March 20, 2014

Grieving in the Peace Corps

The shock of death shakes those both near and far.

A few days ago, a very dear friend notified me that his brother - our brother - died in his sleep. Ben Leake was just a little older than myself.

You have to understand that this is no ordinary family. When I was finishing high school, my parents' relationship took a series of really bad turns that wounded my sister and I in radical ways and which drove me out of my parents' households for a time. I had already made best friends with Daniel Leake, and I knew his family well, but I could never have expected that they would reach out to me the way that they did. For that very troubling time in my life, the Leakes took me in as if I were another member of the family. I slept in Daniel and Ben's bedroom, in the attic of the big house on Broadway. My days were filled with shenanigans dreamt up by the three of us. We ate together, went to school together, played together; we tormented our poor English teacher, Mrs. Feil, and we tested the nerves of poor Marci Leake, who I think of as another mother.

Ben's unexpected death has left me in total shock. I want to be at his funeral. I want to see him one last time. More than anything, I want to be with the Leake family, my adopted family. Nothing is more frustrating than feeling trapped inside this country while my loved ones suffer grief and anguish. The sense of helplessness is profoundly paralyzing.

The hardest part of Peace Corps isn't adjusting to the language, wrestling with the culture, or coping with lowered sanitation standards. It's hearing of family trouble back at home or being unable to celebrate a friend's achievement or missing out on both of your parents' weddings or being forbidden to leave the country in order to mourn with loved ones at a friend's passing. Would that I could hop on a jet today and do what I really want to do, more than anything: to be present, to cry with the crying, to share hugs, and to celebrate Ben's life with the rest of the family.

I'll miss him terribly.


Ben loved going to the lake. This is him during a trip we took to Kanopolis.

March 8, 2014

Dr. Strangecountry, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Morocco

I wrote the following some time in the Summer of 2013 to be published in the Peace Corps literary journal, PeaceWorks. I just read the finished product, and thought I would be lazy and reproduce what I wrote there for this blog post. Enjoy!

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For one year now, I have listened to Moroccans tell me things—ridiculous things, shocking things, things that fly in from far out of left field, that make me choke on an olive or spray qhwa nusnus all over the table in astonishment. I suffer from chronic bruising about the nose and brow, the result of repeated face-palming (and periodic face-desking). Every volunteer, I imagine, is familiar with the flavors of absurdity to which I allude. A taste:

“Science has actually proven that Ramadan [denying the body both solids and liquids during daylight for one month, then, instead of sleeping at night, gorging on massive amounts of sweets, nuts, and carbs] makes you healthier.”

“Morocco is full of diversity! Not like America... [in fact, Morocco is 98.7% Muslim and 99.1% Arab-Berber]” 

“Our [super-saturated] mint tea [approximating the consistency of syrup] can’t cause diabetes! It cures illness!”

“American Muslims aren’t true Muslims because they are in gangs [because they’re black, and all black people in the US are in gangs].”

“Also, science has proven that eating with your hands is healthier than eating with a fork [Oh c’mon!].”

“It has been proven that it is impossible to have just one drink
of alcohol [...huh?].”

And my favorite: “The way to solve all the world’s conflicts is to exterminate the Jews [well everybody is entitled to their own--wait, what?!].”

Moroccans are fiercely loyal to their team, and their team is--what? Their country? The Arab world? The Muslim world? It is all of these groups, and all things that belong to these groups are, by virtue of belonging to these groups, the best things. Arabic is the most beautiful and poetic language. Mohammed is the best prophet. Couscous is the tastiest food. Muslim values are the most uplifting. Arabic history is the most important and interesting of any history. And any idea, country, or institution that could threaten the supremacy of these things is rightly lambasted.

I think of it as a super-charged, border-flexible patriotism. When Moroccans talk to me about their country, I sometimes picture them with one of those giant foam fingers, but the finger is usually flipping me off, because the implication, more often than not, is that American values are depraved, American history is too short to be important, and American culture is tainted by all sorts of shameful things, like depictions of people in art. I call this show of patriotism ‘flipping the giant, foam bird.’

What especially bothers me is that the tone of this patriotism is indistinguishable from the tone of, say, a group of Steelers fans waxing bumptious, chest-bumping, back-slapping. In fact, fanboyism is exactly how I’d characterize the prevailing attitude toward values, art, religion, and all those things that should not be approached while donning the giant foam finger.

Take me out to the ball game, 
Take me out to the crowd,
Buy me some harsha and mlwi, 
Wash it down with some cloying sweet tea,
Let me root root root for Morocco, 
If they don’t win it’s hshuma,
For it’s one thing to love your country, but it’s quite another to see ev-- oh sorry, were you still trying to sing? I say, it’s quite another to plant evidence for your country’s superiority in every news item, scientific study, and political analysis that filters its way through the creato-destructive, Shiva-esque machinery that is the Moroccan mind.

There are a number of factors that make this so, and it would behoove us as representatives of the U.S. and as foreign aid workers to be ever-mindful of them. In fact, we ought to tape them next to our bathroom mirrors.

Fanboyism
In 1954, experimenters introduced two groups of 12-year-old boys into Robber’s Cave State Park, Oklahoma. The two groups were placed in cabins far enough apart that, during the first phase of the experiment, they were completely unaware of each other’s existence. The groups quickly established strong bonds, going so far as to develop their own codes of conduct and daily rituals.

When the two groups were finally made to discover each other, they were at first antagonistic. The experimenters set up a series of competitions for the boys. The antagonism grew. Supplies were stolen. Attack parties were formed. The experimenters had to intervene when the two groups were ready to - no kidding - engage in actual combat with stone-filled socks and Boy Scout knives.

Foreboding though it may be, this is instinctual behavior. We need to form an in-group, a clan. We need to have an ‘other’ to mock, scorn, taunt, and tease (and sometimes overpower and conquer). It was not too long ago in Morocco’s history that clan warfare was still a common occurrence. Remember how strong and primal a feeling this is, how hard it can be to overcome, and how comfortably we slip into clan mentality.

Schemata
We’ve got webs in our heads. Psychologists call them schemata. They are webs of ideas, like courage is the highest virtue, the end does not justify the means, or Tea Party politicians don’t know American history. When we encounter something that doesn’t fit in this web, we have two options: 1) accommodate the new information by restructuring our web, or 2) assimilate the information into our web by modifying it, reinterpreting its implications, or downplaying its significance.

If I release a piece chalk and it floats to the ceiling, I can either change my idea about how gravity works, or I can think, “This is no ordinary chalk.” That second option, assimilation, is always easier, and is most often the route that groups take (Creationists are well-practiced assimilators, for example).

The tendency to assimilate is so much stronger when we aren’t familiar with the grayness of the world, the nuance and contradiction and moral messiness that is human existence. And because this is our brains’ default tactic, as long as we have plenty of authority figures feeding us assimilation techniques, no matter how bizarre, we are all too eager to employ them.

Remember this, and keep in mind Morocco’s condition: the nature of public schooling, the gravity of tradition, and the reverence paid to that which is eternally unchanging.

