When people ask me if I work with associations (the Moroccan term for NGOs or service oriented organizations), I generally say yes. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco this implies that I work closely with the associations’ leadership to plan and implement projects. Have I done this (yet)? Nope. What I mean when I say I’ve worked with associations is that I have essentially been their private, amateur, iPhone-wielding photographer since arriving in site. In my experience, and I think most other Peace Corps Volunteers in Morocco will agree, Moroccans love pictures. They love taking pictures, they love being in pictures, they love showing you their pictures. They also love a critical mass of pictures. At the first event I covered I initially took about 50 pictures. I thought that would be more than enough. When the association president asked me for a progress report and I told him how many pictures I’d taken, he seemed slightly disappointed and just told me to take more. From what I’ve gathered 300 seems to be the target number. It really doesn’t matter if you take nearly the same one four or five times in a row. It’s the mass that’s important. Sometimes it even feels like the pictures of an event eclipse the event itself in importance. (Thankfully in Morocco, this is just how it feels sometimes. In Qatar it is the unmitigated reality.)
So, in the spirit of the Moroccan love of pictures, but with a dislike of the sheer number I usually have to take, I am beginning a series of posts: photographs of my town. It will be comprised of posts containing only a single picture with a brief description. The pictures will vary in subject but not in setting: all will come from within the confines of my town. It will also be the first time I utilize Tumblr’s apparently useful although not-so-unique tagging feature. Whenever I post in this series, I will tag it with the tag “photosfromatownclosetoAgadir”. (The Peace Corps won’t let me mention the name of my site, which would be the natural and obvious choice for a tag name, in this blog.) Then, for people not used to Tumblr and other forms of social media, whenever you want to see only posts from the series, you can click on the tag and it will show only posts that I have tagged with that tag. I have tagged this post with the tag so that it serves as a launching off point. The first first real post will follow shortly, mostly so I can make sure the whole tag thing is working properly.
Dear Reader, (I feel like Frank Underwood in House of Cards addressing the camera. Great show by the way. I’ve currently just started season 2 and it’s really making the whole Ramadan experience a little more pleasant/do-able. Oh man I’m off track before I’ve even begun). Anyway, Dear Reader: this is a long post. Probably too long. That being said, it encompasses an entire month of my life. An important one. One that will probably end up being one of the most unique I’ve ever experienced: Ramadan.
Never before has my life revolved so tightly around food. This may seem strange as I have been, currently am, and will be fasting for the entire month of Ramadan (this year falling between June 28 and July 28). Fasting for Ramadan means abstaining from food and water (and gum and chap stick, among other things) for the entire day, from the morning prayer (Al-Fajr) at 4:00 am until the sunset prayer (Al-Maghreb) at about 7:45 pm. So why does my life revolve around food when I’m not eating any? Throughout the day, my mind continually strays to food. Somehow, I cannot seems to internalize the fact that I am fasting. Every few minutes or so I think to myself in all seriousness, “I should get a drink of water” or “I should grab a snack” only to remember, “wait a second, I can’t”. When I nap in the afternoon, more often than not I dream of accidentally eating or drinking. By the time breaking the fast rolls around, I’ve been waiting for it with such intensity that I’m usually disappointed when its over. Like Christmas during childhood, the excitement of the wait eclipses the event. But I hardly have a minute to lose wallowing in my disappointment (and extreme fullness). I only have 7 hours before morning prayer and the beginning of the next day’s fast and therefore have to start chugging water like it’s my job. Despite how full I am, I know that if I fail to drink at least 3 liters of water between 8:30 and 3:30, I will have bigger problems in the morning. There is nothing worse than waking up thirsty, knowing you cannot drink anything for the next 8 hours.
