Quinn in Boston– the RPCV Files

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It’s like being a senior citizen– meeting up with fellow RPCVs in any situation inevitability turns into reminiscing about the good ol’ days of bartering in rural markets, struggling through the learning curves of an obscure foreign language, laughing at the culture shock experienced while re-assimilating into American culture, recalling with fondness our Turkish toilets….the venn diagram of PCV experience has quite the large overlay.

And thank god! It’s a lovely mug of steaming comfort to know that, no matter where I go, there is a group of people who, like me, also went through a strange and wonderful 27( plus or minus) month experience in a remote part of the world. I’ve thought about this quite frequently lately, as just a week or two ago was my six (6!!!!!) month mark of being back in America. Within those six months, Mustapha and I have checked quite a few things off of “the” list. We traveled to Ohio for my brother’s wedding. Then Mustapha and I got legally married. I got a job. Mustapha took English classes. We took a trip to the beach. We got married again (a big fun party wedding). We drove from Atlanta to Boston for our big move. I started graduate school. Mustapha started work. See collage below for photographic evidence of the diversity of experiences (although I to admit there’s a disproportionate emphasis on holy matrimony….)

And now, here we are, settled in (kinda– we’re moving to our upstairs and final apartment tomorrow) and wondering what adventures we will find at our feet tomorrow. With change and newness being the only constants in our lives, I was so freaking excited to read about a get-together for “new” Boston RPCVs yesterday evening. It’s a rarity for me, but for once, I actually had pretty exciting plans for a Friday night.

In the spirit of my entire Peace Corps service, the simple journey to a RPCV happy hour turned adventurous in an unintentional way. I left my house and trekked over to the bar where the happy hour was happening. The bar was PACKED! I walked around a bit, trying to figure out which group of random people were the RPCVs. It was a great conversation starter– “Are you guys the RPCVS?” “The VCRS?!” “No, the Peace Corps volunteers?” “The WHAT?” Bars, in general, are great backdrops for effective human communication– especially when you’re speaking in acronyms! I felt like a rhyming elf, hopping around from group to group with a really freaking weird riddle. I wanted to play it cool, though, so to blend in, I purchased a beer. I just pointed to an IPA on tap and asked for a closed tab. Turns out I have expensive taste– I selected an 8 dollar beer. Oh Athens bars with your cheap prices, how I miss thee! After about 10 minutes with said trust-fund beer in my hand (and a lot of dead-end conversations with random people), I caved and re-checked the event information. Turns out, I had the location 100% correct and the time 100% wrong. There was a backyard potluck happening at an RPCV’s house prior to the happy hour. With that realization, I stopped pretending to be this cool, confident girl who didn’t seem to care she was at a bar by herself, left my pretty-much-untouched-but-still-freaking-expensive-and-not-as-delicious-as-a-burrito-that-also-costs-eight-freaking-bucks and followed the yellow brick road known as Google Maps (yet another thing that got popular while I was playing in the sands of Morocco) to my destination.

Well, turns out the guy’s house was a whole 1.5 minute walk away from my apartment. The bar with the pricey beers was about 15 minutes away in the opposite direction. Ugh. But the event was great– lots of people, good food, and free Peace Corps swag. Like I said, it is always great to get together with people and not feel like you need to censor yourself when a story has a really good segue to witnessing a sheep slaughter. Or that time your host family dressed you up and paraded you around town and negotiated several marriage offers. You know, things like that.

"That one time I rode a camel down the beach"

“That one time I rode a camel down the beach”

Sometimes, in the excitement of applying to Peace Corps, waiting for Peace Corps, and being in Peace Corps, you forget about the fact that most of your life will happen before and after Peace Corps. I for one had only a vague notion of a life post-Peace Corps. But here I am– existing. Some of the coolest things about it?

Peace Corps friends are seriously friends for life (or at least, we’ve made it past the first 6+ months). It was ahhmmaazzziinnnggg to dance the night away in a wedding hall in Athens, GA with my fellow Darija mujtahidin. It felt like we were back in Morocco again– except this time we were clean! And our hair was brushed! And we were wearing new clothes that none of us had ever seen before! Some of the fancier RPCVs among us even rented cars (it’s still strange in my mind to picture any of us behind the wheel). We met for morning coffee at this great cafe where two people had pet dogs….pure magic to be in the context of America together. We then got to stay with Lauren + Justin on our way to Boston and hang out with Bryant, and now that we’re here, I’ve gotten to see several other PCVs from different groups in Morocco. One “sighting” occurred at an outdoor food festival, another happened on the subway. NUTS. and WONDROUS!

