Tag Archives: Culture

March is for Pictures!

One of my friends who did a lot of photography in college is looking to get back into the habit, so he challenged me and some other friends to join him in taking a photo a day throughout the month of March. I thought I’d document the appropriate ones here – those of you who know me are just going to have to wait till I get back to see all my photos of my Moroccan friends!

Here are a few of my favorites that I’ve taken from March 1st-4th:

Fall transitions to spring, as seen on an almond branch.

Oleander seed pod, burst.

Viva Imazighn! This is the symbol 'zaid', which is on the Amazigh (Berber) flag and is seen as graffiti pretty much everywhere Amazigh pride runs high.

I finally bought myself a taharuit, or black embroidered shawl, from a nearby women's cooperative. All the ladies here wear them every day, although theirs are mostly embroidered in bright colors or silver and gold trim rather than in pastel, like mine. Photo and wrapping credits go to my friend Aziza.

The Great Spiral Breadstick (in dough form)


The spring from my roof at night.

In other picture news, I think I need to go back and delete the pictures of Ikram and the one of Selma that I posted before. The girls don’t care, but I’ve been given reason to believe that their mother does.

I’ll try to post pictures at least once a week in March – hope you enjoy them!


A Word On Charity

In the US, we place emphasis on charity. We give to religious institutions, schools,  and non-profits. We spend time volunteering at soup kitchens, hospitals, bake sales, and environmental initiatives. Occasionally, we’ll even give money to a beggar on the street.

I grew up in a Christian environment. We learned about tithing – the necessity of giving a tenth of your income to the church. We learned about alms, which, in addition to tithing, may also be given to the church for distribution, to the poor directly, or to whatever charitable cause you wish. I remember helping with dinners for the poor within the church and at soup kitchens, helping with clothing drives, building churches and schools through mission trips, and buying Christmas presents for families who were picked out at random from under a tree.

In Islam, or at least how Islam is practiced in my rural Moroccan community, things are a little bit different. First, one of the five pillars of Islam is zakat, or giving a certain percentage of your income to the poor. This is not a fixed percentage over all of the Islamic world, but where I live it is set at 10%, just like tithing. The main difference is that zakat goes directly to the poor – while sometimes collected by a centralized committee and then disbursed, it, in fact, cannot be given to an organization which has paid employees. In addition, you are expected to perform sadaqah (seh-dah-kah), which wikipedia tells us “encompasses any act of giving out of compassion, love, friendship (fraternity) or generosity.” It’s difficult as an outsider to determine the difference between zakat and sadaqah. As far as I can tell, zakat tends to be the giving of bulk amounts of foodstuffs (bags of wheat, corn, dates, etc.) and centered around holidays (e.g. zakat al-fitr, giving of food to the poor at the end of Ramadan so that all may participate in the feast). Sadaqah is much more informal, and involves giving both money and prepared food.  I’m going to expound on that one a little.

In it’s most basic form, sadaqah is preparing a meal to share with neighbors. Sometimes this is a huge funeral feast, other times it is a large plate of couscous set on an outside table so that all who pass by can grab some.  This is where I learned the term, but it certainly is not limited to this sort of action.

Last year, a friend and I were sitting at an outdoor cafe in a city, eating bowls of bisara (fava bean soup). A beggar came up to the cafe, and the friend and I both wanted to duck and cover a little – as obvious foreigners, we knew we were going to be hit up for cash. Instead, the cafe owner went up to the beggar and told him that he could ask people for sadaqah, but only if he left the foreigners alone. The beggar did just that – he asked the people at the other tables, received some change, and  then moved on without talking to us.  I felt pretty ashamed about that – in all likelihood, I had more to spare in my pocket than anyone else at that cafe.

