Term of Today: shwiya


as I’ve written before, is the key to integration. While I learn the language, there are words that become more important to me than others. Reasons can range from the words’ utility, anecdotal significance, ease of remembrance, or humor. My Term of Today series will dissect the importance of certain Darija words and give you a whiff of what’s going on here in Morocco.

Word: shwiya

Translation: little

Importance: shwiya was one of the first few Darija phrases I learned and it has quickly become one of my most spoken. I’ve used it in two ways:

1) It helps define how much I understand. Native speakers in any language usually speak faster than a language learner’s understanding can match. My host family situation is no different. Following four hours of Darija class in which my teacher speaks slowly and clearly, I come home for lunch and suddenly the pace of dialogue is lightyears faster. I recognize a word every now and then; I often smile out of sheer arrogance. But then my family turns their attention to me and ask, “Fhmti?” (“Do you understand?”). My response? “shwiya.”

2) It’s necessary to indicate that I am learning Darija. The phrase shwiya b shwiya was one of the first I learned and it is now probably my most used. It’s a failsafe phrase that I use after struggling through any sentence with the little vocabulary I already know. For example, today my older host sister (to whom I’ve given the American name Stacy) asked who I went to the cafe with. I answered, “hay’Aat salam… sabki… smitu Matt… u khu – khuya – khuh… juj khuh. Darija, shwiya b shwiya” (Literally, “Peace Corps… my friend… his name is Matt… and brother – my brother – his brother… two his brother. Darija, little by little.”) And, without fail, whoever has been patient enough to listen to me tear their language apart will repeat “shwiya b shwiya” with a huge understanding grin. Then we both laugh.

Language, Part wa7d

1 wa7d, 2 juj, 3 tlata, 4 rb3a, 5 khmsa, 6 stta, 7 sb3a, 8 tmnya, 9 ts3ud, 10 3shra


Darija & Technology

Darija is a purely verbal language. You can write its words in Arabic script, but due to the variance in pronunciation, one person may spell a word different than another. What complicates Darija even further is the factor of technology. Cell phone use is increasing throughout many parts of the world, and I haven’t seen anyone in Morocco – save some older community members – without a cell phone.

Phone keyboards, however, are often limited to the Latin alphabet. To compensate for this, Moroccans write words in Latin script that more or less represent what they sound like in Darija. They know Latin sounds likely from the French they studied in secondary school.

We now must take into account the Arabic sounds that don’t exist in the Latin alphabet:

Arabic character: ض
Transcription character: D
Sound: like English “d” but with greater tension in the tongue and throat

Arabic character: ص
Transcription character:
Sound: like English “s” but with greater tension in the tongue and throat

Arabic character: ط
Transcription character:
like English “t” but with greater tension in the tongue and throat

Arabic character: ق
Transcription character:
like English “k” but pronounced further back in the throat

Arabic character: خ
Transcription character:
like the “ch” in the German “Bach”; some people use this sound to say yech!

Arabic character: غ
Transcription character:
like the “kh” sound above, but pronounced using your voice box; similar to the French “r”

Arabic character: ح
Transcription character:
like English “h”, except pronounced deep in the throat as a loud raspy whisper

Arabic character: ع
Transcription character:
approximated by pronouncing the “a” in “fat” with the tongue against the bottom of the mouth and from as deep in the throat as possible

(source: Peace Corps Morocco, Moroccan Arabic textbook)

Moroccans use the transcription characters to represent the non-Latin-alphabet sounds. PC Morocco’s language model has evolved to better reflect this new cultural norm. As I understand it, the staj before mine didn’t use “q” or “7” or “3”. They used other letters until it became apparent Moroccans were using “q” and “7” and “3” on their cell phones. PC Morocco then changed its Darija textbook for my staj.

Note: PC Morocco uses a transcription approach to Darija, meaning we trainees follow the cell phone standard and use the Latin alphabet. I will mostly write Darija words in this alphabet, though I may accompany some words with the Arabic script.