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The other great thing? Being outside of Peace Corps, you remember that not everyone has done Peace Corps. In general, I’ve found that PC Muggles view any time spent in the Peace Corps as this mythical being that only really special (and perhaps slightly crazy) people do with their lives. They think it’s interesting, that it’s different, and that it’s really incredible. Because it is! Objectively, leaving your entire life behind for two years because you want to put yourself into a situation where you might be able to help others and taking the time to understand and (attempt to) assimilate completely into another culture to do it effectively….that’s amazing. I often forget this myself, mainly because the memory of soaking in a bucket of water for the duration of summer is still fresh in my mind, but it’s nice to let yourself be reminded of it occasionally.

Mustapha once told me that during one of his trainings, their session leader instructed them about how to make an impression. The take-away idea is that you should always introduce yourselves with your name followed by something memorable. Friday morning– the same day as the ill-fated RPCV potluck– I got to hear the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, talk a bit about the state of US education. Afterwards, I may or may not have barreled through a crowd of CIA-looking men for a chance to talk to good ol’ Arne. When I finally got to shake hands with him, I kinda just blurted out– “My name is Sarah, and I just got back from serving in Peace Corps Morocco. It’s an honor to be working with the US education system again.” Based on the look on his face in this photo, I’d say he thought that was pretty damn awesome. The guy behind him thinks so too.

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So that’s where I am now, my faithful readers. Mentally, I’m still transitioning out of Morocco and Peace Corps, the central part of my identity for 2.5 years. Physically, my feet are firmly planted in Boston as I run full speed ahead through a master’s degree. I honestly don’t find the Quinn in Boston to be half as interesting as the Quinn in Morocco, but I’m sure there will be occasional tidbits tossed into the blogosphere along the way. After all, it’s really hard not to want to share (enthusiastically) with people when I see a Moroccan restaurant, or I hear a conversation in Darija on the T, or I spot a tajine on a shelf in a butcher shop. I’ve also accepted the fact that I’m intertwined with Morocco for the rest of my life…till death do us part and all that. So, cheers to that, and to all of the lovely people who are in my life just because of Peace Corps.

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كول صلي آ حب…و كول (Eat, Pray, Love…and Eat!)

One of the many things I admire and love about author Elizabeth Gilbert— particularly in Eat, Pray, Love— is her ability to write about really profound experiences and transformations in a self-aware (without the deprecation), funny, and profound way. There’s no preaching, and the writing is just so damn good you keep reading and absorbing vast amounts of information without feeling like you’re in science class. She’s a master at the art of crafting a story out of life (which, after attempting to do in this blog for 2.5 years, I can assure you is nothing short of neuroscience). Yep, it’s just you and your new hip BFF Liz chatting about ashrams in India and striking a balance within your life…all while gorging on a massive dish of fresh mozzarella and succulent olives. A novel about the latter two edible items would be Pulitzer material on it’s own, in my opinion, but Glibert reaches for the stars and goes beyond just satisfying the stomach.

…as did Morocco. Over the past 2.5 years, I’ve my own experiences with eating, praying, and loving (and eating) here in Morocco. Now, a little over 1 week into America and officially an RPCV (returned Peace Corps volunteer), I’m still searching for the right way to present it in written or any other type of form. My Arabic was comically inadequate for expressing anything beyond “I sad to leave! Yes, very!” to my fellow Moroccans, and, even in English,  someone who hasn’t been here in my brain for the duration won’t have the context to fill in the gaps. SO. I figured I would send out this thank-you letter to the universe in hopes that positive energy not only exists, but that it will be able to find its way to the people who have changed my life during my time here in Morocco. This is also a way to express on my own terms to the world what Morocco has meant to me. And don’t worry— food gets its own section.

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Thank you, Morocco, for teaching me patience. You are a country that is too post-modern (post-something, at least) to be concerned with a task like waiting in a line. How in-the-box! You have revealed to me the delicious half-day adventure that is delivering a letter to the post office. I had no idea such an activity involved tea at a stranger’s house and politely dodging curbside conversion attempts. Whenever I would get frustrated in my huffy little American way about time, you would laugh at me. “Hey, Ms. Art Degree, when are you going to get creative? What is time, anyways– didn’t you do a performance piece on that?” My hours waiting for students to show up to classes turned into good ol’ fashioned thinking time. I’ve spent the better half of a day contemplating donkey unions and the gender-dynamics of coffee shops. Whenever I would get too carried away in the outcomes of projects, you would send me gentle reminders (or punches to the gut) about how important the process is rather than, well, whatever it is I thought was so important. Numbers? Statistics? Oh, Morocco, that’s not what you want me to learn or remember about my time here. You’ve encouraged me to sip my coffee, savor my food, ask the extra questions, read the additional chapter, and soak in the hours of doing nothing. That part in EPL where Liz sits down with an Italian newspaper (and a massive breakfast) every morning and has the time to read it in its entirety while circling and learning new words? That’s me, minus understanding the Arabic written in newspapers. I believe in Italy it’s called la dolce fare niente– the art of doing nothing. Here in Morocco, there’s no expression for it. “It” is the nature of existence in itself.

