, "fluid exchange."

According to Muslim tradition, those who have not reached puberty, any pregnant or menstruating women, and anyone who is sick or traveling considerable distance during the day is not expected to fast; in all but the first case they are, however, expected to make up that day at a later period. In most Muslim societies, laws are passed stating that any Muslim found breaking fast in public who does not meet any of the above stipulations will be punished. There is supposedly a similar law in Morocco, though I have yet to be able to confirm this with someone. Also, though non-Muslims are not expected to fast as well (and we were often invited at the start of the month to eat or drink as we wished), many people here are very thankful for those who respect the fast, because the sight of food or drink in public can be very trying and in some cases even considered to be almost taunting. Smoking in particular is considered haram, or sinful, during Ramadan and most Muslims who insisted we follow our traditional habits did ask that we try to refrain from smoking because second-hand smoke was considered to be breaking the fast. Even outside Ramadan, smoking is generally considered to be unclean and in more conservative areas people have been ostracized entirely from communities for smoking cigarettes.

In Islam, one of the five pillars of faith is prayer and submission to Allah. Muslims are expected to pray five times a day, and in general I have noticed that a good number of people go to mosque to pray at least once a day. The mudin is the man who announces the call to prayer to which Islam is also famous, and he issues the call to prayer five times a day: dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and night. Thus, the fourth call to prayer at sunset is when Muslims are allowed to break their fast, and the fifth is generally when many go to mosque. When we arrived in country, I actually barely noticed the call to prayer, but since Ramadan greatly affects my own habits, I have become more in tune with them and have, of course, learned to predict the fourth call to prayer recently due just to the position of the setting sun.

In Fez, sunset during Ramadan is marked by the firing of a large cannon, however in smaller villages all activity ceases. In older times, you had to have your ear turned towards the mosque to hear the mudin, but thankfully in modern times he is able to use a loudspeaker. Granted, cities and towns are larger and many people live further from the mosque, so at any rate either at work or at home, activity in general stops, the TV or radio is turned off and windows opened. Once the mudin begins the call to prayer with an absolutely thunderous Allahu Akbar! ("God is great!") Muslims are allowed to end their daily fast. Literally, "break fast," or as it is called here, L-ftur.

In all reality, L-ftur is a giant family free-for-all. Usually the mother will have prepared all the food well in advance and laid it out on the table, and it is not unusual for family members to chug entire drinks in the first few seconds after break fast is announced. Older family members will generally quench their thirst before going to pray and then returning to eat, but younger members dig right in. A Ramadan meal consists of lots of varieties of bread and a meat dish for the entire table to share. There is also a soup called hrra (her-rer-rah) which is kind of like tomato soup with pasta/vermicelli, chickpeas, and lentil beans, and hrra is served every night of Ramadan without fail. Today is the 26th day of Ramadan, and at this point if I see hrra ever again in my life I may be quite unhappy! There are also tmar, or dates, aplenty, and two delightful dessert dishes. One is called sfuf, and it is basically ground nougat and nuts, and has a sandy texture that lets you eat it just about however you please. My personal favorite is called shbkia (sh-bek-iya) and it starts with bits of rolled dough that are drizzled with honey and then fried, which locks the honey inside. Afterwards, it's once again drizzled with honey and topped with toasted sesame seeds.

Due to the Ramadan cycle, most Muslims will eat again close to midnight, and one more time shortly before dawn. In my current town, a man with a bugle even walks around at about three in the morning to certain sections of town to make sure people are up. I forget what he is called, but I do know that one of those places he stops is, of course, right below my window.

Even though many of us are not fasting, Ramadan still affects us in several ways. First, no cafés are open during the day, even in the big cities. Second, some people do take offense to others eating in public (more so in smaller towns which tend to be more conservative), and word will eventually get back to us via our facilitators or counterparts that we were seen. The second case is more cultural sensitivity, since when you think about it, besides sipping a beverage in public when do you usually have a full meal right in the public eye? To be nice, we do try to eat or drink indoors, and I did catch myself on the second day of Ramadan about to take a swig of water in full view of several onlookers. However, the total lack of food available during the day is maddeningly frustrating. In Fez, on the 26th day I finally broke down and went to McDonald's for lunch, but in my smaller town there is no such option. Usually, I'm forced to go a local Hanut, or convenience store, and there all I can get are sodas or water and junk food. I've had many a "lunch" consisting of a soda and a few little bags of chips which best resemble a mix between chex mix and a baked version of Andy Capp's fries.