Community-Based Training (CBT)

Six days a week you can find my five group mates and me in our Language and Cultural Facilitator’s (LCF’s) rented apartment. In the mornings Majid walks us through language lessons, some of the most recent being about possessive pronouns and conjugating the verb “to want”. Interspersed in the lessons is new vocabulary that we practice out loud, one at a time, to take with us to our host families and neighborhoods.

Sometimes we have classes on the roof.

The lessons expand upon the Darija textbook. I like to read a little bit ahead, making it only slightly simpler to understand during the next day’s class. I also have begun a flashcard regimen that I review every night with my 8-year-old host sister. She’s learning English while I learn Darija, and we both enjoy helping each other.

Language classes are just one part of CBT. Afternoons are devoted to culture lessons and Arabic script. The former prevents us from making poor cultural mistakes – like hugging a member of the opposite sex in public – and helps us understand/participate in the culture further – like the opportunity to fast during Ramadan. The latter helps make life easier; after all, how will I know how to report my location in the case of emergency if I can’t read road signs? Or know what’s a hammam and what’s a dar chebab?

That is Majid’s job in a nutshell: teach six wide-eyed Americans Darija and how to exist positively in Moroccan culture. A third aspect of his job, though unofficial, is being our friend. He is only a year older than me and he has many of the same interests as all of us in his group. We have all visited a few cafes during culture sessions where we were free to ask questions and shoot the breeze. Though he’s still somewhat shy, I think he’ll become a close friend by the end of CBT.

Of Dirhams and Darija

This week the 109 newest Peace Corps Trainees are staying in a hotel south of Rabat, Morocco. It is a touristy area for Moroccans, meaning host country nationals (HCNs) visit here on weekends and especially during school holidays. The hotel lies a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean, a fact I only realized once I threw open my room’s shutters for the first time.


This is clearly a beautiful place to ease into Moroccan language and culture.

After four intense days of medical presentations, language classes, and safety and security presentations at the hotel, Sunday was a self-directed learning day. Essentially we had the option to leave the hotel compound and surrounding area to use some of our new language “in real life”. A few of my closest friends here – Kelly, Matt, and Micah – and I paid 100 dirhams to get to the kasbah of Rabat. (We were greatly overcharged, but I’m going to let that slide.)

McDonald’s in the Kasbah

Wandering the streets of the kasbah and the medina within, we eventually came across a McDonald’s. Very authentic, right? But in our defense, it is fascinating to note how the McDonald’s menu changes around the world. In Rabat it wasn’t very different than in the States, just that some ingredients were left out or added to the usual menu items, and all the beef is halal.

“Salam,” I said happily to the cashier.

“Salam,” she replied.

Struggling to find the right words, I stuttered out, “McFlurry, s’il vous plaît.” I heard some Moroccans at the next register laugh. Not at me, inshallah, but I certainly heard it.

She smiled. “What kind?”

“Lion, please.”

The cashier turned around and quickly whipped up the Lion McFlurry. She soon placed it on a tray and slid the tray to me.

“Shukran,” I say.

“You’re welcome. Bon appetit.”

And that’s the story of how a McDonald’s employee and I spoke in three languages in 30 seconds.

Language: The Key to Integration

Language is the most critical element in integrating and assimilating into another culture. Here in Morocco people speak Darija, a western dialect of Arabic. Kids learn French as a second language in school, many add English or Spanish in high school, and there is a sizable Berber-speaking population found particularly in the south.

All Maghrebi (western) dialects are blue. (source)

Critical to my success in learning Darija is my Language and Culture Facilitator (LCF), Abdelmajid. He is a thin, grinning, patient Moroccan hired by PC specifically to teach myself and the rest of my Community-Based Training (CBT) group how to speak Darija and to train us in Moroccan culture. I will describe CBT and Abdelmajid’s role in fuller detail in a future post.

