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First Impressions

my wonderfully floral coffee table, surrounded by short Moroccan couches


To avoid the mistake of trying to outline every major thought, development, action, and reaction that has taken place since my last post and thereby invoking tedium in every reader, I will aim at making the opposite mistake: of painting my experience in strokes far too broad. The impressionistic effect this will have should by no means be taken as a summary of my experience to date, but rather as one moment in time, one in a series of many, changing moments.

And so now it is quiet, early afternoon, just before the air begins to chill and the streets begin to fill with the Moroccan socialites and children come out to throw rocks at dogs and -- well, tonight, I just want to be in my apartment to write a little.

So here goes:

Arbaa Aounate. Arbia Lawnate. 3rba Aownat. These are just three ways (of many) to transcribe the name of my little town into English. It is located not far from the ocean, two hours by Souq bus (read: 40 minutes by car), and in the other direction, about three and a half hours away, there are mountains - the High Atlas.

Aounate is in some ways similar to my home town in Kansas. It is about the same size, surrounded by farmland, in flat country. About 30 minutes to the West is a larger town, called Sidi Bennour, a similar size to Hutchinson, which is about the same distance from home.

Yes, home. I've been feeling quite a bit of homesickness, an odd feeling for someone who travels a lot and has never had it before. But you know, this is different from my other travels. For instance, I'm not exactly in love with Moroccan culture. No no - let me be honest with you, will you? There's no debating taste, it's no crime, etc etc.

I find the art quite boring. The complex geometric patterns can only capture my imagination for so long; I'm over it. The music is drone-like and rhythmic, with some interesting beats, but it is repetitive and unimaginative, and anyway, I'm not a rhythmophile. And so on with their movies (awful), literature (what literature?), fashion (lots of head scarves). The food can be pretty good, but with as much time as the women are made to spend in the home (i.e. nearly all day), it is no surprise that Muslim cuisine is quite delicious. And it's hard to really enjoy the food, knowing that a decent woman has been slaving away most of the day in order to prepare it, and even if she wanted to, for instance, go into town instead, society wouldn't permit it.

To make matters worse, almost every conversation with a stranger goes like this:

"Hello. How are you?"
"Thanks be to God. Are you fine?"
"Everything is fine."
"Thanks be to God. Is all well?"
"All is well."
"Very good. Thanks be to God. You speak Arabic?"
"A little. I'm a volunteer from America. I'm working at the Dar Chebab."
"Oh, from New York!"
(sigh) "No, from the state of Kansas."
"..."
"...right in the middle of America. I'll be here for two years."
"Wonderful! You are welcome here always. How do you like Morocco? Is it nice?"
"Yes, it's nice. I'm glad to be here."
"Do you pray?"
"...what?"
"Do you pray? Are you Muslim?"
"No..."
"What are you?"

Yes, this happens all the time - nearly every day, in fact. And at this point in the conversation, I want to smack the person in the head and say "NONE OF YOUR GOD-DAMNED BUSINESS!" But I don't. I play by all the rules to ensure a decent, civil close to the conversation (meaning I lie).

In other news, I now have a place of my own. Bittersweet, since my new host family has been so warm and caring and loving and hilarious. Plus, my host father speaks Arabic more clearly than anybody I've ever met, making communication so much easier.

That being said, I was ready to regain some control over my life again. For two months and two weeks, I had been making almost no decisions regarding my daily plans, nutrition, topics of conversation - hell, it's a miracle my town lets me pick out my own clothes, so bent are they on running my life for me.



get a load of the pink; as you can see from this and the above picture,
Moroccans love patters, and don't necessarily care if they match

I must seem to them completely incompetent. Since I can't understand even moderately complex sentences, I must also not know how to, for instance, use a key. Or cook. Or do laundry. Or buy simple items from the Hanut. Or unpack my own luggage.

So, when I finally managed to get all of my stuff moved into my apartment, just as I was opening my suitcase and taking out a shirt, I heard my name marching up the stairs, followed by a line of women intent on unpacking for me.

"Dear God," I said, "I can do this alone. There is no problem. Alone. Please."

But they paid no heed to my pleas. Nor would they let me choose where to unpack my things. In one illustrative instance, after I had placed my shoes in a closet adjacent to the living room, my host mother spouted off some nonsense about the kitchen. My impression is that she wanted me to store my shoes there.

"I must not have interpreted her correctly," I told myself. No sooner was I reasoning thus, and there my mother is, taking my shoes from the living room and marching across the landing to the kitchen. She places them below the pots and pans and spouts off more Arabic and a blinding rate. Obviously, she means to make it clear to me that shoes belong in the kitchen, stupid, and that's just the way it is.

But enough bitching. These situations are bound to be frustrating. The host country nationals are bound to frustrate us more than we frustrate them (having gone through cross-cultural training, we know how to avoid stepping on culturally-normative toes, and how to pretend like we don't mind when they do things that would be unacceptable in America). I understand this well, and I well understand that one day, this will all be wildly funny.

Here, I must pay due respect to my mudir and host family, all amazing individuals, supportive and generous. My mudir is especially supportive, and if I didn't know better, I would think that he's been through this experience himself, so keen is his perception into my day-to-day stresses.

We've made it through CBT, through swearing in, even as if in a crazed, horse-drawn cart with square wheels. And now we've made it over the crest of the hill and must see how the lay of the land appears from on high.
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