The best part of Ramadan, breaking fast with families in my town, is also the primary barrier to night-time water consumption. Generosity and hospitality, already operating at a high level in Morocco, skyrocket during Ramadan. As a result, I’ve only broken fast by myself twice. Unfortunately, the majority of these families (read: mothers) seem to see it as their sole purpose in life to make my stomach explode with their food… in a good way. And it’s hard to drink a lot of water with an exploded stomach. I’m not complaining though. As I mentioned earlier, this is definitely the best part of Ramadan. It’s the ultimate communal experience. At 7:30 we gather around the table waiting for the call to prayer. The food is laid out and everything is ready. The moment we hear the call to prayer we start. But I am not only sharing this meal, this moment with one family (which is special in and of itself). I am also sharing it with everyone in the entire town, in all of Morocco for that matter, everyone beginning at exactly the same instant. And I am doing it for 30 days straight.
But let’s be serious. It’s also the best part of Ramadan because the food is delicious and plentiful. Every family pretty much eats the same thing every day. First, per tradition, one date. Then harira. Harira is a traditional Moroccan soup and fantastically, because I love variety, every cook makes it differently. So even though I know I am going to eat harira, I don’t know exactly what it will include. Basically, harira is a tomato based soup with some form of grain (rice or pasta) and some form of bean (lentils or chick peas). There are definitely onions and cilantro. It’s definitely spiced with pepper. Other than that the varieties are limitless. Some people add other grains like oats; some people add more vegetables like zucchini or celery; some people add other spices like safron, tumeric, cumin (probably, shrug); sometimes its not tomato based at all but milk-based; and, best of all, some people stew it with meat. Not a lot, but enough to give it some serious flavor. It’s delicious. After the harira comes more dates; a Moroccan pastry called shubekia, which is essentially fried dough in flowery shapes with lots of honey and sesame seeds; cake and assorted pastries; a delicious concoction called slilou which is ground up almonds, peanuts, and maybe sesame seeds with a tiny bit of oil and some sugar; and tea and coffee. Then, it’s on to the fried fish or hard-boiled eggs sometimes accompanied by juice. Sometimes there’s salad. Sometimes there’s bastila (savory pastries stuffed with a chicken, tomato, onion mixture). Needless to say, that usually, I am literally painfully full after this meal, making it hard to drink lots of water afterward.
One mitigating factor in the endless battle with inevitable dehydration: my sleep schedule. If you have been paying close attention, you will have realized that my sleep schedule closely resembles that of a raccoon. As is customary, I go to bed somewhere between 3:30 and 4:00 am after eating for the last time before the fast starts. I wake up anytime between 11:00 at the earliest and 1:30, like today. I also sometimes manage to squeeze in a mid-afternoon nap. So, all in all, my fasting day is really a only about 7-9 hours long. This maybe runs contrary to Islamic guidelines which tell Muslims to adhere to their normal routines. But when in Morocco, do as the Moroccans do, and as far as I can tell a wake-up time somewhere between 11:00-1:00 is average.
So far, it actually hasn’t been as hard as I expected. I am prone to dehydration but I haven’t felt nauseous, had a headache, or really exhibited the tell-tale signs of dehydration yet. My late night water-guzzling seems to be paying off. So far I haven’t actually had to work, in the traditional sense, which makes it easier. But, really, I consider fasting part of my job. (Which in itself is very strange. I cannot think of another job of which the duties include not eating or drinking during the sun-lit hours for a 30 day period between new-moons.) But if my primary goal during the first three to six months at site is integration, which they tell me it is, then there is currently no better way for me to achieve that goal than to fast. More people have asked me into their houses to eat with them in the last 15 days than the first 60; I put in face time with my community every day at the month-long Ramadan soccer tournament; and I have much more time to hang out with the youth of my community during the post-breakfast street hangouts that occur daily from 8:30 pm to 2:00 am. In fact I haven’t really experienced such a vibrant community-wide nightlife since my childhood summers when our entire block would congregate for after-dinner games of kick-the-can, capture-the-flag, and other activities with hyphenated names.