My CBT group of six have had a few language learning sessions with Abdelmajid in the week at the hotel. We have focused mostly on introductory phrases and words, though Abdelmajid is preparing us with as much vocabulary as possible, spelling things in both Roman letters and Arabic script. The idea is to give us enough words so that we can communicate at the most basic level with our host families.


Over the next ten weeks, all 109 trainees will scatter across the Khemmisset-Meknes-Fes area in their small CBT groups. My group is headed to TifletI don’t know much about it besides that around 70,000 people call it home and there are dozens of cafes (read: I should have WiFi access almost always.)

My CBT group – Matt, Andreina, married couple Caleb and Bethan, and Nikita – will meet our host families on Thursday. I for one can’t wait to continue pushing myself through the challenging language and to meet my new little brother or sister!

Peace Corps Morocco orientation schedule.
My CBT site, Tiflet, in relation to where I am now.
Closer image. I am the gray dot on the left; Tiflet is on the right.

Life in Three Bags

Somehow I have to fit my life into three bags. One will be a carry-on during my flights; two will be checked.

Here’s everything.

Certainly I will buy many things in Morocco, but there are some things money can’t buy. Flags from every country I’ve visited… a pennant from my university… a tiny framed poster of Frodo in The Two Towers. You know, things that money can buy but have certain memories attached to them.

Then there are those things that a lot of my money went into buying. A laptop… a Columbia Omni-Tech coat… a camera. Obviously those have to come with me, too.

And finally there are those things that I could buy in Morocco but may not be of good quality and/or are ridiculously expensive. Bed sheets… soft underwear… hiking boots. I’m bringing those as well.

So how do I go about packing everything?


Bag 1 (21.5″H x 14″W x 11.5″D)

My carry-on. An Evecase DSLR/Laptop backpack with all sorts of pockets. An inch and a half deeper than what Southwest Airlines allows – and two and a half inches deeper than American Airlines allows??? – but smaller in height and width. (Nobody tell them.) This bag is the only one of the three with expensive valuables, aka…

  1. Laptop
  2. Kindle
  3. iPod
  4. DSLR camera, including lenses, memory cards, and accessories
  5. Audio recording equipment, including microphones and accessories
  6. External hard drives

This bag will essentially be permanently attached to me – thanks to the waist and chest buckles – from Portland to Casablanca. No theft here.

Disclaimer: picture does not include clothing.

Bag 2 (24″L x 16″W x 8″D)

Checked bag 1/2. The bag that goes with me to training. It’ll include most of my clothes, towel, some toiletries, bed sheets, office supplies, shoes (like my new, unofficially-required Chacos), and a small jar of honey. This last is a gift for my host family.

This bag flies free on Southwest and on American! Cha-ching!

Disclaimer: picture does not include clothing.

Bag 3 (27″L x 18.5″W x 9.5″D)

Checked bag 2/2. The bag I’m leaving in Peace Corps storage in Rabat (see Bad Dreams), meaning it won’t have anything I will need for the three months of training. Bye bye, hiking boots, kitchen utensils, a couple pots, room decorations, and cleaning supplies. I’ll place some of my more wintry clothing in here because training ends in early December when my bag and I will be reunited.

I’ll keep a second jar of honey in this bag for my second host family in my permanent site.

This bag flies free on Southwest! Hooray! It costs $100 on American. Boo! This ultimately shouldn’t be a problem, however. Simply showing the desk agent some of my PC documentation should waive the fee. If not, PC will reimburse me.

Bonus: personal item

My camera tripod in its carrying case. It’ll probably hang out next to my feet during the flights, but if I can manage to get it in the overhead bins… again, don’t tell my airlines.

Although I have never really had issues with packing for extended international trips, this time is different. It is more difficult knowing that I’m moving to another country rather than visiting. It is more difficult to decide what stays and what goes. It is more difficult having to leave certain things behind, things that I want but don’t need.