Cognitive Dissonance
In 1959, two psychologists tried their darndest to bore people. You wouldn’t think this would be too hard, but nonetheless, they put some work into it. First, they asked a number of students to engage in a meaningless, tedious exercise, which involved a square board with a grid of wooden pegs. Instructions went like this:

Remove peg from board. Turn peg 90 degrees. Place peg back in board. Next peg. Remove peg from board. Turn peg 90 degrees. Place peg back in board. Next peg. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

This went on for an hour.

After serving their time, the students were required to recruit another ‘participant’ (who was actually another experimenter acting the part) by convincing him that the experiment was really fun. “And for helping us out,” the psychologists told the students, “We’ll reimburse you for your time.” Half were offered $20. The rest were offered $1.

Which students were the better liars? Counterintuitive though it may seem, the ones who were paid only $1 were superior. They were so good, in fact, that they managed to convince themselves. You see, after the ‘recruitment’ was finished, the experimenters took the students aside: “Okay, now tell us what you really thought of the experience,” to which the $20 recipients replied, “Are you kidding? I was turning pegs for an hour! It was boring as hell!” But the poor schmucks who got $1? Well, they said something like, “You know, it was actually pretty interesting. I’d do it again.”

Both groups experienced intense boredom for an hour. But for one, it was okay, because, awesome! twenty bucks! For the rest, they had two options: live with the unpleasant, dissonant thought that they had just wasted an hour of their lives with little to show for it, or alter their perception of the experience by convincing themselves that they in fact had a good time, thereby removing the unpleasantness. The second option is what our brains are wired to do.

Which makes me wonder: what kind of psychological toll does it take, living in a society with rampant unemployment, few scientific achievements to speak of, lousy literacy rates, and (no offense, Morocco) terrible movies? More to the point, what is the psychological toll of feeling trapped in such a country, knowing that your chances of getting a visa are slim to none?

I’ll never know, but I’ll bet you one thing – if I were confined to a lifetime of Morocco, it would be a lot more enjoyable if I could convince myself that it was, indeed, the best. Do you see what I mean? 

Okay then, good. Now I can congratulate myself on my keen insight and unparalleled penetration into the workings of the Moroccan people. Satisfied that I finally understand what makes them tick, I-- wait. Americans are prone to cognitive bias, too. PCVs ought to be acutely aware of something called asymmetrical insight.

Asymmetrical Insight
We’re all familiar with this phenomenon. We fancy ourselves to be complex people, mysterious, deep, impenetrable. At the same time, we believe that we basically have everyone else figured out.

When we volunteers voice complaints about x, y, or z, we should keep this tendency in mind. Far be it from us to presume that U.S. culture is nuanced and complex while Moroccan culture is an open book.

If we are at all honest with ourselves, I think we’ll start to sniff – in our judgments, in our thoughts, in the stories we relate to relatives and anecdotes we share with each other – the faint odor of cognitive bias. We are not rational creatures. No, not even PCVs. We are subject to the same chemical tides as our Moroccan brothers and sisters, and forgetting this puts us at risk of assuming a position of criticism we’re not ready for.

Bringing It All Together
Take a deep breath. Now exhale. Your mind is a mound of silly putty, enveloping an egg. Your thoughts are roosters slung from a trebuchet. Your soul is a soggy nursery rhyme.

Okay, so none of those things paints a particularly noble picture of what we’re made of, but then again, we are by and large a clumsy congress of error, bias, and desperate, emotionally-charged attempts to make sense of the world. We’re disturbingly partisan, expert bastardizers of information, and we’ve been placed squarely in the middle of an out-group with whom we share precious few commonalities. The odds aren’t great that we’ll assess the situation perfectly.

Our job is to develop Moroccans. I want to change their thinking, and I want to change their values. Rather than coming at them as experts, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could approach them as fellow mistake-makers, laugh together at human folly, and in so doing, sharpen each other’s self-awareness and critical thinking skills?

May we always keep a suspicious, wary eye on the trajectory of our thoughts and judgments, lest we one day find ourselves filling our socks with rocks.

February 11, 2014

In which I sing the praises of my mudir

Admittedly, I don't often praise my local counterparts. Usually, getting them to work effectively with me is like getting blood out of a stone. For the moment, though, let's focus on what my mudir is like on a personal level.

We have a wonderful relationship. He has many names for me, including, "l3awni" (an old-fashioned Moroccan name, meaning "my helper"), "father Eugene," "my uncle," "Aristotle," and, since I've stopped shaving, "Barbarossa." He often tells me that he thinks of me as his son (he has no children).

We have a half a dozen different kinds of handshakes and fist-bumps, and he likes to deploy them at random in order to confuse me, which makes me laugh despite myself.

Mostafa likes to bring me things. If I call in sick, he is known to walk across town bearing a pot of soup and medicine (sometimes western medicine, sometimes traditional). Sometimes at the end of class, he'll usher me into his office, where he will stick a loaf of home-made bread or a sack of fruit into my backpack.

He patiently helps with my Darija. If I mis-use a word, he not only corrects me, but launches into a veritable lecture, detailing the situations in which the incorrect word would have been appropriate, drawing connections between related names or words which I may have already learned. When misunderstood, he repeats himself without a hint of irritation.

One of his favorite things is idioms, and he could chat for hours about french and arabic idioms and joke phrases. For my part, I like to bring him some unusual English idioms, like, "There is more than one way to skin a cat." He really gets a kick out of those.

Most importantly, Mostafa understands that life in a foreign country is difficult for us volunteers. He sympathizes with my struggles, listening politely when I feel the need to rail against the peace corps or other Moroccans and their ways. It's obvious that he puts effort into understanding my situation with compassion.

His wife is a tremendous woman, and when the two of them have me over as their guest, they are always generous and accommodating to the nth degree. I often leave their house with a box full of Moroccan sweets, a loaf of bread, several bags of spices, or a kilo of butter.

He is much more open-minded than other Moroccans I've met, and I've felt comfortable telling him about things I'd never tell other Moroccans: that I drink, for instance, or that I have no religion. I'll expand a bit on this in my next post, about critical thinking in Morocco.

Mudirs are one of the chief stressors volunteers experience, and though mine is not always there for me at work (literally - he often doesn't show up), I know I can always count on him to be there for me when I'm depressed or in need of a healthy, home-cooked meal. Indeed, I don't know many volunteers who personally enjoy their mudir as much as I enjoy mine.

I often say to him, "Mostafa, ila ma-knti-sh, ma-knt-sh baqi f-laounate" - "If it weren't for you, I wouldn't still be in Laounate." And that's the truth.

January 30, 2014

Frustration in the Peace Corps

Our fatigue is often caused not by work, but by worry, frustration and resentment. 
- Dale Carnegie 

Some days, I sit on my ponj and stare into space, immobilized by disappointment. A gloomy cloud lurks just beyond the outer limits of my vision. I can sense its existence, its inexorable approach. It is composed of millions of indistinguishable particles of ennui, and unless it dissipates, it will soon surround me and fill my lungs and settle in my pores and precipitate more indifference.