For a completely different scenario, let’s take a person in my community. We’ll call her Radia. Radia is very poor and a little bit mentally ill, although I’m sure she’ll never get a diagnosis. She is married and has several children, elementary school age and younger. She tends to go about in the morning and visit with other families, most of which feed her leftover breakfast and give her extra bread to bring back to her children. One day, she snapped a little – she was outside for over an hour, ranting about how she didn’t have any flour for bread or sugar for tea, and her husband wasn’t bringing her any and she was going to go see the qaid (mayor, sort of) about it (he doesn’t speak her language). Finally, the woman that I was with (we’ll call her Zahra), who had been watching and laughing (along with about 20 others), but who I know often feeds her in the morning, went out, took a hold of Radia, and took her into her house to feed her (Radia ate all the food voraciously) while Zahra essentially laughed at Radia and called her crazy, but said it was shameful that she didn’t have any food. I think in America we’d be inclined to be nice to a crazy ranting person, and especially sensitive of their feelings, but I’m not sure how many of us would take a that person into our houses to calm them down and give them our lunch.

Speaking of food, another aspect of sadaqah is the extreme hospitality that many people here show.  I’ve been with women who are measuring out flour for their bread or couscous, and they’ll start with “Bismillah” (in the name of God), then say a name of each expected eater (family members, me)  for each portion measured, and then they’ll throw another portion in there, for the guest.  It’s not something that I have taken into my daily routines here – I don’t have guests that often – but I like that those who can afford it always make extra food, so that if anyone else shows up they can welcome them to the table with absolutely no reservations.

The main thing I’ve taken away from all this is how very charitable Moroccans are towards their neighbors. At least, rural Moroccans – I’m sure that things are different to some degree in the cities. I’m not saying that Americans don’t give – many Americans give a great deal. But most Americans give to organizations, churches, and strangers, whereas Moroccans tend to be giving to those next door. They also give to beggars more.

I decided, starting in January, to try to give a tenth of my income away to neighbors and beggars – and it’s harder than I thought! The monetary bulk of what I gave away in January was pictures – most people here don’t have cameras, and there are very few family photos, so pictures are very appreciated. Even with over 100Dh worth of pictures given out, over-buying veggies and giving leftovers to neighbors, and with a conscious effort to give away spare change to beggars, I still didn’t make my commitment to give away a tenth of my income in January. It’s much easier giving it away in the form of a check to a non-profit! I’m trying again in February, and so far I’m way behind schedule. I don’t know if I’ll make it this month either, but it’s certainly a very interesting exercise.

Once again, I’m not saying here that the American/Christian system is wrong or that the Moroccan/Islamic system is right. I also realize that I have a mostly middle class urban perspective on American culture and a mostly poor rural perspective on Moroccan culture, and the economic and urban/rural demographic plays a big difference in the relationships between neighbors.  Regardless, I think it’s fascinating to see how different cultures deal with charity, and I think Morocco has taught me a lot about what it means to be a good neighbor.

I ate a ram’s “egg” and other 3id happenings

I’m home for a moment between visiting various members of my community – I am full to bursting, and I need a second to let everything settle down. Last year I learned that 3id Kbir (aka Tafaska) is a marathon rather than a sprint, and so at 24 hours in I’m taking a quick breather – there are still three more full days.  Here are a few of the events, starting yesterday (Arafa, or ‘3id Eve’):

  • I went souq shopping in Tinjdad on Sunday to buy my 3idwear – everyone has a new outfit on l’3id, so I got myself a sweater and a pajama set. I thought I’d get away with wearing my pajamas today and saving my sweater for cold nights, but it cooled off a lot here over the weekend and I had to wear everything I had to stay warm.
  • Because I went souq shopping, I didn’t eat lunch. I had a bit of a snack, but when ‘douez’ (stew, sort of) was served to a male member of my family after I’d been hanging out a few hours, I decided to have a little. When we got down to the meat, I couldn’t really figure it out – it sort of looked like there was a tumor on what I’d been served, or maybe a big thing of fat. I was told to go ahead and eat it, so I did.. you eat things here with bread, and when I prodded it with my bread a lot of stuff with about the same shape as ramyeon and size of angel hair pasta came out. I went ahead and ate it (it tasted pretty mild, completely inoffensive), and then asked what it was.. an egg, they tell me – a popular euphemism here for testicle. I thought this was a dish only male PCVs would get to eat; I have a new winner for strangest food I’ve eaten (although, really, the sheep cheek doesn’t fall far behind).
  • I got to witness the slaughter of the sheep from beginning to when we were eating the insides on skewers. The guy that did the slaughtering and gutting wasn’t in my host family, so I didn’t want to take too many pictures of him.. here’s a few that just contain the sheep (and one with me)

Freshly slaughtered ram.