It’s gratifying to have trouble fitting my life into three bags. It’s disappointing that I can actually accomplish it.


Bad Dreams

Two suitcases and a backpack lie open before me. I look over the piles of clothes, video and audio equipment, electronics, linens, and home decorations that I somehow have to pack into the three bags. Sigh. I can do it. In no time I fill the bags to the brim and zip, clasp, and lock them shut.

Fast forward a few days and I’m no longer in my Portland, Oregon room. My plane has just touched down in Casablanca, Morocco, and the other volunteers and I are approaching our shuttle. But before we reach it, a Peace Corps staff member takes one of my suitcases and says it will be returned to me in three months. WHAT. I have things I need in there – a power adapter, bed sheets, underwear. He can’t just take them away from me!

And then I wake up. I’m not in Casablanca; I am in a cold sweat at my sister’s house in Atlanta. The overhead fan freezes my sweat as I get my bearings. It’s still the middle of the night… it’s still August, one month from departure. I fall back asleep.

I don’t have any image to actually show my dreams, so… (source)

The next night brings another bad dream.

There are only four friends milling about my Portland kitchen, but there should be fifteen. Uneaten hamburgers cool on the counter. Warm soda goes flat. Whatever. While we watch some DVD, I drift to sleep and wake instantly in a different place… it appears to be a beach-side cabin. But I can’t find my four friends anywhere, not on the couches around me like they should be, and not anywhere else in the house. They’ve disappeared.

I wake up for real in Atlanta. What’s the deal?

Normally I don’t remember my dreams. The times I do, they tend to be short and vague, and I hardly recall details. But clearly the past two nights were different. I only assume it has something to do with my impending move to Morocco.

My first dream happened the night after a conference call with my staj and PC Morocco staff. The staff addressed many questions my staj had about logistics for both getting to the country and what we are doing once we get there. For example, what phone plan we’ll have, how we’re going to open Moroccan bank accounts, and the like.

Some of the more relevant points for this blog post are as follows:

  • Staging (one-day PC orientation) will happen in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 19th.
  • I have booked my flight from Portland to Philadelphia for September 18th and will have a reserved room at a Marriott hotel for the nights of the 18th and 19th.
  • On September 20th my staj will catch buses to JFK Airport in New York.
  • We have a direct flight from JFK to Casablanca. Once there, PC Morocco staff will take one of our two larger suitcases and store it in the PC warehouse in Rabat. I will not have access to this second bag until after three months of training, hence my first bad dream.
  • Pre-Service Training (PST) will last eleven weeks and is broken down approximately like this:
    • Week 1: We will stay in a hotel in Rabat.
    • Week 2-6: All of my staj will go to our hub site of (UNESCO heritage site) Meknes. We will break into groups of four or five trainees based on familiarity with Arabic. Every trainee will stay with a host family and continue language, cross-cultural, and technical training in our small groups.
    • Week 7: Each trainee will learn where we will serve for the next two years, and then we will visit our permanent site for a week.
    • Weeks 8-11: We will all return to Meknes to debrief about our assigned site and to continue training. Some of us will need to learn another language in addition to Darija (Moroccan Arabic), depending on site requirements.

So I’ve described how my first dream came to be. My second bad dream has nothing to do with the conference call or PC emails. It’s just that, once I booked my flight from Portland to Philadelphia, I solidified my send-off party date.

After solidifying the date, one of my friends from Los Angeles – who was also one of my roommates during college – RSVP’d saying she could attend the party. I was very surprised that she’d be able to get the weekend off work, but it turns out she only RSVP’d to say she’d be there in spirit. Thanks, Camille. 🙂

And that’s why I had the second bad dream. I really, really, really hope my local friends aren’t there only in spirit!


A Tale of Two Corps

It was 9 a.m. in Ravenswood, West Virginia. The weather was comfortably warm, certainly more tolerable than that of the previous five weeks. Sporadic clouds overhead. Only fifty percent humidity.