At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say,—'Come out unto us.' But keep thy state; come not into their confusion. The power men possess to annoy me I give them by a weak curiosity. No man can come near me but through my act. 
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

In September of 2012, I attended a library-building workshop in a strange and beautiful coastal town called Agadir. Installing a library in the local youth center was one of the many goals for my service. The workshop required I bring a counterpart, so in the weeks leading up it, I worked the idea on the youth center director, Mostafa. He was unreservedly enthusiastic. We discussed the installation of shelves and other necessary preparations, smiles all the way. Days before the scheduled workshop, he backed out, citing obligations to remain in town while the youth center was to be repainted. The next day, I discovered hidden away in the back room of the youth center a shelf full of French and Arabic books - novels, history, poetry. He had never mentioned them in all our discussions. As I stood there, bemusedly picking up one tome after another, he entered. He looked embarrassed; I was apparently not meant to discover his hoard. "Oh, Eugene. Oh!" Then he assured me that while he was not coming to the workshop, he was still excited about the prospects of a library accessible to all the youth. "We can incorporate these books into the books that you bring," he promised.

I attended the workshop alone. When I returned to site, Mostafa was wrapped up in how nice the youth center looked with a new paint job and couldn't be bothered to learn about that which I brought back from the workshop. Some weeks later, my regional manager brought with her two large boxes full of Arabic books for children and teens. The director couldn't have cared less. Currently, they are in my "office," a spare room in the youth center without chairs, tables, or shelves. The director's hoard is still in a dusty corner in another unused room. Over a year has passed since the workshop, and despite constant petitioning, I cannot arouse the faintest trace of interest in putting all of those books in a place where kids can access them. From time to time, a student of mine will borrow one from my office. This is my library.

It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. 
- Jesus

In November of 2012, I signed up for another workshop, part of an international curriculum to teach youth "life skills." The director again swooned over the idea and promised his full support. Mostafa would be the educator for groups of up to thirty youth as they learned how to manage their emotions, live healthy lifestyles, prepare for life in the workforce. The day before departure, he backed out, and again, I attended sans partner.

That same year, I tried to start the program anyway, using the only counterpart I could find, a fifteen-year-old student from the local high school named Salah. Though full of enthusiasm, and though exceptionally in attendance at our meetings, he was simply too young to take on the burden of leading the class. We tried, and fell short, of completing a session for the 2012-2013 school year.

This year, we tried again. I stayed in touch with the two English high school teachers in my community via email. Both were practically giddy with enthusiasm. Neither have made good on that enthusiasm. One was Salah's teacher. "Eugene, I have really good news, man. My teacher said she would lead the life skills course this year. She will meet with us on Friday here at the youth center." She did not meet with us on Friday, nor did she call to cancel. She simply and without explanation didn't show up. Next week: "She said she had business in El Jadida. She says for sure she will be here this Friday." She shouldn't have been so sure. The next week I gave up on her when Salah admitted that she didn't even show up for class that day. "What did the students do?" I asked. "We sat there for two hours and then we went home," he said. The other teacher didn't feel the need to deceive me through a living person; she stuck to email, and for this I am grateful, for I took it far less personally. 

This last November, I participated in "Bike4SIDA," a volunteer-led HIV/AIDS public awareness campaign. It was overwhelmingly successful (as things seem to be when they aren't concentrated in my site). I returned to my site reinvigorated. Evan, Carly, and Alex came down to revel in our triumph. Mostafa found them at the taxi stand and informed them that he and Salah had started the Life Skills program in the youth center without me. When I heard the news, I couldn't believe it, but at the youth center, Mostafa showed me the sign-up sheet with something like 60 attendees and happily recounted his role as teacher. Salah explained that he had rounded up a bunch of students from the high school and that we were well on our way to a good year. I was impressed and pledged my support, while reminding them that we had to pack at least two lessons into each week in order to finish before baccalaureate exams in June.

The next weekend I was again out of site, but they continued without me. For a few days, I wondered if they just might be able to pull it off. I was feeling a new kind of feeling towards members of my community. Pride, I think it was. On the third week, I was to be in attendance. Still we had no set list, because the group was expanding week-by-week. Close to 70 youth piled into the youth center. The director was nowhere to be found. Salah came up to me and said, "Last week, we didn't finish the lesson. We should do it again this week."

"What lesson are we on now?"

"The first one."

"What? This is the third week. We should be on lesson five."

"I know, but the students don't listen to me. They talk a lot and don't listen. We should do it again."

"Okay, well it shouldn't be hard, since all you have to do is what you did last week."

"Oh, sorry man, I didn't get to read the lesson."

"But you read it last week? Surely you remember it."


"No, I actually didn't do it last week. You'll have to do it by yourself."

I'll leave it to your imagination the surprise, anger, and frustration I then expressed. We limped through the lesson using my insufficient arabic skills and Salah's insufficient assistance. The mass of students in attendance was impossible to control or quiet down. In truth, they weren't there to learn at all, but to hang out and flirt with their sweethearts.

Then came a long-awaited and much-deserved vacation. I spent over two weeks in the greatest country on earth, enjoying family, friends, and so much holiday food.

Morocco again. Back at the youth center.

"Eugene! We missed you! The students in life skills ask about you every week. We are still doing the class every week. There are 80 students! We have three classes a week."

"Wow, Mostafa, that's literally unbelievable. I'll be in Sidi Ifni this weekend. I hope it goes well. Then I'll check in again on the next Saturday to see where we are."

Sidi Ifni. Fun and laughter and friends. Tafraoute. Heaven.

Then Al-Aounate again. I arrived on Friday and met with the director in his office. Mostafa launched into his self-aggrandizing lectures on the success of the life skills program and his heavy involvement therein. I interrupt:

"Which lesson are we on now?"

"Understanding emotions."

"Mostafa, that's lesson two. You've been doing this for eight weeks."

*shrug*

*anger* "Okay, I'll prepare some stuff at home tonight and bring it in tomorrow for the class. Some video and audio stuff, to catch their attention and keep their interest. Will the projector be available?"

"Yes, sure. I am sure. See you at 10."

Next day, 10AM at the youth center.

"Salah, have you seen Mostafa?"

"No. So bad news, Eugene. I didn't read the lesson, so it's all you today."

"Salah, how many times do I have to go over this? I can't teach the lesson."

"Just teach it in English, man. This is interesting for them. They'll listen to somebody who is speaking in English, because it's new for them."

"Salah, maybe two students will be able to understand me. You are one of them. The rest will tune me out. You have to at least translate for me. And by the way, what the hell have you been doing for the last eight weeks that you haven't taught a single god-damn lesson?"

"Okay man, I'll help."

I went for the projector, which was in use by the computer skills volunteer in the youth center. He must have felt sorry for me, because he gave it up. The discomfort I felt in inconveniencing him was dwarfed by resentment towards the director, who was still missing.

"Salah, why is the sound cutting out on these speakers?"