A hole is made in the skin of the leg, through which a man blows up the ram like a balloon. The skinning is easier this way.

With the gutted ram. Note a few unusable portions of intestines still on the ground, and the way it's hanging by its own feet looped together.

  • A polite way to greet someone clearly doing a task around here is to ask for confirmation of what they’re doing.. ‘are you carrying water?’ or ‘are you cutting alfalfa?’ or ‘are you picking olives?’, to name a few. So as I walk by a ditch on my way home I see a woman I know, and I call down to her ‘are you washing something?’ She replies in the affirmative, and lifts the object out of the water – half a ram’s head. So I ask if it’s for dinner tonight or lunch tomorrow, continue with a little more small talk, and go on my way. It occurred to me that felt way more normal than maybe it should have.
  • I am absolutely impressed with the ability of my neighbors to pack this food away. My diet in the last 24 hours has been nearly all ram, bread, cookies, and tea – I did have a little fruit with dinner and a little coffee with breakfast for variety. And there’s been a lot of it. The thing that still totally boggles my mind is that after eating enough kebab meat to satisfy a lion, a tajine or plate of meat is served and eaten up voraciously with bread. I normally try to at least look like I’m eating it, but today at lunch I reached my limit early, and begged off the last few rounds of kebabs and sitting for the ‘meal’ altogether.
  • To be kept in mind: this intensity, although with focus on other parts (e.g. head and feet tomorrow), will last for three more days.

My First Big Solo Hike!

Most of you know that I live at the end of a road. The road goes down to a town big enough to have a twice weekly market, and that town is on a major Moroccan road. Unfortunately, if I want to use public transportation to get anywhere, I have to go down the mountain in a public van very early in the morning to the market (souq) town and catch a taxi or bus from there. I made plans over a month ago to head to Imilchil this weekend, a town further into the mountains – to do that in public transport, I’d have to catch my first van at 4 in the morning, catch a bus to another major town, and then get an afternoon van up from the city to Imilchil. Alternatively, I could hike to Ait Haini and take the same afternoon van up the mountain from there. I had done the Ait Haini trek once before, so I knew the path – I decided to bite the bullet and solo hike it.

A few days before I left, I started telling some select people in my town where I was going and how. I invited several friends along, but with it both being so close to Ramadan and it being a long hike, I was declined. Everyone I talked to voiced concerns – an unsavory character would follow me, a nomad would think I have money and slit my throat, I would get attacked by a pack of dogs, I would get bitten by a poisonous snake, etc. My decision to hike alone was universally viewed as a bad idea. Knowing I was being stubborn, I still baked some bread, packed my bag, arranged to let a friend know at regular intervals where I was the next day. I tossed and turned a bit, trying to get some sleep before waking up for a dawn departure on Saturday morning.

Dawn came, and as I double checked I had everything in my bags I heard the public transport go by my house – no turning back now! I filled up my water bottles in the spring, gave the last of my food scraps to a goat herd behind my house, and was off.

About 20 minutes into my hike, I noticed two guys on a different part of the mountain than me, seemingly  just looking around. I was a little nervous, considering that the major fear which had been instilled in me was that I would be followed. Not about to quit less than half an hour in, I kept walking and soon lost track of them. About an hour later I completely lost sight of my town as I followed a faint path up the mountain – and then noticed there were four guys on the path, maybe about 10 minutes behind me. At this point I really started to get nervous, and I called my friend to let him know I’d be calling a little more regularly – I couldn’t think of any reason for a group of people to be taking the path that day; the only time people take it is to go to a livestock market on a different day of the week.

I kept hiking, at this point a little freaked out. I could tell it was a group of young guys, but I couldn’t see them well enough to recognize anyone – there are a whole lot of people that only live in my town for the summer, so it could very well be guys who live in another part of the country most of the year. I kept hiking, forgoing water breaks but knowing that there was really no way I could stay ahead of a group of healthy teenagers for the remaining 5 hours of the hike.