Since I am staying with a family when I am training in my town, I have also noticed that Ramadan forces a family to be together more so than normal. Only once have I seen a family member not seated at the table waiting eagerly for L-ftur to begin. For other meals of the day, the family can sometimes follow American-style habits, such as eating in front of the TV or even in a bedroom, but for break fast the entire family eagerly comes together.

There are two other very important facets of Ramadan. The first is laila L-qadr, or "the night of power." This begins on the 26th night at sunset and lasts until the 27th morning at dawn in Morocco, though tradition in other Muslim countries has it on different days (usually an odd-numbered morning during the final week.) On laila L-qadr, it is believed among Muslims that Allah first delivered the Qur'an to Mohammed. Because of this, oftentimes men will go to the mosque to pray from sundown to sunup, and women will stay at home performing other cleansing rituals (of which one popular ritual is Hna tattooing) or bringing food to those praying at the mosque. The belief is that at the exact moment during the night when Allah delivered the Qur'an (which is hidden to everyone except for the Prophet, who never said exactly when during the night it occurred) Heaven will open up, and God will hear and grant your prayer sometime during the next year. Thus, since Muslims do not know when this exact moment will be during the night, they pray all night to ensure that their prayers are heard! The mudin also takes part, and at sunset he begins reading the Qur'an over the loudspeaker, and he must be finished reading the entire manuscript by dawn.

The other important day is Eid Sghrir (Eed Seh-hreer) or "the little feast." All months in the Islamic calendar follow the lunar cycle, so for Ramadan to have ended, the new moon must be sighted to signify the beginning of the tenth month. This will occur either on the 29th day or on the 30th, so on the 29th night every family clusters around the TV or radio to hear if the new moon has been sighted. If it has, Eid Sghrir will be begin the next morning or if not, in one day's time. During the little feast, families cook tons of food, especially sweets, and families will go to visit all of their friends and relatives. The poor also collect alms at this time by coming to knock at doors and receive food, since alms-giving is another of the five pillars of faith. This visitation can sometimes last for days as families travel to nearby cities or villages, giving thanks and sharing in the delights of food during the day.

This marks the official end of Ramadan and of the month of fasting, though the five pillars of faith are supposed to occur on a daily basis.

Although I am writing this on the 26th night/27th morning (and yes, people were out in the streets all night long banging on drums and chanting, and the area around the nearest mosque was completely swamped) I'll not be able to post it until the 29th day, so my observations of laila L-qadr will be in a separate entry.

If you are confused or disagree with any of the above (because again, these are either my observations or the result of informal discussion) please comment so we can make sure there is no confusion about so important a subject!

Internet Party!

Among the first things any astute American will look for in a foreign country is, of course, a way to feel more at home. The easiest way is usually the internet, and here in Morocco, cyber cafés outnumber people 3:1. Or at least that's the way it seems.

In all reality, there were no fewer than four "cybers" (tsee-bears) within a block of our hotel, not including the ridiculously overpriced computers near the lobby. Generally an hour of internet access anywhere in the country will cost between 4-6 dirhams, or roughly 50-75 cents. That sounds pretty cheap, at least until the first time you sit at the keyboard and realize that half of it is in Arabic, half in French.

In the United States and in many other countries, we use the QWERTY style (look left to right starting at the Q and you'll get it.) For whatever reason the French decided this was not adequate and changed a few keys around to make things more "efficient." Basically, the AZERTY style is annoying as sin. That's right, A and Q switched spots, and W and Z as well. M moves over to semi-colon, comma moves over to where M used to be, semi-colon moves to period, and period just disappears altogether. Shift+semi-colon produces period, according to the French. To you, that would be Shift+comma. Confused yet? The number keys are inversed, so now the characters above them are what you type when you hit the number keys, and you have to hold Shift to type the number. Not only that, but the exclamation point is no longer above the 1. It replaces backslash down by right Shift, and doesn't require Shift at all! And question mark moves to the left one spot, and I still haven't found apostrophe to this day.

Basically, my first experience with an AZERTY keyboard sucked. It took me fifteen minutes (15!!) to write a three sentence e-mail. The French are on crack. A month later, or at the time I'm actually writing this, I finally figured out how to change AZERTY to QWERTY, thanks to an obscure setting in Windows that has nothing at all to do with keyboard setup and instead fudges with how numbers are displayed. At this point though, I have access to internet in my house most of the time with my laptop and don't need to go to a cyber, but now I don't have to teach myself to type all over again.