"The wires are all broken, man."

"Fucking Moroccans don't know how to take care of their shit." I was obviously angry, and taking it out on Salah. But I was right, and he deserved it, so I felt no compunction.

*15 minutes passed as we waited for the director and wrestled with the wiring on the sound system*

"Okay Salah, I'm going to run to my house and grab some other wires. It'll only take 10 minutes. You're in charge while I'm gone."

"Okay man, but hurry. And call Mostafa and ask him where he is."

On my way across town to my home, I call Mostafa. It is now 45 minutes into class time.

"Oh hi Eugene!"

"Mostafa, where are you?!"

"I'm at home!"

"...Well I need the markers in your office, and the paper. You need to be here!"

"Okay, I am coming."

I grabbed the cord from my house and headed back. With each step the outrage mounted.

Back at the youth center, the kids were still at their big tables, playing cards, taking pictures on their cell phones, flirting - you know, teenager things. I hooked up the new cords. Success. I also noticed that there were markers and paper left out, and that the director was missing again.

"Salah, did you see Mostafa come in?"

"No man, I haven't seen him. Did you call him?"

"Yeah, he said he was coming. He must have came and left. Damn it, let's just start the lesson."

"Eugene, wait. This guy wants to sing a song."

"What? Who? What does this have to do with the lesson?"

"Please. Eugene. He's been asking for three weeks to sing. Just let him sing one song."

By this point I had ceded control to hysteria, so it sounded like a fine idea to me. The boy clambered up onto the stage and sang his song, and I found myself laughing, irrationally silly.

When he finished, I attempted to regain control of the situation by introducing the topic - emotions - and asking the students to provide some examples of common emotions. One student - Yassine - fittingly offered "angry," and I asked Salah to write it on the board. "Good. What else?" Yassine raised his hand again, but I was looking for a different student to volunteer an answer. A vain attempt it was, as Yassine was apparently the only student in the crowd interested in what I had to say.

Soon, I noticed that Salah, my translator, had slipped out of the room, and I was left completely alone. The remainder of the class (by this point, we didn't have an awful lot of time anyway) was chaotic and disastrous. I dismissed the students at twelve and immediately thought about going home and smoking an entire package of cigarettes. Mostafa showed up at the tail end of the class, and as the students were filing out, gave me a big thumbs up and, with a goofy grin, exclaimed, "Good! You were the director today!"

I gave him a thumbs down and scowled at him. "No good, Mostafa. Bad. Very bad."

We then had the same conversation that we've had dozens of times. Commitment. Preparation. Competency. All things that were required to run this curriculum that both he and Salah, the alleged leaders, lacked. We have given up on Life Skills, due to our mutually exclusive approaches to implementation (the right way vs the lazy way). But it's not all bad. Saturdays and Sundays are now activity days for the kiddos. They like hanging out at the youth center, and I like that they're there. You win some and you lose some.

The saying goes, "Get used to disappointment." This exhortation has no better-fitting place than in the Peace Corps. I'm not unhappy or unsatisfied with my time in Morocco. I have had quite a few successful projects, and several good youth camps. Only one has been in my own site. My English classes (and students) also bring me respite from my troubles. Mostafa and his wife are both wonderfully personable, generous, and kind, and I enjoy visiting them for a meal every once in a while. I wouldn't trade this experience for two years in a well-paying office job. But it is rather disappointing. Nearly every job-related interaction with a Moroccan turns out to be a major let-down. I find myself mistrusting them from the very first words of any conversation.

But like Jesus warned, I ought not kick against the pricks. It would go badly. So I laugh. It may sound like flirting with madness, but it's the only way I know how to cope with near-constant frustration. I say to myself, "That's the way the cookie crumbles." I make cookies, and then eat them, or just the cookie dough. I visit Carly and Evan, and the three of us laugh together. I call Kyla and laugh with her. I yell at my downstairs neighbors in funny voices and laugh at myself. Our time here is a 2-year-long episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm with Larry David's role being replaced by the Jack from The Shining as played by Jack Nicholson. 

Mining for the humor in bad situations is my favorite Peace Corps pastime, and I'm damned lucky that I have friends who laugh with me, because what a sorry service it would be if I surrounded myself with humorless mopes. So this post goes out to the fellow crazies, the nuts, the loonies, and the weirdos. I would never have survived without you.

November 30, 2013

The Crazy Folk

The crazy folk. Not the most sensitive term, but admittedly the one I use with other volunteers. Every community has them. They are by turns amusing, tragic, and terrifying.

---

My first was The Top. I met him in my first week of service in Aounate. At that time, I had no internet access in my home, so I lugged my old laptop, Lappy, to the sole wi-fi-enabled cafe in town. Sipping my bitter brew, I saw him there, in the cafe patio, deftly spinning in place. He must have been in his early 40's, in good physical health, by all appearances. Upon his head, a dark, curly quasi-fro, and on his face, intense concentration. His eyes focused on no man, and through his lips passed nothing intelligible. He simply spun. Spun and mumbled.

Another caffeinated patron noticed my interest and alarm. In a most reassuring tone, he said "Hania, hania. Mashi Xatir. Thnna." - "It's fine, it's fine. He's not dangerous. Don't worry about it." 

That night, long after my neighborhood had checked in for the evening, I climbed onto the top of my roof, so as to get a feel for PAM, the compact residential neighborhood to which I had recently moved. I surveyed my surroundings. Late into the night, after the toddlers have been wrangled up and the children have tired of street-ball and the rebel youth have smoked through their last cigarettes, PAM is almost serene. I saw some chickens poking around in a trash pile three stories below. I saw dusty alleyways, empty and dark and strangely inviting. I saw the last few electric lights still burning in half a dozen windows throughout town. And turning to the south, I saw The Top. He was standing in a well-lit street several blocks down, all alone, going through his bizarre ritual motions. His voice was barely audible, but as far as I could tell, his words (such as they were) were not meant for others, nor were they meant to be understood. They just were. Like his movements, or his curly hair, or his unobjectionable presence in public places, The Top and his strange language were just ambience, a thread in the tapestry of everyday life in Aounate.

He spoke to me once. I was at the cafe again, sipping the same bitter coffee that I always order, and The Top walked over and sat at a nearby table. In perfectly coherent Arabic, he began to ask me where I was from, what I was doing in Aounate, how I learned the language - the same battery of questions that will forever be the mainstay of PCV-to-HCN smalltalk. "Come to my house," he then said, after satisfying his curiosity. "Come have tea."

What followed was an picture perfect exercise in the disintegration of polite conversation. The Top was persistent, and fellow patrons offered no assistance, though they followed the conversation with inquisitive, un-averted eyes. My tactics necessarily shifted from the gracious refusal to regretful excuse-making to outright rejection. At this point, he was pleading with me, confusion all about his face. "Why won't you come to my house? Come have tea with me! Come with me to my house!!" I had run out of ideas, so I stood up and walked away, awkwardly apologizing as I went. This wasn't the first time one of the crazy folk had invited me to their house.