Thank you, Morocco, for giving me so much delicious food! Fresh juices, savory and sweet tajines, hot couscous on Fridays, sweet chebekiya and dates for Ramadan, rich white harira in the mornings, rafisa as my new comfort food, an abundance of fruits and vegetables grown down the street from me, thick crusty bread baked every morning, meats and spices and dried goods…all at my fingertips (as they shove these delicious things into my mouth). There were also stomachs, brains, intestines, cows’ feet, liver, eyeballs, head, and tongue…never have I eaten so much non-mysterious meat in my life (brains and feet are pretty true to their assumed form). It’s not just delicious food, though, that I need to thank you for, Morocco—it’s tasty food and a culture that values taking time to prepare and enjoy it. When else will I essentially have a mandated 2-3 hour lunch break daily? And the encouragement to finish up the last bit of my second breakfast? Morocco, you may have nurtured my soul, sure, but there is absolutely no question about my body.

Thank you, Morocco, for your complexity. Studying Buddhism in college taught me the basics of labels, the constructs we use to identify and categorize that actually, in fact, limit their inherent complexity. Preach, brotha Buddha. The worst question someone can ask me about Morocco is “How was it?” I have to boil down the most ridiculous 2.5 years of my life into a simple adjective. I can use the word “good” and be just as equally descriptive (and still honor the essence of my time in Morocco) if I instead say “horrible.” It was a waste if time, but it was also the best decision I made in my life. It was a hopeless glimpse into the world of development and international aid that, paradoxically, has given me a lot of hope. It made me cringe at organized religion while somehow renewing my interest in it. It was the best of times, it was the w….alright, you get it. I’d like to say that these (upwards of 50) shades of gray have made me a little more empathetic, a little less quick to make snap judgements about the things I think I know. Morocco is quite “in-between” right now: in between Europe and Africa, in between the internet and the mountains, in between Arab and Berber, in between education and unemployment, in between religion and secularism…it’s an interesting time to be in this awakening country.

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Thank you, Morocco, for your humor. Any country that produces someone like Abdellah Ferkous is going to be a good one, right? When I was first assigned to the Marrakech region, people told me that Marrakchi people are famous for their sense of humor. They had no idea. Marrakchi people love to laugh; they speak in these exaggerated, loud voices that are the audial equivalent of peacocks waving their tails around (and they’re just as colorful). It’s honestly just as funny to be listening to the voices as it is to be understanding what’s being said (which happened for me once or twice). I was lucky to be placed somewhere that understood sarcasm and irony, where inflections of tone and wild contortions of the face get laughs and respect. The flipside is that, well, being the white chicken I am, everything I did was inherently funny. Morocco, thanks for lessening my stuffy self-awareness. You watched me dance like a monkey every single day, explaining to people that “YES, I do speak Arabic!” and “No, I’m not married yet!” over and over and over. And don’t even get me started about how much people liked making me actually dance. Weddings, women-parties, and basically any time the men weren’t around, the second-favorite activity (first place obviously is a tie between eating and watching soap operas) was turning up the beats, wrapping a scarf around my waist, and falling over laughing from watching me attempt at shaking my hips. Between me and the Marrakechis, there was plenty to laugh about.

Thank you, Morocco, for helping me find love. It was an honor to serve for 2.5 years with the Peace Corps Morocco community, the people who became my closest friends. It was love at first site with my CBT group, that fatefully haphazard group of 5 human beings at completely different points in their respective lives who were somehow, in every single way, soulmates. I fell in love again with Tameslouht, my home away from home, a city that prefers dirt roads with a killer view of the Atlas mountains to any semblance of Westernization. My village introduced me to a community of absolutely lovely people; a kind postman who would chase me down in the streets to hand-deliver me packages and letters, two coffee shop owners who would probably have let me drink coffee on credit for two years if I asked, two mul hanuts by my house who never questioned the fact that I bought chocolate and diet coke from them about 5 times every week, the ladies running the public bath who would give me free soap and squeal over my pathetically white skin that would become pink at the slightest scrub, the students who came to my English classes despite me not having any sort of grasp on English grammar, the little girls who would race across the street to kiss me even though I had never met them before in my life, the women artisans who defined my second year of work and filled my time with creativity, and a great group of friends who invited me over to their houses, helped me with work, and made me feel like part of the family. I also, of course, found l-o-v-e love: my weird, wickedly intelligent, passionate, kind, and lovely counterpart in-life-and-in-Peace Corps. Oh, my, what a journey it’s been with all of this lovin’.

