The Art of Public Bathing

Over the past month, the weather has been strange. Rain, wind, lightning, hot sun, humidity, dust, all in one day? Check.

As you can see, the 7mmam is a necessary place in my site. I live on the edge of the desert and, for a few weeks each year, my city sees ajej. I should say “my city fears ajej” because, as it turns out, sand pelting your face in 50mph wind gusts hurts.

Once the dust and wind settled down for this season, I craved the 7mmam. I hadn’t visited one since my training in Tiflet six months before, and, despite showering two or three times a week, I could feel the layers of dirt and dead skin covering my body. Sometimes, if I was sweaty enough, I could rub on my arm and pull off little shreds of dead skin, much like I do whenever I get sunburned.

And so I finally made it to a 7mmam with two of my best friends, Abdelghani and Adam.

Some 7mmams have two entrances that delineate two completely separate sections – one for men and one for women. The 7mmams with just one section have specific hours for each sex. Such 7mmams in my town are open for men for a few hours early in the morning and a few late in the evening; women claim it the rest of the day. The one Abdelghani, Adam, and I went to is the two-section kind, so the men’s side is open all day. I was surprised once we stepped inside that we were among the few men there, but after some thought, I reasoned why.

Though my site is big on agriculture, the city center is full of cafes, shops, banks, tailors, retailers, and government buildings. Men are much more likely to work in such places and so they must go to the 7mmam before or after business hours. It’s a probable explanation for why there were so few at our 7mmam.

Women, who tend to work in the home, have time throughout the day to wash. A symptom of their extended hours (though maybe it is the cause) is the ability to chat. The women’s 7mmam is perhaps the only purely female space. As such, they are free to talk about whatever they want, including things they might never say in front of men. They also have the ability to talk for extended periods of time unlike in the home. Naturally, they tend to stay inside the 7mmam much longer than men.

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A 7mmam dressing room.

My 7mmam experience this time was similar to that of six months ago, though with far fewer people. First we stepped into the changing room, a small space about half the size of the one in this photo. There were two long wooden benches lining the walls and shelf space above and below to store our bags. We stripped down to our underwear (nudity is shameful), stored our clothes, and took our shampoo, soap, 7mmam-owned buckets, and other necessary toiletries through the door to the 7mmam.

The first room we stepped into was about – and I am completely guessing here – 100 degrees Fahrenheit, about 15 degrees hotter than outside. There was one man sitting there, leaning against the tiled wall. We pushed aside a heavy mat hanging from the ceiling into the second room, about 20 degrees hotter than the first (maybe). Here we set up our base camp.

We filled our buckets from two faucets jutting out from the wall, one dispensing scalding hot water, the other freezing cold. While Adam tended to the buckets, making the water just the right temperature, Abdelghani and I ventured into the final room. It was a sweltering 140 degrees, I imagine. It was nearly impossible to breathe normally, and even more so when we took advantage of the heat to loosen up our muscles. We stretched for a few minutes and attempted to talk, but our voices echoed too much through the room the 10ft by 20ft room to understand one another.

I returned to room #2, sweat already pouring out of every pore, and helped Adam finish filling the buckets. We blocked off a corner using the buckets as a wall. Meanwhile, Abdelghani, armed with a bucket of water and a squeegee, washed away any remnants of whoever had been there before us. Then… we sat.

And sat.

And sweated.

Until it was time to get clean. There’s this scrubber thing called a “kees”. It looks a little like an oven mitt without the thumb part, but rather than padding to keep your hand safe from a burning pot, the kees is rough and scratchy and is designed to exfoliate.

Moroccan exfoliating glove, the kees
This picture makes the kees look WAY too elegant.

Most men scrub themselves with their keeses, removing layers upon layers of sweat, dust, skin, and anything else they may be covered in. Once they finish scrubbing their face, arms, legs, stomach, and neck, they employ someone else to scrub their back.

That was my intention. But then Abdelghani insisted on giving me the full 7mmam experience. With all my dead skin and dirt loosened from the heat, he took my kees and annihilated my arms. He liquidated my legs. He butchered my back. He wrecked my neck and beat my feet until I was like a tomato, red and raw. The only part of myself I got to clean was beneath my underwear, which I performed delicately in the bathroom.

That was just the first round, because after all the dead skin and dirt was removed, it was time to use soap and actually clean into the pores. So, using my kees, Abdelghani went to town again until I was like a soapy tomato. He also tried to stretch my leg and arm muscles, but half the time I didn’t understand what was happening and instead flexed instead of relaxed. I’m sure the man and his young son in another corner were laughing, but there was too much echo and I couldn’t see anything anyway since my glasses were a long way away in the changing room. The whole time I was confused, in pain, and blind, but fortunately I got to wash my hair myself, and used a rough rubber-bristled brush to exfoliate my scalp.

By this point we had been in the 7mmam for about two hours. More than enough. I escaped into the relatively cold changing room and gulped down liters of water, replacing quite literally all the water that had evacuated my pores. And then I sat on the wooden bench.

And sat.

And sweated.

Until Adam and Abdelghani exited room #1 and started to change back into street clothes. We dried off and pulled on track suits. Generally used for sport among young men our age, they protect slowly-closing pores from the environment as one walks back to one’s home.

Traditionally, once one returns from the 7mmam, it is time to nap. I welcomed such a treat because, let’s face it, I nap almost every day anyway, and at least this time I had an excuse. I turned on my new fan, turned it toward my face, and woke up four hours later.

Overall, just as I thought in Tiflet, the 7mmam was not a fun experience, but it was a necessary one. Thanks to Abdelghani’s determination, I have never been cleaner.

Term of Today: brd

“l-brd! l-brd! (The cold! The cold!)”

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 Guess I’m a Teacher

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.

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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.

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Many of us taught English for the first time.
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The youth and adults alike were eager to learn and apply their new knowledge.
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Seeing them challenge themselves while having fun was immensely inspiring.
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One week of teaching down… two years to go!

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)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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