But despite having convinced myself that fasting, watching soccer, and hanging out with the youth of my town constitutes work, I actually had work today: my first solo summer-camp effort. Not exactly a resounding success, but through no fault of mine: turns out no one really wants to attend a camp during the middle of summer when they can’t eat or drink anything. But a few younger kids did come and we played some fun games like Ninja and Indian Chief, we did weird ice-breakers like Cabeza (Spanish language Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes with a loud, raucous twist), and I taught them some English with some drawing mixed in. I think they had fun. But fasting had never been so hard. By the end I was exhausted. But not in a refreshing way. Not the kind of pleasant exhaustion you get after an intense workout or even a long, busy day. It was a dull, achy, pervasive tiredness. I didn’t make me want to sleep. I’d woken up at noon and it was only 5:30. But I could tell it was an exhaustion from which I wasn’t going to catch a second wind. All I wanted to do was go home, lie down, and listen to some music. So badly. That feeling is the hardest part of Ramadan: not the hunger and thirst themselves but the dull yet constant exhaustion caused by lack of food and water and characterized primarily by minimum productivity and lack of motivation. It’s so hard to do anything worthwhile when the moment I wake up I feel like lying back down and falling asleep. Reading books: difficult to concentrate for more than a few pages but I’ve finished a couple books; Writing: this is the first time since Ramadan began that I have; Studying language: I gave up a while ago; Exercise: hahaha. So much easier to zone out, put on an episode of House of Cards or some music, and drift away, trying to distract myself until I can eat again.
I have actually been enjoying Ramadan quite a lot so far. We’re about a week from the end and it has started to wear on me but there really is no experience like it: The breaking of the fast, the late night hang-outs, and, most rewarding, the look on someone’s face when I tell him I’m fasting (even if an invitation to come pray at the mosque often follows): there’s a second of speechlessness when all he registers is happy surprise, a bemused grin creeping onto his face. In that second, I see him recognize that I truly respect his religion and culture, that I am actively trying to become a part of his community. And, recognizing my respect, he reciprocates.
People here like to ask me “wallifti, wela mazal?” This means “did you get used to it or not yet?” I’m never sure how to answer that question. When will I have fully gotten used to it? Will I ever fully get used to it?
I’ve been meaning to post for a while now. A lot’s happened since I last did: I finished three months of training; spent a week preparing for site departure in Rabat; got officially sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer (by John Kerry!); arrived at site; and have spent about a month here meeting people, living with a new host family, finding a house, trying to get a work permit, starting work at the local Dar Chebab (youth center), and generally acclimating to life in my town (a small village about 30 minutes southeast of Agadir).
I could have posted about any one of these experiences. It’s not lack of material that’s been preventing me from writing something up. It’s an inability to accurately reflect on those experiences and fit them into a coherent narrative. My life as it is right now (i.e. being the only foreigner/non-Moroccan/non-native speaker living in this town, knowing I will be the only foreigner/non-Moroccan/non-native speaker living in this town for two full years, and speaking Arabic all day to everyone) differs so dramatically from anything I have ever done before that when I try to step outside myself and look at it, I can barely recognize it, let alone observe it, understand it, and write about it. Sometimes it’s hard to believe, like when you wake up from a dream and can’t yet decide if it was real of not. Sometimes it’s all too real and the immensity of my commitment hits me like a punch in the gut. And sometimes it inspires that giddy feeling I got in 6th grade when that girl I liked talked to me. In those moments I pity my alternate self who did not choose to join the Peace Corps. It’s different every day. All I can do right now is take it as it comes and get used to it as much as I can.
But I’m getting there. I’ve started teaching a few English classes and hopefully will be starting a music class soon, I have been helping out a local NGO with some of it’s projects, and today I am moving out of my host family’s house and into a place of my own. Most importantly my mood swings are no longer like those of my 6th grade self and more like those of my 12th grade self. Still in the midst of adolescence, but it’s progress! I’m confident that pretty soon, when people ask me, I will be able to tell them, “Iyah, wallift bzaaf,” “yes, I’ve gotten used to it.”