Anyways, I'm pretty computer oriented and the AZERTY keyboard was a huge challenge for me. My fellow trainees? Some took one look and vowed to find wireless internet somewhere in Rabat so they could use their laptops instead. The first night I tried various portions of the hotel without much luck. The second night we struck gold. Luckily, from just about anywhere in the hotel faint wi-fi signals could be picked up, but only at about half the strength needed to surf the internet. Then one of the girls got a connection in her room to a cyber down the street, and soon over a dozen volunteers (including myself) were clustered in her room for our first real connection back with the States. So after trolling through the mdina and the Casbah, I promptly got back online to upload the first pictures I had taken to that point.

The next night, so many people had heard the myth of the wireless that they spilled out into even a nearby hallway, which itself attracted tourists and soon there was a Russian and an Italian out there with them! I didn't feel like fighting for a spot and instead went to get my camera for this spectacle. Unfortunately, on my way to my room, one of my roommates decided to try an appliance in a wall socket, and promptly blew out the fuse for the half the floor with a resounding BOOM! and flash of light from our room. In case you don't know, American appliances run on 110 volts, and everywhere else in the world appliances run on 220 volts. So if you don't have a "dual voltage" appliance, expect fireworks! By the time I got back, most folks had run out of battery and gone to bed, but...enjoy!

Some would call this addicted to the internet. I call it addicted to America!

By now it's Thursday night in Rabat, our last in the capital before moving on to Fez. Downstairs, rumors of a belly dancer had drawn a crowd, but apparently she was only the warm-up act for some dude on a keyboard singing French pop songs and I got there too late. Instead I spent most of the night up on the roof just relaxing, having forsaken exploring for time just to relax and read a book (or procrastinate attempting to learn Arabic script.)

At this point, we had spent the previous six days in a fairly large group of almost 70 people. The next day we'd be going to Fez and the SBD folks to Ourzazates, so there were some heartfelt goodbyes, because a lot of these people were our friends and the only people we knew in the country so far. The SBD group outnumbers our YD group by over 30%, so we felt that loss quite a bit.

However, the next day we would of course be going to Fez, the most spiritual city in Morocco. Concurrently, Friday, September 14 was also the first day of Ramadan. Even though no one in our group is Muslim, the overwhelming prevalence of religion in this society has dictated changes even in our lives and habits for almost a full month at this point, which I'll explain in more detail later. At the time though, none of us had a clue how it would truly affect us, and the emotions towards the start of Ramadan varied from apprehensive for those worried about the changes to excited for those trying to participate, down to apathetic for those who just went with the flow anyways, and in my case, curious.

Friday morning dawned, and by the time I awoke, the SBD folk were already gone, having faced an 8 hour bus ride compared to our just over 2 hours. I had already packed, so I simply lounged in the lobby on plush couches while my counterparts toiled madly to fit everything they had brought (read: suitcases packed to bursting) with everything we had already been given (read: to this point useless books and lots of paperwork.) Then our turn came, and we hopped on a bus that was itself packed to the seams with luggage to the extent it took up the extra seats we had.

At last, we snaked our way through Rabat, eventually leaving the coast behind and heading inland. We left a Mediterranean city that was as much the secular seat of the Moroccan government as Washington, D.C. is for us. Now, we were headed for our first true interaction with Muslim society.

Monday, October 8, 2007

First Impressions of Rabat

After being shepherded onto buses first thing after landing in Morocco, and promptly falling asleep from utter exhaustion after barely 10 minutes, we finally woke up when we hit the capital, Rabat. Stuck in traffic, I got a first glimpse of a major city, yet low-lying clouds marred any opportunities for a decent picture of the overall city. What I did see were large concrete buildings, but they followed the general example of the outskirts to Casablanca - modern, but nothing over about four stories tall. The European influence was also easy to notice, with traffic circles every few blocks at major intersections. One interesting note, is that traffic lights are amazingly difficult to spot, and pedestrian lights almost never function. So here, when someone says they had to "dodge traffic" to walk somewhere, odds are they were not exaggerating in the slightest.

But more on Moroccan traffic later. It deserves its own subject!

We had come to Rabat for our in-country introduction to the Peace Corps. Ahead of us were lectures, forms, and vaccinations, all sitting in our way of exploring one of the few cities anyone outside of this country has heard of. After all, the song "Rock the Casbah" literally refers to the Casbah that was about a 20 minute walk from our hotel!