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It’s been my pleasure keeping a blog and writing about my time in Morocco, hoping that the world gets to know this country in a slightly more intimate (and less touristy) capacity. I still haven’t decided what to do with it now that I’m no longer a Quinn in Morocco– suggestions are much appreciated! In the meantime, send a moment of thanks to this strange and beautiful country that I had the honor of eating, praying, and loving in.

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“When a Storyteller Dies, a Library Burns”

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Several months into dating, Mustapha and I were sitting in a cafe that overlooks Jemaa El Fna. We were chatting about our lives, our families, our parents…and he casually mentioned that his dad worked as a storyteller in Jemaa El Fna. Coke spurting out of nose ensued. “What?!!! How has this never come up before?? That’s awesome!!!” My enthusiasm, of course, was regarded with that look I’ve gotten to know so well here– when I get excited about something in Moroccan culture that is not, in fact, worth a second thought to my Moroccan brethren. Other such moments include seeing the mountains on a clear day (“Sarah, those are there all the time….”), having a really delicious meal (“This ol’ thing? It only took me three hours to make. Stop fussing.”), or hearing that someone served as Brad Pitt’s translator during a movie filming in Morocco (“Yeah, whatever, he was pretty boring.”). Celebrities in particular elicit very little excitement from, well, pretty much everyone except me; apparently here, celebrities really can just sit at a cafe and carry on a normal life without being bothered by anyone. Having a legitimately famous father also falls under this category.

Ahmed Ezzarghani, also known as “Hajj”, is quite a guy. At the age of 7, he left his home and invested in a small cafe cart. For my western audiences, this is not the equivalent of a hip food cart– this is literally a put of coffee strapped to a heater that you carry around and pour into cups for people waiting at bus stops. Travel was a perk of the job, allowing little Hajj to travel around the Marrakech area to all of the weekly markets and sell his coffee. This is where the magic happened.

Being around the souk crowd, Hajj obviously met a ton of people. He also soaked up the stories of his country. Anecdotes, proverbs, religious texts, historical battles, traditional fables– it all intrigued him so much that he began to seek out the professional storytellers to learn more. At this time– the 1940s and 1950s– and probably through the 1980s, storytellers were abundant and well-loved in Morocco. They regaled audiences with their tales, embodying a spirit more aligned with theater than anything else out of today’s world. These were the entertainers of the day, drawing large audiences for hours in public squares and street corners. The tradition was rich, the crowds were ever-expanding, and these storytellers traveled to almost every imaginable city in Morocco.

This is Meknes in the 1950s. It has nothing to do with this story except that it's Morocco in the 1950s.

This is Meknes in the 1950s. It has nothing to do with this story except that it’s Morocco in the 1950s.

Hajj joined them. He spent years pouring over traditional texts and engaging in the nuances of each story. I wouldn’t say that he learned or memorized them as much as he embodied them, taking the poetry, rhythm, and story line of each tale and creating his own unique piece. There are several volumes of books that storytellers would learn at this time– many of the books have origins in the Middle East, but some of them are purely Moroccan as well. Hajj traveled to Rabat and then onto Fes, where he became famous for his stories. Ministers of the king would invite him to their houses , crowds would gather en mass every night to listen and watch the Hajj. After decades in Fes, it was time to return to his home– Marrakech– and take over Jemaa El Fna.

Years passed and Jemaa El Fna shifted. It became louder, busier, more touristy. Traditional storytellers found themselves shouting their stories to be heard, and crowds slowly decreased as their attentions found TV, cellphones, and the internet. Newer “storytellers” coming into Jemaa El Fna didn’t engage in the same brand of historic, religious, and artistic stories, favoring instead the instantaneous pleasure of dirty jokes and slapstick humor. Hajj and his fellow artists began to leave Jemaa El Fna in favor of other work and, in some cases, retirement.