---

The first time it happened from the post office. I was setting up my PO box when a skinny, bald-headed skeleton of a man approached, speaking perfect English. Deadeyes Dick, I call him, because when he talks to you, his eyes are as distant as if he were in the thralls of a powerful hallucinogenic drug. He offered assistance in translating my needs (assistance which was absolutely un-needed) to the postmaster. He ran through the usual questions, explained that he used to be an English professor, and offered to show me where he lives. As he spoke, he wore a perpetual sinister grin, and spittle and drool constantly escaped his mouth. He took me a few streets into PAM and showed me his house, making sure I remembered all of the landmarks and right-hand turns. With characteristic politeness, I thanked him and took my leave.

The next day, Deadeyes Dick came into the youth center where I was working. He did not stop to address the director in his office, but made a bee-line for me. He told me to come to his house that evening for a tagine. "Sorry," I replied, "but I have couscous with my host family tonight." Deadeyes left, and as I prepared to do the same, the director hushedly ushered me into his office. In a low, barely audible tone, he warned me: "Do not have lunch with this man." If my own misgivings weren't enough, that did it for me. I exited the youth center to make my way to my host family's house, but Deadeyes was waiting for me. "Come to my house now and have tagine with me," he demanded. I must rid myself of this man, I thought. Something about him is not right. Maybe another adult can scare him away.

So I led him into the office of my host father. Giving every indication that I wanted no part in this man's invitation, I explained to my host father that this man wanted me to come to his house, but could you please explain to him that we have a couscous date tonight. "Mashi mushkil, sir m3ah. Kul tagine m3ah u rj3 3la kusksu. Mashi Mushkil!" - "It's no problem, go with him! Eat tagine with him and then return for couscous. No problem!" Damn, this did not go the way I wanted it to go. Minutes later, I was trapped with Deadeyes eating an extremely suspect tagine under his oppressive stare.

I guess it could have gone worse. He could have torn my throat out with a fork or tried to kiss me, I suppose.

One day, about two months in-site, he disappeared. I no longer saw him at the post office. He did not come into the youth center. People I asked suggested his mental health had gotten worse and he was in some hospital in some other town, but no one seemed to know. I forgot about him for nearly a year.

Then, this last summer, I saw him again. Understand that in the summer, nary a soul ventures into the youth center, and on this day, I was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude out in the courtyard. I looked up from my book to see Deadeyes standing in the foyer and looking around as if he were lost. His glazed look slowly drank in the scattered papers pinned to the bulletin board, and then slowly turned its way to where I was sitting. He slumped towards me with a look that bespoke fear, confusion, and rage all at the same time. Inside, I was terrified, but I'd be damned to reveal that to a crazy man. "Hi! How are you?" I queried in the cheeriest voice I could muster. His facial expression didn't change. He arched his neck steadily so as to meet my eyes, as if for the first time realizing I was there. When he saw me, he cocked his head a little and his upper lip twitched a little, and I was in turn filled with not a little disquiet. I tried some other simple English greetings, and when none of those earned a response, I tried again in Arabic. I seemed to be angering him, so I turned my concentration to thinking of all of the best escape routes from my desk.

Finally, he spoke. "Where are we?" It was an angry tone, almost accusatory. I smiled nervously and said, "We're in Aounate, of course!"

"No! Where are we?"
"Umm... why, we're in the youth center in Aounate. Arbaa Aounate. How are you?"
"No!" At this point, he was practically shouting. "Where are we exactly?"
"I.. uh, I don't know what you--"
"I'll tell you. We're nowhere. Everything is air."

I then heard what I can safely call the most ominous and unsettling laugh ever uttered by man. Damn. I'm in a tight spot. I must not let the fear show. Oh god, why has his hand been in his pocket this whole time? What does he have in his pocket? Will my family only remember the good things? I hope Peace Corps pays for the funeral.

"Do you know where Osama bin Laden is?"
Dear god. What have I done to deserve this? "...What?"
"I said, do you know where Osama bin Laden is?"
"He's dead. Osama bin Laden is dead."
"NO! He's alive. He lives here in Aounate."
"..." breathe deeply. keep it together. "Oh really? How do you know that? Have you seen him?"
"No, nobody can see him. He's invisible." *grin*
"I have to go to the director's office. I need to talk to my director."

I can assure you that as I stood to leave, I kept a close eye on that pocketed hand. Deadeyes followed me to the office with the same angry look on his face. To my director, I raised as many red flags as possible. Even a child could have understood the subtext from my body language and tone: this guy is really fucking creeping me out and I don't want him in this building or around me anymore. please help. It all bounced off the director's head. "Safi, Eugene? Ready to go home? I'll see you at 4."

So then I was stuck walking home with Deadeyes in tow. In broad daylight, I felt marginally safer, but when I got to PAM, he demanded I come to his home. I did not bother with politeness, but said, "No. I'm going to my home now." 

"I will come with you."
"No. I will go to my house alone and you will go to yours."

He made no reply but began to focus intensely at my feet. Alarmed, I looked down too, but saw nothing unusual.

"Look out! Look out for the cockroach!"
"What? Is there a cockroach down here?"
"NO!!" His anger flared. "In the kitchen!" More sinister laughter. I hurried to my door.

He has been into the youth center one other time, when a fellow PCV was visiting. She immediately picked up on the creepiness and started to squirm in her chair. Deadeyes was sucking on an unlit cigarette butt and asking nonsensical questions. That time, the director escorted the man out. Apparently, it is unseemly to let a crazy man harass a guest in the youth center, but for me it's A-Okay.

Later, I had a talk with the director about Deadeyes. Despite his assurances that the man is not dangerous, I told him, "You know, Mostafa, sometimes, people can become more dangerous. Maybe he wasn't dangerous before, but maybe his health is getting worse. We don't know."

That seemed to do it, for Mostafa has not let him back into the youth center since then, and hopefully never will again. These days, when I see Deadeyes, I pretend I don't. When he calls for me, I pretend I don't hear him. This is for the best.

---

They are not always menacing. The last man I will describe always greets me with boisterous joviality and goodwill. I call him Brother Smokes, because every time he sees me, he smiles, shakes my hand, calls me brother, and asks me if I want to smoke hashish with him. Needless to say, I have never taken him up on his offer, and he is never affronted by my rejection. It is a peaceable relationship, ours. Brother Smokes always reminds me that we are friends, and amiably keeps his drug-sharing offer on the table. "Do you know Mr. Robert?" He repeatedly asks me in perfect English, referring to a volunteer who served a brief stint in Aounate in 2003 before being evacuated due to the Iraq war. He pronounces Robert's name in the French fashion, for reasons I cannot understand. "Mr. Robert smoked with me. He was a good man. He was my brother. Do you want to smoke with with me?"

I doubt whether the last volunteer would have willingly smoked marijuana with this man, but crazier things have been known to happen in Peace Corps.

