Monday, July 17, 2006

A couple of weeks ago, I met with my Peace Corps recruiter – I had seen her at the Nomination Party and decided to come downtown for a chat now that I knew where I was going. She had been to Morocco too, in the early ‘90s (so not everything is relevant – for example, the literature says to bring a Walkman – surely in the 21st Century they would recommend an iPod! Anyway, she recommended some books, which I have since ordered from Amazon – Understanding Arabs – A Guide for Westerners, Living Overseas, and A Traveller’s History of North Africa. I also have Culture Shock: Morocco on the way, some French and Moroccan Arabic language books and CDs (more on that in a minute) and some Peace Corps downloads on Morocco, cultural adaptation and on working with a school. As for the language, I am also working on French through Rosetta Stone and have some elementary Moroccan Arabic lessons from the Peace Corps web site. They will teach me more Arabic or a Berber dialect when I get there but they said to work on French before I go, so I am spending more time on that. Moroccan Arabic is not all that similar to Arabic that might potentially lead to a State Department or other job later – that’s OK. The recruiter said that she never really learned the Arabic but got by on her French – but she was in a big city, teaching English. I asked her if she knew where the artisan program was and she said it was centered in the middle Atlas Mountains, near Fes, a beautiful region of the country. It’s about a four-hour train ride – on a fast, reliable train – to Casablanca and the coast. So not TOO far away. She said that the artisans in the program are women, rug makers. She also said that the Peace Corps evacuated in 1991 after Desert Storm began and again in 2003 after the Iraq war started, and that in each case people were gone for about six months. They were given a choice of another assignment, coming back or leaving the Peace Corps entirely. I’m watching the recent escalation in the Middle East carefully – so far I don’t believe it will impact my assignment but it potentially could.

Last week, I had coffee (actually, neither one of us had coffee) with the woman I had met at the Sister Cities festival. She goes to Morocco once or twice a year. Chicago has been very active with its sister cities program. The mayors of all of the Sister Cities came to the National Conference of Mayors held here last year, and the mayor of Casablanca was very interested in the parks. So the parks person there has been here and the parks person here has been there, and Chicago is helping them. She said that Fes is the intellectual and cultural capital of the country, known for the finest thinkers and crafts, but that in general the quality of the workmanship is mediocre, and that I can bring to them the idea of standards of quality. She said that the rugs from that area are more for art than for floors, that they have very geometric patterns, that they are made from all-natural materials and that they often use orange and white (wonder if they can combine the orange and black? In that case, I may have a new market!). She told me what hotel to check into in Fes for a day of reading a book – it has a swimming pool. She said that in Morocco everyone invites you for dinner, but you do not have to always accept – you can maintain boundaries and a sense of your own space. And she said they feed you course after course – when she was there they all gained 10-20 pounds, because the food is good and there’s a lot of it – so to learn to push food around my plate. They eat late, too, which I do not like to do. More on both of these meetings as I think of more to tell!

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