Our first stop was at the Peace Corps Morocco headquarters. Apparently, we're the first group that has ever had the honor of dropping by the Rabat office after arriving in-country. It was indeed a very nice compound, but we're all haggard in our business clothes, and after being greeted by the staff in their flip flops, jeans, or traditional Moroccan dress, the embers of hatred for our misinformed directions in Philadelphia were seen blazing in the eyes of many, including myself. Well, the Country Director was in a perfect suit at least, so we weren't entirely out of place. He gave us a nice speech about why we had come to Morocco in the first place, and then we were set loose to explore the compound for a bit. A few of us got a nice and lengthy (but not lengthy enough!) look at the map which showed where every single volunteer in the country is stationed. Since we had arrived on 9/11, there was a quick ceremony and then we were herded back onto the bus. Frankly, the visit was nice, but as tired as I was I almost could have cared less. Except for the map of course!

After checking in to our hotel, we went straight into a safety briefing. Ironically, while the Embassy security officer is up front telling us all the statistics, interjected with the occasional "by the way, Morocco is entirely safe, so enjoy yourselves," other Peace Corps staff are horrified off to the side and looking worried that now we're going to go down some dark alleyways with shady tour guides and get knifed on our first night in the country. By the way, at this point I should probably mention that we're in a swanky hotel in a nice part of town, yet everybody wants to go to the mdina, the oldest part of the city, or down to the old harbor and the Casbah, the old Muslim fortress.

Once our briefing is over and the first absurd load of paperwork handed out, everyone immediately makes for the cameras, fanny packs, and dummy wallets. We're all tired as sin, but this was our first opportunity to explore, and we would not be denied. I made it out for a few minutes but decided that since we had a few more nights, I was going to get some rest. One of the others made it as far as the mdina, and reported back that it was a sight to behold. Over a Moroccan/English style buffet of crispy boiled/baked potatoes, what we think is lamb or beef, chicken, and a few other unidentifiable vegetables, my response was "food and sleep now, pickpocket country later!"

The next day was chock full of shots, medical information sessions, and the like, but that's all boring. You're here to learn about the mdina. Okay, so the mdina (translated, it means "city" and is pronounced medina, like the actual city in Saudi Arabia) is essentially a decently sized portion of the city that looks as old as it feels. Instead of white washed concrete buildings, you get yellow, sand-blasted stone that's piled sturdily yet unconvincingly in many buildings. The main streets are big enough for cars though there are few, with the side streets only large enough for people or the occasional wagon or buggy. Shops and food stands line both sides of every street, with the vendors selling everything from baked goods to clothes to toys to books, and even one electronics store. Carts full of tourist items line the middle and sometimes are even clustered in front of the shops, and a few sold food such as dates, fish, or butchered meat.

Our first report of the mdina had it so crowded that on my own first visit, I was petrified of bringing my camera, especially as it was near dusk. Boy, did I miss out, because I didn't get back there while I was in Rabat.

We continued on to the other side near the coastline, and after passing through a giant cemetary, we came to the ruins of the old harbor just as the sun is setting over the ocean. There was no beach proper, but the pockmarked cliffs were easy to climb and many of us ended up getting down to near the points where waves were gently crashing onto the rock. There are a few great pictures on somebody else's camera that I'm quite envious of right now. Nearby, an old lighthouse is warming up, and local kids are finishing their football (yes, I will be calling soccer football, and using American football for our version) games on impromptu courts on the cement pavilions lining the street.

Much of the group was pining to get to the Casbah, which we eventually found on the other side of the cemetary. We entered through a giant doorway, which itself was built in the Arab style, with a pointed and flared arch. As it was getting dark, we didn't go very far into the Casbah because now it is a largely residential area, and a dozen Americans looked pretty out of place on small streets that were rapidly emptying. Our intrepid tour guide nearly got us lost, but being the human road map that I am I got us back to the mdina and from there everyone knew where they were going.

It was quite the adventure, and at first glance, Rabat minded me very much of what you might expect in a Mediterranean city, though it's actually on the Atlantic coast. No towering buildings (apart from the minarets of the mosques,) very well planned, and clearly meant to be an attraction in and of itself. We did pass other tourists, and thanked the stars that we didn't stand out nearly as much as they did. I do have pictures, but as it's past midnight and I'm changing sites again tomorrow, they will have to wait a few days. There are more stories from Rabat, but this is all I have time for right now!