Usually, Brother Smokes grabs my attention from a great distance, shouting my name across crowds or traffic or herds of sheep to get my attention. But one time last summer, around the same time as my run-in with Deadeyes Dick, Smokes was waiting for me on the oft-empty little street that runs in front of the youth center. I had just turned the corner on my way to work, when suddenly he was beside me, grinning and shaking my hand and releasing a torrent of speech - only this time, his fluency in English was completely gone. He was rattling line after line of English-sounding words that had no decipherable meaning. Thrown off-guard, I tried to re-rail the conversation by throwing Arabic at him, but a few words in, he cut me off in equally incoherent French-sounding words, which eventually shifted to some French-English para-language fusion. He did not pause for response or check my level of comprehension; he just continued in garbled nonsense for the entire length of the street, holding my hand and smiling all the while. I walked with him right past the door of the youth center, knowing he'd follow me in if I only gave him the chance. Instead, I got to the end of the street and feigned obligation towards the left. Mercifully, he had his own plans on the right, and we parted ways. Only then did he stop talking. I circled the block and went into the youth center unaccompanied and prematurely exhausted.

---

Crazy people are a frequent topic of conversation here in the Doukkala region, where they thrive in inordinate numbers. One question that is often on the minds of volunteers is: Why, in a country where so few people speak English, are almost all of the crazy people fluent in it? One theory is that they exported mentally-ill people from the bigger cities, where English education is much more prominent. This has been corroborated by some Moroccans who claim that the city folk don't want to deal with them, so the countryside serves as a kind of exile. Another theory is that those with enough education to learn English must also necessarily come to appreciate the vast material divide between the English-speaking world and their own society, and some fraction go mad out of frustration or hopelessness. My favorite theory, albeit the least likely, is that there are a great many more crazy people than we realize - that if we could only understand Arabic fluently, we'd see that, for instance, the chatty men sitting across from me in the cafe right now are actually speaking in nonsense on par with Deadeyes or Brother Smokes.

Whatever the reason, the crazy folk are here, part and parcel of life in Aounate. Street vendors often give them free meals, and people here treat them with a decent measure of respect. I often hear from folks that this is a good example of why Muslim communities are superior to Christian communities, where these folks would be confined to a hospital building. 

Let's nevermind that there are about a thousand things wrong with this comparison. It is, however, interesting to imagine a community in which mentally nonstandard persons are not only accepted as a normal part of life, but allowed to wander into coffee shops, restaurants, and Wal-Marts, shouting or staring at customers, or spinning like tops. Hmm, come to think of it, maybe it's better that we treat our mentally ill citizens with health care rather than spare pieces of chicken.

September 2, 2013

A Haunting

It was during my 14th year of life that I decided to start doing more with my time than play video games. That I had wasted so much of my burgeoning adolescence on electronic entertainment is only slightly less disturbing than that which came to replace it: fervent religious fundamentalism. With high school came devotional readings, bible camps, youth group, and a strong conviction that I had a duty to warn Sterling High that we were all balancing on the precipice, in danger of eternal hellfire. I suspect that this preoccupation made me somewhat awkward throughout high school.

It was then that I transformed from a shy, mild-mannered, sometimes-clownish kid into a terrifying spiritual force, constantly harassing foul-mouthed students, refusing to read Catcher in the Rye, waging war against the teaching of evolution in biology class (a battle which I took all the way to the superintendent's office). I once persecuted my economics teacher for handing out an article that included the word "ass." I rode a particularly high horse. Besides that, my best friend (another fundamentalist) and I started an early morning Bible-study club in the band room called S.O.S. (Serving Our Savior), a weekly meeting in which we would berate fellow SHS Christians for not being serious enough about their relationship with God. My reputation preceded me.

I took great satisfaction in my apartness. Indeed, through church I was led to believe that it was a great virtue to be totally aloof of whatever circles "the world" ran in and instead set myself apart for God. Hence, I didn't believe in dating, drinking, secular music, or any other kind of pop culture or "worldly" entertainment, really. You know, an all-around fun guy.

Briefly, I considered skipping college and diving right into missionary training school in Oaxaca, Mexico, but a very dear woman menaced me into giving college a shot, so I went to The Master's College, a Christ-centered "liberal arts" college in Santa Clarita, California. For the first time in my life, I surrounded myself with a community of like-minded people and escaped the Satanic swamp that was the public education system.

Nonetheless, I soon felt disconnected from this new student population, which was pretty homogenous in their John MacArthur psuedo-fundamentalist brand of low-church evangelical Calvinism. I was going through some spiritual changes, and instead associated with a high-church, baby-baptizing, Eucharist-eating, decidedly non-fundamentalist Reformed congregation. Now to you non-church-goers, this might seem like the difference between Maille Dijon and Grey Poupon, but let me tell you, these crowds take their mustards pretty seriously. Every time my collar-sporting pastor gave me a ride back to campus, the eyes of just about everyone around popped out of their heads: "Sweet Jesus, what is a Catholic priest doing on our campus?!"

The upshot of all of this is that I was once again a separate species from my peers, and I made just about all of my friends extremely uncomfortable whenever we talked about theological things (i.e. every moment of every day). Oh, and I still didn't believe in dating. Go college.

Ahem, so after a year, I transferred to a Presbyterian college - very mainstream, very safe. They accepted all kinds of Christian (we even had a few Catholic students and one Eastern Orthodox guy) and taught things like literature and psychology, which TMC apparently regarded as demonic. Regardless of the change of environment, I was still not satisfied with where my journey had taken me. It was then that I lost my faith. For the remainder of my undergraduate program, I was a lonely non-believer surrounded by very earnest believers.

Imagine what terrific sense of purpose must have filled Frodo and his crew in Fellowship of the Ring. What grand sense of direction! What meaning! What moral certitude! Until my de-conversion, this was what life had been like. Throughout my mission trips, school chapels, and youth group meetings, I was made to feel like that hobbit. God had a supremely important mission for me, and I could do nothing better in life than to bend every desire and impulse to the purpose of fulfilling this mission. I had been pouring my studies into theology and missionary theory and Biblical Greek and apologetics. I had fashioned every friendship, every mentorship with the aim of sharpening my faith to a fine edge. And then the doubt began.

After so much certainty, doubt. Imagine, all of my past ambitions, my identity and anchor and source of emotional sustenance - I had to come to terms with the fact that I no longer bought any of it. All my friends felt I had rebuffed them. Those from my first college stopped talking to me. The people from my churches stopped talking to me. Certain professors eyed me with suspicion. Things became extremely uncomfortable around my sister and mother. That sense of direction vanished. The moral certitude gave way. The low ceiling of my little world shattered, and suddenly I was standing in a great expanse.

How could I have been so certain and yet so wrong? How is that possible, from a bright young student, the valedictorian? I had kept myself so narrowly aligned, lived so particularly, alienated so many other students, alienated myself -- for what? To eventually dismiss it all as a grave error in judgement.

I was accused of many things during that transitionary time - that I was running away from God, that the carnal flesh looks for ways to excuse wrongdoings, that I was merely in a phase, that I was really just deeply sad and confused - but I was never accused of being brave. Not one friend or family member congratulated me for taking a positive step. Only I did this. (Later, I found support, especially in a certain professor and a certain friend. You two know who you are.)

