Sunday, September 23, 2007


“Don’t marry a Moroccan.” Those were some of the last words of the Country Desk Manager as we were preparing to leave Philadelphia (she added that she was telling this to the younger women and might as well tell me too). I thought this was less than inspiring (how about, “have a great adventure” or something like that?). But then I learned the reason why she said it – several of the volunteers here do end up marrying Moroccans.

Religion and culture both contribute to the gender roles here. The roles of men and women are different – and, we’ve been told, even if they seem unacceptable to us, they are accepted by people here, so it is not our job to change things but just to make sure everyone is heard. I’ll mention some of what we’ve learned and some of what I’ve observed. Keep in mind that there’s a wide range here – in dress, education, rural/urban – and that as Muslim countries go, Morocco is seen as relatively liberal and relatively secular.

Men and women have very separate roles. In some households they are physically separate, eating in separate rooms; I haven’t seen that. I do know that a the party I went to in TimHdit no men were allowed and that the women would not have danced in front of men. At some weddings, the women and men dance separately and in separate rooms; there are more modern families that dance together.

Women do all of the housework and the cooking. And there’s a lot of cooking – making homemade bread for every meal, making tagines that require food preparation and slow cooking. It doesn’t occur to either women or men that the men should pitch in and help – it just isn’t part of the culture. At a young age (maybe six or so), girls are expected to help and they learn to do all of these things. Boys watch TV – but they also do errands.

The king started a women’s rights initiative – women can get educated, and there are women in high positions in government and business. Women can initiate divorce and women can refuse to marry someone who their parents may have picked for them. But the reality seems to be that opportunities for women are limited. Many women are illiterate, women often do not have a say in their communities, even women who have an education often stop working when they get married so they can focus on home and children. Family is central in Morocco – people wouldn’t dream of not having children and don’t understand that people don’t have them or might not want to. Women do almost all of the child care, too….

I wrote all of the preceding words last year, when I was in CBT and without computer access, but I got back to the world of computer access before I considered it finished, so I didn’t mail it off for posting. I mentioned back then that I would write more about gender roles, and though I may have mentioned most of the above at one point or another, and will undoubtedly talk more about it in the future, I thought I would post it now as written. It was based on what we were told, and now that I have been here a while, my personal experiences and observations have been different, so I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast.

Amanda and Youssef are a good couple, very much in love, but I have also seen that some of the romances here happen because volunteers are lonely and Moroccan men can be charming (though so far I find them quite resistable). And though this may sound jaded, there are those who will do what it takes to get the green card. I think many volunteers are also here at a time of their lives where they are ready to be married. There are a few Peace Corps-Peace Corps marriages as well, but more, there seem to be relationships that come and go. I can appreciate why the Country Desk Manager said that – there are a lot of cultural differences to overcome – but in the case of Amanda and Youssef I think it made them talk things out whereas we might have implicit assumptions. And I also know American couples in traditional roles – but maybe it is easier to accept those when they are chosen as opposed to unchallenged. I still think those weren’t inspiring words to leave for the airport with.

I have mentioned that Azrou is a liberal site and I am happy to be here. Other volunteers have spoken about working with women who can’t leave the house. What I didn’t talk about above but believe I have mentioned elsewhere is the public/private difference, where in public women are quiet and covered and don’t make eye contact but in private are affectionate and fun-loving and participatory. There still isn’t equality, but I think the same could be said of our own country. So I guess that everything I wrote still applies; it was interesting for me to read it a year later because while I still notice and question many things about this culture (as another example, the trash along my walk to the Artisana seems to be increasing and I feel sad every time I see it), there are not many cultural things that genuinely surprise me anymore. I’m glad to be on the Gender and Development Committee and to be thinking about these things. This week I’m finishing up the GAD column for Peace Works, and I gave some input to the people in charge of the next conference and the resource manual we’re putting together.