The Hajj I met 2 years ago was comfortably enjoying his time running a cafe in town. For a man in his 70s, he is still energetic and conniving, repeating the day’s events to his family with the same facial expressions and hand gestures that I’m sure he employed in Jemaa El Fna. He’s the kind of guy where, when you learn that he was a master storyteller, everything suddenly makes a little more sense. Sometimes, in fact, gaining this tidbit of knowledge helps get a force in motion.

My dear friend Melissa stopped over for L’3id this year. She met the Hajj and, upon hearing his story, put together a quick proposal: storytelling and teaching at the almost-newly-opened Cafe Clock in Marrakech. It would be a celebration of the tradition, with Hajj performing his stories, and a preservation/ revitalization at the same time, enlisting several young Moroccans to study under Hajj and absorb the trade. Melissa worked tirelessly to recruit several young Moroccans with extensive language arsenals and put them together with the Hajj. The goal? In 6 weeks, these “apprentices” would learn traditional stories and storytelling from the Hajj and would perform the traditional hikayat in English as an opening event for the Marrakech Biennale. In other words, high stakes for all involved.

The three original apprentices– Oussama, Sarah, and Malika– committed hard from the beginning. They spent every Sunday with the Hajj for several hours, and then requested additional meetings on Thursday mornings to practice their English renditions of traditional stories. Oussama chose a story about how a fisherman’s strange catch acts as a catalyst for revenge; Sarah selected the tale about the gherreba water-seller in Marrakech, and how his honesty in the face of jealousy lead to a great reward; Malika went out on a limb and told a story about how women are trickier than men. For weeks, these three worked to perfect not only their English renditions of the stories, but also their body language and storytelling.

This past Thursday, the apprentices and Hajj got together for Cafe Clock’s opening event. Richard Hamilton, the author of The Last Storytellers, was present as well for opening remarks and book signings. In his research years ago, he felt a certain pessimism with the dying art of storytelling, quoting “when a storyteller dies, a library burns.” This statement accurately measures the depth of loss that Marrakech and Morocco are facing as they turns away from the art of storytelling. Once Hajj took the stage, I think it resonated with everyone in attendance just how much we stand to lose by not preserving the tradition. The portion of the audience without Arabic skills remained as enraptured as those who could understand the Hajj. It was truly beautiful watching the master shape and mold his craft.

The apprentices shone as well. Malika, Oussama, and Sarah– in that order– each told the best version of their respective stories that I’ve heard thus far.

Hajj closed with another story of his own, and, when a gnaoua band took the stage after him, he transitioned from song to dance.

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As a step for storytelling preservation, this is a significant one. The problems faced by Morocco’s storytellers are rendered null and void in Cafe Clock Marrakech, where those who come are seeking out the tradition. Cell phones, TVs, and other distractions are put on hold in order to witness living history in all of its energetic wonder. It’s one of the best “youth development” projects I’ve been involved with over the past 2.5 years. If you’re in Marrakech and are wanting to check Hajj and the apprentices out for yourself, they will be performing every Thursday from 5-7pm at Cafe Clock.

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If only all philanthropy was this simple…

Three weeks left in Morocco and I have a final request for all of you lovely and dedicated blog followers: one click to help Mushmina, a fair trade company based in Philadelphia, secure a $25,000 small business grant. Mushmina works with women artisans here in Morocco, so by helping them develop and expand their reach, more women here in Morocco will be benefited. I know, this sounds a little too simple to be true. And I feel ya– if i’ve learned anything in 2.5 years in Morocco, it’s that nothing is that easy. But this time it really is!

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A returned Peace Corps volunteer from Morocco, Heather, started a business with her sister Katie. Inspired by the artisans Heather worked with here (sound familiar?) and the sisters’ travels across the globe, they formed Mushmina. This fair trade company works directly with artisans to create absolutely beautiful, unique, and hip accessories and clothing. They’re very involved in the creation process; Heather actually lives here in Morocco and meets with individual artisans as well as collectives to source, design, and get to know the creators. This year, they opened the Flying Camel Women’s Training Center in Oued Zem. This center provides literacy classes as well as design basics for aspiring women artisans.

Heather has been a spectacular help in my general futz-ing around with the artisans here in Tameslouht. Mushmina has sourced several handira pillows and blankets from the women here, always with saint-like patience and understanding regarding the flexibility of deadlines. Additionally, Heather helped out at the artisans’ summer camp a few months ago. She and Kenza, a lovely artisan from Oued Zem, led a session with our campers about finding creative inspiration. They then led an activity where each girl wrote the things that identify her. It was a wonderful experience– Heather and Kenza really make a great team!