I'm writing all of this in order to better understand why, to this day, I carry with me the nagging suspicion that I make people uncomfortable, that something about me is so often off-putting. But now I'm beginning to understand. Since becoming a real person, I've had only three peer groups that have lasted longer than a few months: my fellow students and teachers at Sterling High School, my fellow students and professors at The Master's College, and my fellow students and professors at Sterling College. Other periods of my life have been too ephemeral (summer jobs) or too lonely (AmeriCorps, post-college jobs) to give me a sense of a loving community.

Now I have a family that is finally okay with who I am. Peace Corps is filled with wonderful people. Most of them are either non-religious themselves, or are entirely okay with those who are. I've never felt uncomfortable around a PCV for being an atheist. The irony is that, with the exception of my very few close-neighbors, this family is scattered over an entire country; I see them rarely. What's more, a great majority of my time is spent in a community that is more religiously fervent than I had ever been even as a little rabble-rouser. Every day, I am reminded that I do not belong here; I am decidedly not a product of Morocco.

And so the question I've been asking myself is, "How much longer will the ghost of awkwardness continues to haunt me?" I believe this experience is the beginning of the end of that chapter of my life. With each day in-site, I become more comfortable with who I am, and with each PCV meeting, I feel more and more like I belong with these very precious people, my fellow brave, tenacious, pig-headed volunteers. I love them dearly.

August 17, 2013

A Transition

Saturday marked the end of my summer vacation, a much-needed respite from the doldrums of Ramadan. This was my second trip to Europe. The first was to Italy in the spring of 2005. I visited Vatican City and a pope died. This year I came to London and a prince was born. Make of that what you will. Some highlights:


  • morning jog along the Thames in London; no feral dogs chasing me
  • biking through London's parks with North Carolinians/NPR lovers Jake and Eric
  • evensong at St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey
  • Merrily We Roll Along at the Harold Pinter theatre in West End; more talent than you could shake a stick at
  • beautiful, beautiful music at the Royal Albert Hall; clapping only after music stopped
  • Bruges - all of it, from beginning to end
  • walking through the castle at Ghent
  • biking in and around Amsterdam (and serendipitously discovering the goat park); no feral dogs
  • taking in the view of the cathedral at Cologne
  • Black Forest hiking; nature without garbage
  • organ concert (and gargoyles) at the cathedral in Freiburg
  • peoplewatching at the apfelwein festival in Frankfurt
As much as I wanted to stay in these places for the rest of my life, it was surprisingly easy to accept the end of my journey and the return to Morocco.

Unfortunately, some of the discomforts of life here smacked me in the face immediately after disembarkation: the villainous heat and the scoundrels running the taxis outside the airport.

When I arrived in Aounate, I discovered that a wasp had built a rather large nest in The Beach. I stood cautiously at the door with a broom in my left hand and the door handle in the other. I'll tap it first to see if it's full of wasps, I thought, and if they swarm violently out towards me, I'll slam the door shut. Maybe they will become nervous and leave my house. 

I knocked on it a little. Nothing. I poked it and prodded it and became disturbed at how strong the damned thing was, and finally I was thrusting at it with all my might until the lower left side collapsed and dozens of larvae scattered all over the floor, leaving disgusting green smears wherever they landed. I resisted the urge to scream and/or throw up. 

A few grisly minutes later, I was cleaning up the last of the corpses, shoveling them into a dust pan and throwing them unceremoniously over the ledge of my roof. All that remained on my wall was the sad outline of what was once a nursery.

The next morning, as I was answering nature's call, the mother flew in. She was big. My reptile brain must have kicked in, because without even thinking about it, I went right into a crouch-run towards the door, my pants still around my knees. I knew there was a possibility that my neighbors might be on the roof or in the stairwell, and therefore the possibility of a rude run-in. That wouldn't have been so bad, I guess; considering Hamou once waded through my poop, he probably wouldn't be too terribly scandalized by my panicked, pant-less escape.

But nobody was there. I slammed the door. Only then did my capacity for conscious thought return. She's not going to be happy about the destruction of her young, I reasoned. I cracked the door and found her hovering unhappily around the spot where the nest once was. Oh no - she's caught on. Briefly, I considered and dismissed the broom; the handle would prevent the door from closing in the event of a retaliation. 

Happily, my mom is awesome, and when she visited a few months ago, she brought me two very precise water pistols. I loaded one of them and returned to the door of The Beach. I cracked the door and took aim. Then I noticed a fallen soldier: F. Scott Fitzkindle, my beloved e-reader, was lying vulnerable on the floor. In my panic, I must have set him down in abandonment. Stupid! Clearly, the stakes had been raised.

I shot the Queen-Wasp several times, until she turned and headed straight toward me, at which point I took shelter behind the door and regrouped. Again, I peeked in, first at F. Scott Fitzkindle, and then at the enemy, who was again surveying the smoldering remains of what was once the babies' house. I felt no guilt about it. Fitzkindle's life meant to much to let sentiment get in the way. I shot again, and with great accuracy. Again, the adversary made her charge. The third time I opened the door, I dashed in and rescued Fitz, pistol ever at the ready. Success.

My nemesis appeared to have been driven out, and I finished my chapter in 1776 feeling pretty good about my campaign. Maybe today won't be so hard after all. The adrenaline rush had certainly been nice. In good spirits, I practically bounded down my stairway to head to the big city of Sidi Bennour. I threw open the heavy metal door to the outside, and it groaned and shook on its old rusty hinges. As it turns out, another wasp family had built its home right above the door. When I stepped out into the dazzling sun, dozens of small wasps and a couple of really large ones immediately began swarming around my head and torso. I ran out of my alleyway, arms flailing wildly and terror in my eyes.

In the grand taxi, I struck up a conversation with a man in the front seat. He spoke english and was interested in why I was in the area. Of course, I gave him the whole Three Goals of Peace Corps gospel, and he was duly impressed. 

"Would you like a rabbit?," he asked.
"What?" I answered.
"A rabbit. Do you want one? I will give it to you."
"That's very kind of you. No thanks."
"Are you sure? It's no problem, really."
I laughed nervously. "Thanks, but no. Maybe next time."

The man nodded and smiled at me, and then told the taxi driver to stop the taxi (we'd arrived at the man's village). He then told the driver to wait, and amidst much grumbling and shouting on the part of the driver and other passengers (who were crammed into this little taxi on a very hot afternoon), the man did the following: ran across the street; spoke a little with a shop owner; entered a storage garage; emerged from garage with live rabbit; spoke some more with shopkeeper, who procured a cardboard box; stuffed rabbit in box; ran across the street; handed box to man in taxi; waved goodbye; ran away.

It all happened so fast, and before I could protest, I had a box of live rabbit in my lap. The man sitting to my left smiled knowingly at me, which I found unsettling. The guy to my right pointed to the box and then said "Sidi Bennour," while running his index finger across his neck. The driver was just mad at me for delaying the trip and shot me the evil eye through the rear view mirror.