Finally, as I was nearly at the saddle, the guys caught up with me, blaring Justin Bieber from a cell phone. Gesturing at a companion, a guy I didn’t know asked me, in Tashelheet, “Do you recognize him?”  Looking over to the person indicated, I immediately relaxed. It was a high school aged boy, Mohcine,  from my extended host family. I’d just eaten lunch with him the day before. I called my friend to let him know I was safe, then got the story out of Mohcine. As I suspected after  seeing him, it turns out that a concerned member of my host family (Fatima, the one who’d done the best job of laying out scenarios that would end in my bodily harm or death), had asked him to see me safely through my hike. He and his friends had decided to make a vacation day out of it – most had never seen the other side of the mountains, so they brought supplies for tea and lunch and planned to hike back as soon as they’d fulfilled their protective roles. The two guys I had seen earlier in the morning were in on it as well; they’d just taken an alternate route up the first mountain and met us at the top.

In short, I had been assigned an honor guard.

Hiking with six young men between the ages of 16 and 18 absolutely changed my hike: my pace picked up, the calm was replaced by joking and music, and we only took three breaks – one to climb a tree, one to get more water at the spring in Itto Fezzou, and once to boil ourselves some tea.  This shaved at least an hour off the time from February, and it certainly went fast!

I thought I’d have a sort of awesome story now about braving the mountains in the face of danger, but I like this story better. It’s a great illustration of how my community is always looking out for me, sometimes in the ways I least expect.


During our initial training, we were given a lot of ‘cultural sensitivity’ training. Of course, a lot of this is necessary – very few of us knew anything about Muslim culture or Morocco. Other times, it served to scare the bejeezus out of us.

Now, I’m not going to discuss what other volunteers have or have not done – that’s their story. But for me, I’ve dodged the truth on more than one occasion – I had quite an instilled fear of cultural backlash in me. I had no desire to be ‘that volunteer who had to change sites because she ignored the sensitivity training.’ However, haltingly, I’ve told more and more complete truths about topics we were cautiously warned to ignore. And you know what? No backlash has come. Specifically on the topic of drinking, it’s actually provided quite a lot of conversational material with people in my town. To my knowledge, no one has shunned me for it, and I still regularly talk to the guy that calls out the Call to Prayer in my neighborhood.

I understand that there are many places in Morocco that are more conservative than my site, but I still live a far cry from urban (read: liberal) Morocco. Had I been placed in an exceedingly  conservative site, as some PCVs are, all the fears I took with me from training in me may have been legitimate. However, they have been the largest thorn in my side throughout service – I’m an honest person, and I feel it does neither my service, my community, or myself any good to continue sidestepping truths in fear of offending people or being rejected.

This is why I’m trying to be more and more straightforward in my remaining 10 months of service. My community is exceedingly, sometimes painfully honest with me – returning the favor leads to some very interesting cultural and personal conversations.

This is not to say cultural sensitivity is a bad thing – I still dress conservatively, although slightly less so than I did at the beginning, and the women in my town are not shy about letting me know they appreciate it and letting me know if I need to rethink a specific outfit to conform a little better. I also still respect the boundaries placed on me by being a female volunteer, and don’t do things like go into the cafes at my site or have men in my house.  Those are the big ones, but I know there are other cultural hints given to us during training that I still use every day.

This is something I think about often, but it’s been particularly highlighted in the last few days. I had a conversation about a ‘taboo’ topic with a small group of women yesterday, initiated entirely on their side and without a trace of condemnation despite the fact that some of my answers would have been shameful coming from a girl in their culture. Today, I had a ton of fun at a wedding – initially I was told not to dance, but I gave up on that restriction in April at my friend’s wedding. After the delicious lunch, I went to the party room and  shook my booty (which another lady wrapped a scarf around, of course, for emphasis) to the drums and singing – a much better way to pass time at a party than my previous M.O. of sitting on the sidelines vaguely trying to understand the words of the call and response.  More dancing to live music will commence on the streets in the evening, and I plan to participate to the fullest.

I’m really looking forward to my next 10 months of service. May more frank discussions – and much more dancing – ensue.