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So now it’s our turn to help out Mushmina. They are in the running for a $25,000 small business grant from FedEx. Heather and Katie would use this money for the following:

We want to share our adventures and the impact of fair trade purchasing with an even broader audience by bringing our stories and vibrant products to our customers in our mobile Moroccan Caravan! We are in the process of transforming a 1974 VW Westfalia camper bus into a traveling boutique and advertisement of the work we do. Our vision is to drive our line of global handmade goods across the USA to connect with new customers and to create awareness of the importance of buying fair trade.

In order to win the grant, they need your vote! It’s really simple: just click this link, select “Mushmina”, and vote. You can vote once a day, every day, through February 23rd. Please vote, and please share with your family, friends, co-workers, and facebook community. It’s seriously that easy, and it’s totally that worth it. Thank you and chokran jezilan!

 

Learning How to Say Bslama

I have officially one month left in Tameslouht. This exact day in February, I will be leaving my beloved haven of dirt with my bags packed, heading to Rabat/ PC Morocco headquarters to do some final paperwork, medical tests to determine whether or not I contracted TB, and other random administrative odds and ends. Needless to say, I’m feeling the weight of my impending exit. The next month will be more packed than is probably wise, with three different visitors coming from different parts of the world to meet with the artisans and buy pretty things, a two-day artisan training in Marrakech with Anou, leading another activity with Project Soar, visiting and writing about the Marrakech Biennale, and, of course, having the lovely and talented Ally and my father visit. Of course the shortest month of the year would include the most activity! At least I will be better prepared for a transition back into the American pace of life? (cues laughter from any American reading that punchline!)

Apart from all of that work and social stuff, there is the whole process of saying goodbye that I’m dreading. How do you even approach that? There is a good chance that the people whose faces and presences make up the landscape of my daily life in Tameslouht– the kind store owners, the eccentric sheep herders, the loud Francophone children– are humans whose lives will not again intersect with mine. There are friends, students, my new (very large) extended family, and my artisans to all tell goodbye. Beyond the immediate, there is also my sphere of human beings in Marrakech whom I love dearly. These are the people I’ve not only worked with, but have become friends with; people who have helped me break past the scary outer crust of Marrakech and into the lovely, lively scene of the real city. SO. That all being said, I have reacted as I normally do, actively repressing any inklings of sadness or other emotional distress! Instead of lingering in the finality of my exit from Morocco, I am choosing to instagram the shit outta this place. My first month in Tameslouht lent itself to a lot of wandering, exploring, and imagining the possibilities of what this dusty place might be the backdrop to over the next two years. Now, in my last month, I’m going to revisit a lot of the same places and take more pictures. There’s no real artistic or journalistic goal here; I’m simply trying to preserve the spaces in which I’ve lived in a tangible way.

Enjoy these glimpses into my current world (and the occasional shamefully shameless selfie). Can’t wait to rejoin all of you in t-minus 1 month and 4 days.

When Wanderers Meet Each Other While Roaming

Writing this blog has been quite an adventure.

Not only is it helping me do my job more efficiently (goals 2 & 3!) and allows me to catalogue, remember, and share the bizarre-o happenings of my life here in Morocco, but this blog has connected me with people I would have never otherwise met. The majority of these lovely cyberspace beings are prospective Peace Corps volunteers who are wanting to know how many pairs of underwear to pack. I’ve been there, my friends. Allow me to bestow upon you my wisdom…which has been slowly and painfully gathered over the course of many ridiculous mishaps! There are other people, too, who have connected with me for various other reasons– people apart from the cyberbots who seem to be really attracted to any entry where “henna” is tagged. People like writer Vivian Swift, a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Niger.

Vivian contacted me last spring about her upcoming trip to Morocco. She was in the process of writing a book about gardens and, as a side trip during her excursion to France, wanted to see the fabulous Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech. Now, there’s always a slight danger in agreeing to meet people who found you on the internet. They could be serial killers, or, worse– really weird and socially incompetent. You just never know. However, during our cordial email exchanges, Vivian sent me a very humble description of herself (“I’m a writer”), and after some quick googling, I found out that she isn’t just a writer– she’s a writer who has been featured on NPR– three times! For those of you who know me and my struggles, NPR is somewhat of an obsession of mine. Therefore, being featured on NPR trumps Nobel Peace Prizes and Pulitzers. If that wasn’t enough (and it was plenty enough, trust me), this is an example of Vivian’s writing style:

I’m highly qualified as a travel writer.