15 minutes later, I was standing in Sidi Bennour with a really heavy bag (full of wine and gin) and a box that was bouncing and rattling under my arm. This requires advice, I decided, and called Evan. Pretty soon, we were at his apartment, freeing the rabbit into the neighbor's garden. I felt pretty good about this.

And reflecting on the transition from Europe to here, I thought, there are many differences between the developed world and Morocco.

August 8, 2013

A Surprise in the Park

The goats were a complete surprise. To be sure, I plainly saw the large goat symbol on the map, but I expected something more like a monument to a special goat, a local hero perhaps, or maybe just a peculiarly goat-shaped rock. Instead, I rode into an alarming situation: dozens of little children with goats - playing on teeter-totters, gallivanting through grassland, climbing wooden structures. With goats, I said. As many goats as children.

I had been cycling just outside of Amsterdam on a rented bike, following a rough plan to ride through some of the biggest parks. At the entrance of this, the Amsterdam Woods, I found the trail map that had so piqued my interest with its depiction of a goat squarely in the middle of an otherwise run-of-the-mill green field. No explanation or legend to suggest its meaning - just a cheerful, bearded bovid.

The park was beautiful. The first part followed the long side of the Bosbaan, which is the oldest artificial rowing course in the world. Afterwards, it plunged into thick green forest. It was a rainy day - perfect for riding. The clouds scattered the light just how I like it, and in the heavily-wooded area, I felt I was lost in a dream-land. I could have ridden like that forever, but my bike was due back at the rental office in three hours.

When I arrived (and after recovering from the amazement of what I had come upon), I locked up my bike and went into the little hut which served up various foods and drinks. I got myself a nice frosty drink and stepped outside to find a picnic table.

The families were adorable. The children were so happy to be playing with goats that I couldn't help but be happy with them. After all, is there anything more joyful than a pen full of primates and cloven-hoofs getting along so famously? The surrounding land was interesting too - small gardens, some pasture, a little pond, and of course forest all around. I decided to stay a little longer, so I went back inside to find a snack. I picked up what looked like a traditional filled pastry.

The woman at the cash register smiled pleasantly. "Is this all?" she politely asked. "Yes, this is all. Say, what do you call this, exactly?" I pointed to the alleged pastry. She made some sounds that are for me impossible to replicate with the 26 letters of the English alphabet. I nodded thoughtfully, as if I better understood her culture for hearing the name of my food spoken aloud. "And what is it, exactly? A traditional dessert?" She looked a little embarrassed. "Oh, no! It is savory. It is, how do you say-" she waved her arms vaguely around the room a little and consulted with a co-worker. "Yes, it is goat," she finished, and then looked around somewhat abashedly: "You know, from around here." She smiled a nervous smile.

I returned to my picnic table with a profound sense of guilt weighing upon me. Suddenly, the cheerful, squealing kids and balancing teeter-totter goats took on a baleful significance which did not escape me as I bit into my goat-snack. It was delicious. This made me feel worse, but I finished it anyway, along with a cup of coffee.

And maybe it was the infectious giggles of the children or maybe the stimulants in my coffee, but I decided that if the goats were to die anyway, it was best they died in this condition: presumably happy, bathed in a climate of mirth and youth. I imagined these goats had no regrets about their fate, and this cheered me up considerably. Wiping my smiling mouth, I stood up to bid the place a fond farewell. Then, I hopped back on my bicycle and rode out of the woods, along a stunning lake, past an old windmill, and and right on by a sign welcoming me back to Amsterdam.

July 11, 2013

The Story of Saida



The following is derived from a correspondence I sent to a former sociology professor (and present friend) regarding a student in my community. After sending it, I decided to tell her story (with a few changes to protect her identity) for a wider audience.


I want to tell you about a student of mine named Saida. In Arabic, her name means "happy," and it suits her somewhat, as almost every time I chat with her, she is smiling. Saida is an outlier among her peers. In a culture built upon clan identity, she prefers to keep to herself. In a culture that stresses the importance of religious devotion above all, she shows no signs of piety (at least, not the conservative Muslim kind favored in Aounate). Saida enjoys reading books and online articles, especially in the fields of psychology, philosophy, and astronomy. In short, she is curious and full with questions. She tells me the greatest thing she can do in life is to discover herself and discover the world. I have not met a student in all of Aounate who possesses this thirst for discovery like Saida.

She has no Facebook account. This is not so unusual. Facebook (more specifically, the idea of girls having an online presence of any kind) is viewed as an impropriety at best, anti-Muslim at worst. Only a little more than half the students in my community have an account, and those that do have an account never post pictures of themselves or even use their real names (which makes it next to impossible to tell who is who online). Anyway, Saida's refusal to sign up is not founded in any religious sentiment or desire to abide by cultural norms. Saida simply doesn't have friends.

It is astounding, really, that a bright, smiley, curious 17-year-old has no friends, but such is the degree of adherence that rural Moroccan society demands of its boys and girls. Girls like Saida are social lepers. Her teachers, too, dislike her. She asks too many questions, challenges their authority. Some teachers have accused her of atheism, which of course serves to further alienate her from her peers.

Saida lives with depression. She often talks about violence, death, and the absurdity of living. She hates her country, and particularly Aounate. She adores Hitler. "The world would be a better place if he had succeeded," she tells me. I remind her that Hitler also hated the Arabs, that had he exterminated the Jews, Arabs might have been next. "This would have been a great thing. We have not done anything good for the world. It would be better without us."

I felt like I needed to invest in this girl's development by encouraging her, by praising her inquisitive propensities. We agreed to start a book club after she finished her studies for the year. I picked out The Plague by Albert Camus, in the hopes that the story would instill in her a conviction of life's goodness. For a time, she was coming into the youth center almost every day just to chat, usually about ideas - philosophers we like, the value of questioning authority, things like that. She told me that I am her only real friend.

Last month, Saida came into my office to tell me goodbye. It was the day after the tests had wrapped up at school. She explained that she is no longer permitted to come into the youth center; the sexual harassment in the streets is more than her family feels she can handle. It is a lot to deal with. Even emotionally-stable volunteers are driven to hysterics by the flagrant hostility towards women which they experience on the streets. So I reluctantly accepted her goodbye, but I made her promise to at least get an email address, and I gave her mine. I have not heard from her since.

To those who say that we should accept Morocco's attitude towards its women, I say rubbish. The plain truth is that any society can rob us of our humanity. Sometimes it throws up impossibly high barriers for its women or its indigent poor. And we must not hesitate to scorn that which oppresses and kills.

This country has a lot of work to do. It must alter its attitude towards curious, introverted girls, for one. Behavior change is the hardest part of my job, and the primary reason I have stayed in country. Until I leave next May, I am going to do everything in my power to change the way Aounate regards its girls. I will especially concentrate on men, as they seem to be the only part of the population who believes that gender issues don't factor high on Morocco's priority list. God help me, but they will when I'm through here. At least a few more will, and that's a start.