That’s what my permanent site host mom would say every time I would leave the house. She said it with good reason: the temperature of the five days I visited my permanent site reached the mid-70s, but once the sun fell, it dropped to low 40s, courtesy of the desert climate.
So I bundled in my thermal long underwear, jeans, and Columbia Omni-heat jacket and rode my bike into town. I always found myself sweating by the time I arrived.
Back in my training site of Tiflet, the weather has changed. It now plummets to the low 40s every night. Both here and my permanent site, as well as throughout Morocco, the homes don’t have central heating. Unless the family owns a space heater, the only way to get warm is to pile blanket after blanket on top of you. That’s what I do every night.
There’s a widespread notion/superstition/belief among Moroccans that l-brd causes sickness, which explains my Mama Khadija’s insistence on me wearing a jacket and Mama Hadda’s insistence on me taking another blanket to my room. This came up in conversation a few weeks ago with Majid, my LCF, while we were sitting at a cafe. I and another PCT tried to explain that the cold weather itself does not cause sickness. It only makes your body more susceptible to sickness.
Majid is very open to science and progressive views. He said he can see how the cold lowers your immune system, but still he contended that the cold still causes sickness, even indirectly.
Technically, I suppose, we were both right on an objective level. And who am I to say his/Moroccans’ belief of l-brd is wrong? Who am I to say any belief is wrong?
I’ve been in Tiflet for only one month but I’ve already changed. I feel like I have passed the first bump in the Darija road. I know when one word ends and another begins; I can express what I have done in the past tense; new words are easier to learn now than others were a week ago.
But I have also changed professionally. PC Morocco has made me push my comfort boundaries further than ever before. Many of you know that I taught percussion over the summer, but until last Wednesday I had never taught in a classroom setting.
Feel free to call me Mr. Rogers now.
My five CBT group mates and I each taught an English lesson at the local dar chebab (youth center). This was essentially a test run for what we could be doing in our final sites, so we all picked a topic and prepared a lesson plan. The lesson plans followed a specific format developed throughout the years by PC Morocco volunteers and staff. (As we become more comfortable in our final sites, we are free to change the format as needed.)
On Tuesday, Nikita taught ordinal numbers and the top ten countries in terms of size. Wednesday is when I taught basic music theory. On Thursday, Matt taught language used in American restaurants and Andreina taught nutrition and food groups. Then on Friday, Caleb taught language used in sports and Bethan taught opposites.
I chose to teach music theory for a couple key reasons other than my passion for and background in music. First, there is interest. One day I asked Majid, my LCF, about music education in Morocco. He told me that many Moroccans don’t know the theory behind the music they play, despite inherent rhythmic talent around the country. Because music is an integral part of the culture, he said Moroccans would be extremely interested in learning theory. His thoughts were echoed by a few other of my closest Moroccan friends, including one of my host brothers.
Second, music seems to be one of the main reasons I was selected for PC. Four of the eight regional managers, one of whom will be my main point of contact throughout my service, came to Tiflet during training to interview each of us about our final sites.
We spoke for nearly 20 minutes about my skills, interests, and preferences. While I expressed no preference about my site, we did discuss my film and music backgrounds in depth. The managers seemed very interested in projects I had brainstormed and even gave me ideas of possible projects. They absolutely strive to place volunteers in sites where we can use our skills while also meeting the needs and wants of the communities.
(cover image and video by Andreina Santamaria, aka Jamila)
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.
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.
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: S Sound: like English “s” but with greater tension in the tongue and throat
Arabic character: ط
Transcription character: T
Sound: like English “t” but with greater tension in the tongue and throat
Arabic character: ق
Transcription character: q
Sound: like English “k” but pronounced further back in the throat
Arabic character: خ
Transcription character: kh
Sound: like the “ch” in the German “Bach”; some people use this sound to say yech!
Arabic character: غ
Transcription character: gh
Sound: like the “kh” sound above, but pronounced using your voice box; similar to the French “r”
Arabic character: ح
Transcription character: 7
Sound: like English “h”, except pronounced deep in the throat as a loud raspy whisper
Arabic character: ع
Transcription character: 3
Sound: 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.
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.
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?”
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.
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 Tiflet. I 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!
Somehow I have to fit my life into three bags. One will be a carry-on during my flights; two will be checked.
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…
DSLR camera, including lenses, memory cards, and accessories
Audio recording equipment, including microphones and accessories
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.
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!
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.