This is me, in my passport photo, 1975, before my first trip “abroad”. I stayed on the road for 20 years. In between my many years of foreign wanderings I worked as a receptionist, gift shop sales lady, luxury hotel concierge, clothing store manager, book shop clerk, office temp, retail jeweler, horologist, auction house executive, and Faberge expert. I’ve also worked as an au pair, a chamber maid, a jewelry historian, and in a factory making plastic bottles for bleach. 

Obviously, with all this job experience, I am very well-qualifed to be the boss of everybody. This meshes perfectly with my ability to be very judgemental. But I digress.

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Done. Fellow travelers? Fellow lovers of sarcasm? Friends. So Vivian came, saw, and conquered; Majorelle didn’t fail to impress (it really never does), Tameslouht proved underwhelming (“Do you parents know what this place looks like?”), an afternoon with the artisans and two random German tourists was entertaining and lovely, lunch at the Amal Center was huge/ delicious/ enjoyed by all, and Marrakech’s touristy magic didn’t pull a fast one on her. Did I mention she brought me a jar of peanut butter after reading me rave about the amenities found in Casablanca? Sometimes I forget people actually read my blog and are able to know what I’m thinking, no matter how embarrassing. Anyways, it was a lovely visit, and I really enjoyed hearing about her endlessly fascinating life, narrated in a wit that made me miss the English language.

We exchange emails every now and then, like when I met two other PCVs here who know Vivian, or when I found out that there is now one degree of separation between myself and Elizabeth Gilbert. Then, this past fall, when I posted the spectacle of Mustapha and my engagement party photos for the world’s enjoyment, I received the following email from Vivian:

I loved your post about the engagement fete.

I would like to send you and Mustapha an engagement gift for you to enjoy in Morocco, a gift that will take you two out for a nice dinner in a romantic restaurant in Marrakech. If you and Mustapha have a place in mind, please send me the name and email and I will confirm your reservations and instruct them to bill me.

I remember my own foreign engagement in Israel in 1986. We were given a diner for the two of us at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and after 27 years I still remember the tomatoes Provencal. Best I ever had.

I don’t even have words for this kind of generosity. I suppose, as a returned Peace Corps volunteer, Vivian has a unique understanding of the sheer magic that something like a “nice dinner” or a “hot shower” (outside of a public hammam) can provide. Even with that being said, I’m still wrapping my mind around the sheer kindness of this gesture. Especially from someone who claims to like cats more than people. I guess seeing me covered in 2 lbs of glitter and 5 ornate dresses brought out the softy in her!

So, in honor of Vivian and her loving kindness, I wanted to post pictures from the delicious and lovely meal Mustapha and I enjoyed last night at La Trattoria. Neither Mustapha or myself had an idea of a place where we wanted to eat, so I took to the internet, searching “best restaurants in Marrakech”. We opted for something that wasn’t Moroccan at a place where we hadn’t been before– La Trattoria had all of that, plus lots of cheese and a poolside proximity.

Mustapha and I enjoyed a full 2 hours at the “Art Deco Bar” (I know, I know), sipping on cocktails and eating delicious salted almonds and mini-pizzas (hey, it’s an Italian restaurant!) while marveling at the decor and discussing everything from Buddhism to the merits of the jelleba. Only such a lovely interior would inspire such academic discussion. Later, we ate semi-poolside (in a heated room next to the pool), dining on spaghetti, ravioli, and a slightly disappointing salad with a lovely name– “insalata romantica”. We regrouped at the Art Deco bar post-meal for some fireside digestion, and then headed back on home to Tameslouht.

Did I mention that the 30th of January is also Mustapha’s 26th birthday? We decided to celebrate several wonderful things on the same evening. So thank you, Vivian, for making this possible. Mustapha and I have already agreed that this kindness will be passed on when we’re older and meet a young couple who is engaged far away from home. Merci, chokran jezilan, and thank you :)

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Amal for the Women of Morocco

First thought when I heard about the Amal Women’s Training Center and Moroccan Restaurant? “This is JUST what Morocco needs!” If you read my last brooding blog entry, you’ll know that when it comes to me, development, and Morocco, this type of certainty is rare.

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So, what is it exactly that Morocco needs more of? Creative solutions to problems, for one. That’s where Nora Fitzgerald comes in. Nora is an American-Moroccan who walks through the streets of Marrakech daily, noticing all of the details that we like to try and push to our peripheral: kids selling tissues beginning around age 4, mothers nursing babies on the side of the road with one hand stretched out for change, men begging for just a few dirhams to feed their families…anyone who has been to a large city anywhere in the world knows the general caricatures of “the unfortunate” who populate the streets. The difference for Nora, however, is that these people– the women especially– weren’t anonymous. She actually took the time to get to know many of them, their names, and their stories. Sa’eeda, for example. And others. Instead of simply giving them something– money, food– Nora got creative. She figured out a way to get the women to give to themselves.