Near me was Ravenswood High School’s football stadium, proudly projecting its red devil mascot to the Mormon and Presbyterian churches across the street. Directly ahead of me were fifteen high school and college students arranged in two rows: the front five stood behind marimbas and the back eight stood behind two synthesizers, a xylophone, a glockenspiel, and four vibraphones. On the ends were two auxiliary percussion players with all sorts of miscellaneous percussion instruments. The male students were shirtless, the female students wore sports bras. They were all tan and slathered with sunscreen.

Presently, we were in the middle of a four-hour rehearsal.

“Let’s move on to Bridges,” I said, feeling unusually awake and authoritative this morning. My drumsticks were splintering from constantly clicking tempo during warmups. “What are some things to watch out for?”

“Matching mallet heights,” Jake responded. He was one of the marimba players.

“Low wrists,” Jil, vibraphone.

“Play together,” Ryan, marimba.

“Look and listen in,” Olivia, marimba.

“Edges versus centers,” Mira, vibraphone.

“Body shift versus push-pull,” Tina, marimba.*

I continued. “Yep, all good answers. Let’s do this!” And then I turned on the metronome. Tina tapped off, and they all began playing.

At this point of the summer, I didn’t need to fully concentrate on their warmups; they had been playing these exercises for months and they generally knew how to fix their own technique issues. As I, shirtless and feeling a bit of a sunburn, sipped from my water bottle, an old Crown Victoria pulled up and a man rolled the window down.

The man was on the heavy side like most of Ravenswood. Balding. Advanced in age. Slightly reminiscent of Larry David.

“Where are y’all from?” He didn’t sound like Larry David. Or, if Larry David had an Appalachian accent, maybe they’d sound similar.

I smiled and replied, “We’re from Seattle. We’re a drum and bugle corps called the Seattle Cascades.”

“What’s that?”

“Basically we’re a professional marching band without all the wimpy instruments,” I joked, knowing full well I was bashing my years of playing saxophone.

“Well,” the man said with a sigh, “y’all sound great. My wife and I have heard you and we’re just amazed.” I smiled again as he asked, “Do you have any performances for the public?”

“Yes, we just competed in Charleston last night. We’ll be in Allentown on Friday, and we have world championships in Indianapolis on the eleventh.”

The man thought for a moment. “Hm. I’ll talk with my wife. Maybe we’ll head there for the weekend.” And with that, I thanked him and recommended that he browse Drum Corps International’s website. He then drove away.

* My other front ensemble members: Matt, marimba; Mel and Cassandra, vibraphones; Alex, xylophone; Kira, glockenspiel; Will and Eli, synthesizers; Tyler and Adam, auxiliary percussion.

Part I. Drum Corps

Those dedicated – and dare I say, crazy – enough to teach or march in drum corps face unique challenges. They rehearse twelve hours every day of the week, sleep on gym floors, and compete against other drum corps across the United States all summer. They battle thunderstorms, high humidity, and mental and physical fatigue.

It’s a strange subculture of the music world, but it makes people better musicians and better people. Performers without exception develop stronger senses of teamwork, humility, and dedication; they become better at problem solving; they gain greater confidence in their bodies, their musicality, and their ability to interact with others.

My responsibilities as the Cascades’ front ensemble instructor boiled down to enhancing these professional skills through music and technique. Because front ensemble members in all corps do not move around the field during performances, their music is particularly demanding, requiring all sorts of detailed technical skills. I hardly have the patience to describe it all here (and it would be boring to read anyway), so I have included below a video by Vic Firth, one of Cascades’ percussion sponsors, to illustrate such skills.

Part II. How Children Succeed

I read many books on my Kindle while on drum corps summer tour. Aside from watching movies, there wasn’t much more to do on extended bus rides from city to city, state to state.