This is where the idea for the Amal Center took root. According to the center’s website, this is their mission:

The aim of the Amal Women’s Training Center and Moroccan Restaurant is to support women from disadvantaged backgrounds (including illiterate women, women who are the sole support of their families, and those who have worked as child maids).

The Training Center functions in the following ways:

  1.  Training disadvantaged women in Moroccan cuisine, traditional and modern baking
  2.  Real life work experience in the Amal center restaurant for internships of 4 months.
  3. Job placement, while not guaranteed, the Amal center makes every effort of place the trainees in the workplace after their internship is over.

The creation of the Amal Women’s Training Center comes as a response to the difficulties that many Moroccan women encounter in their social integration because of difficult pasts, precarious family situations, or lack of qualifications for profitable employment. To rectify this and restore their dignity, the Amal Women’s Training Center aims to provide these women with a comfortable, friendly environment where they will be trained and mentored in an accessible, rewarding craft. In addition to courses in traditional cuisine, the women will benefit from literacy courses (Arabic), and for some, language courses (English or French) and basic management training (simple accounting skills, hospitality services). The goal of all of this is to give them the skills to improve their standards of living and reintegrate them as full, productive members of society.

At the end of their training, the women will potentially be able to find work in a restaurant or hotel in Marrakech, and at the same time they will be participating in the conservation of Moroccan heritage and culinary expertise.

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The idea took shape and form at a rapid rate. People were so enthusiastic and ready to help, a location was found and secured, many essentials were purchased and donated, and the Amal Center opened its doors in Spring 2013. Women were learning the ins-and-outs of cooking and working in a restaurant, getting English and French lessons, and just learning a lot in general. However, as the Center’s popularity grew, the framework of the initiative had to be readjusted, as with most humanitarian-focused ventures that still need to make a profit! Recently, Nora hired a manager and a marketing specialist to aid in the operations of the center. The next step is to create a training program to give more women the opportunity to gain skills and employment.  

There are currently eight women staff members at Amal and this year will see the beginning of a four month training program for 10 women.  Trainees will earn a certificate of completion and receive language training and “soft skills” such as counseling, life coaching and empowerment to plan their lives. During their training, Amal Center’s newly hired Job Placement Coordinator will work on finding the interns jobs in restaurants and hotels in Marrakech.  A recent partnership with a Swiss foundation has contributed to capacity building within the Amal Center and a crystallization of its methodology and goals.

The Amal Center’s restaurant now has a regular clientele, serving an average of 30 people daily.  Friday is usually the busiest day, with over 50 guests.  The customers are both locals and tourists who heard about Amal Center from its high ranking on tripadvisor.com.  To keep up with the growing demand. Amal has to increase its serving capacity.

This is where you, my loyal readers, come in. I know many of you have other things to spend your money on, but the Amal Center needs your help. Donations of any size are welcome and will, in every way, make the difference in the lives of these Moroccan women. There are only 11 days left for the Center to meet their goal. What will your donation go towards?

  • New tables and chairs effectively doubling our serving capacity (currently at 38, there is nothing more embarrassing than having customers come in and no where to sit, which happened on a particular Friday)
  • An outdoor covering which will increase outdoor seating during the warm months
  • Equipment for a breakfast service–lunch only service has been so successful that we will begin serving breakfast in 2014
  • Remodeling to create a “take-out” area in order to create a contact point between the kitchen and the outside
  • Uniforms for the trainees
  • More flatware and silverware (who knew that plates and glasses break very often in a restaurant kitchen?)

Dollars go far in Morocco, and everything that you give will be reinvested in the women of Morocco. If you’ve been looking for a way to make a difference in someone’s lives, I can tell you myself– this is a great opportunity. If you really can’t spare some change (trust me, I’ve been there, no hard feelings)– help us out by spreading the word. Like Amal Center’s facebook page. Email your friends and family and ask if they can donate. We are appreciative for good karma and kind thoughts as well.

Amal means “hope” in Arabic.  The center would like to help another 30 women per year by giving them training and then help them find job placement.  Your support will go a long way.  If you’d like to learn more about the women the Amal Center or delicious Moroccan food, here are Nora’s own words (and a recipe for one of the tastiest Moroccan dishes there is). So please, give whatever amount you can spare– and thank you for giving the gift of hope to these women.

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