One of the more recent books was How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. He compiles many studies on child and teenage development into a narrative of, well, how children succeed or fail as they age. Tough essentially looks at the institutions and ideas in place in childhood and how that affects people later in life.

The study Tough analyzes that I found most intriguing involved rats. (I hope I remember it correctly.) Newborn rats that were nurtured and licked by their mothers when they were nervous performed more confidently in later tests than newborns ignored by their mothers. The baby rats, once older, were placed in an unfamiliar wooden circle with food in the center. The non-nurtured rats spent a lot of time pressed up against the border and took much longer to reach the center of the circle than did the nurtured rats. Once the non-nurtured rats found the food, they spent an average of thirty seconds eating and returned to the border, while the nurtured rats spent an average of two minutes eating.

The results were consistent even when the scientists placed newborn rats with non-biological mothers. As long as they were nurtured by a mother figure, rats were more confident later in life.

Humans have been proven, in other long-term tests, to produce similar results. Because my front ensemble members are in high school or college, they have already gone through most of their personality development. But what How Children Succeed has made me believe more strongly than ever before is that personality and the capacity for skill building are malleable. In fact, my front ensemble were far more mature, more humble, and more willing to problem solve compared to the beginning of tour two months before.

My front ensemble (minus Cassandra) and me after one of the final shows of the season. (Photo credit: Josh Clements)

Part III. Peace Corps

I’ve noticed there comes a point when – after working with any group of young people off and on for a year – a shift happens. It’s a transition from one mentality to another. In the case of teaching the Cascades front ensemble, it was a change from consistent supervision on my part to members’ self-awareness, self-critique, and self-confidence that what they were doing was correct. Ideally, I shouldn’t have had to point out individual musical or technical issues at all.

What I’m trying to illustrate with this post is that I’m more comfortable than ever in youth skill development. I will have the responsibility throughout my Peace Corps service to foster in my Moroccan youth community a culture of self-awareness, self-improvement, and self-confidence. It undoubtedly will take time; if my time with the Cascades is any indication, a year could pass before the shift. What will be a barrier, however, is my unfamiliarity with the language and culture.

I hope to put aside my own wants to respond to youth needs in my future community, to develop sustainable skill development programs that will last long after I return to the United States, to be a positive role model, and, especially, to involve parents and the community in the development of their children. Most of all I look forward to the challenge of the next twenty-seven months.

An Introduction

Who am I? Why am I here? These apparently are the two first questions I should be asking myself as I (finally) dive into this blog.

Why “finally”? Mostly because four months ago I made a bunch of pages describing me and my upcoming Peace Corps (PC) service (see the menu bar for more) but then I procrastinated in actually posting any content. MOVING ON…

The whole point of this blog post is to introduce why Matt in the Maghrib exists in the first place. Yes, it’s a platform to share what goes on in my life as a Youth Development volunteer in Morocco, but more than that, it is my way of meeting PC’s Third Goal.

The Peace Corps Mission

To promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:

  1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained Volunteers.
  2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. To help promote a better of understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. (source)

In an increasingly interconnected, digital world, blogs are the easiest and most efficient ways for Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) to share their experiences with people back home in the U.S.

This will be a multimedia blog filled with pictures, videos, text, and audio. It will address food, holidays, sports, daily life, FAQs, differences and similarities of Morocco and the States, et cetera. My ultimate goals with Matt in the Maghrib are to:

  1. Inform (LEARNING is fun),
  2. Entertain (learning is FUN), and
  3. Reflect

Over the course of my 27 months in PC, I expect my preconceived notions will be challenged and my ignorance broken. Likewise, I hope my blog can provide a perspective to Islam and Arabic culture that you may not have heard/seen/read before. Let’s go on this journey together, okay?

Not all those who wander are lost.
– J. R. R. Tolkien

Adventure is out there!
– Pixar’s Up

Traveling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.
– Ibn Battuta