One of the highlights of the past week was a phone call. I was happy to get Harry Potter and read it voraciously, but was troubled at times because it seemed blurry. I mentioned it to the PCMO, inquiring as to whether we’ll get an eye exam at mid-service medicals. The answer was yes, but as I kept thinking about it, I kept wondering if it could require more immediate attention, so I called my eye doctor in Philadelphia. The mere fact that I continued to see him while living in Chicago for almost two decades indicates how special he is, and it was great to talk with him. He asked good questions and told me that yes, I can wait until then to see the doctor here. It was also nice to talk with him about the Peace Corps and what I’m doing here – he’s heard about a lot of my woes over the years and it reinforced that I feel it was a good move for me to come here.

Finished with Harry Potter, I’m now reading “The Sheltering Sky,” by Paul Bowles. One of the definitive Morocco novels, I could tell from the get-go that this is not my kind of book, but I am going to keep going. Kellye last weekend told me that it was one of the worst books she’s ever read, and that when she was finished she threw it against the wall because she was upset that she had wasted her time on it, so I picked it up with low expectations. Of course, there are those who would think it a Great American Expat Novel, and after visiting Paul Bowles hangouts in Tangier I thought why not. I had requested his Fes book, “A Spider’s House,” from the Peace Corps library, but that was out when I was in Rabat two weeks ago and this, the more famous one, was available. Who knows, maybe I will want to read that one too. But so far it seems more good-for-me than good, to me.

The stage-mate who ETed stayed with me last night and went on to Rabat this morning. Her cooperative had a lot of infighting – to the point where the Caid told them to cease operation - and she felt too emotionally involved to be objective. She decided to leave while she still felt positive about her experience. She’s ready to start the next chapter in her life. It’s interesting that there are people who are miserable here and yet they remain for some reason, and here she was enjoying her experience and still decided she had had enough. We made pasta with vegetables and also had shebekia and acer (smoothies – in this case banana and avocado). When I bought my blender I thought I would make these all the time, but instead usually have them when I go to cafes (and will have more now that fresh orange juice is harder to come by). Of course, now is the time to make them at home since the cafes aren’t serving during the day. We played some rummy for old times’ sake, and she had perhaps one of her last occasions of wearing the same clothes for days in a row and of not showering. I will miss her.

And now I will mention something that has heretofore not been discussed in this space - the last time she was here was right after IST, when I was in the middle of this, and it was nice to have her back now that it is in the past. I think in May I mentioned that there were Junebugs (or Maybugs), big beetles that came inside; though Amanda said they were harmless, and though I did not expect Peace Corps to be bug-free, they disturbed me. Turns out that was nothing compared to what visited me in June – some different kind of beetle - or perhaps giant cockroach. It seemed that everywhere I turned, at any hour, there were one or two; luckily never more than that. And they were easy to smash with a shoe, leading me to think that someone in one of the other apartments had sprayed and that they were coming upstairs to die. When I came back from IST she and her friend were waiting for me, so I didn’t have a chance to scan my apartment before she got here; I warned her that there might be a lot of bugs, and there were. I was afraid that it would be the case all summer long – but that was the end of it. I had Youssef look at it (what will I do without him!) and he thought they might have come up through the outside drain. He covered that drain with some of my mosquito netting, and while I am still bracing myself for next June, I feel relieved that it’s not ongoing.

This is a rare quiet weekend at home – yes, I did have a guest for part of the time, but I’ve also done some reading and writing and fasting and thinking. On Friday I cleaned the floors and washed my clothes; later today I’ll do food shopping and yoga and maybe photo organizing. I am tempted to do some more work as well (though all of the above are a part of my job here, as I see it) but think I will resist the temptation. I did tally the questionnaire results and have those to bring in, prepared the Artisana labels and will print those out and install them this week, and contributed some success stories for the new SBD newsletter. Next on the horizon is the Annual Report that goes to Peace Corps headquarters – time to really reflect on and account for what I have done. I briefly looked at the format, but not enough to know what is in it – I’m actually kind of proud of myself for putting it away until tomorrow and not worrying about it at all for the time being.

The picture is of henna that Amanda did on my feet before she left for Agadir – a candidate for my holiday photo but it didn’t make the final card. I hung out with her for hours but it never dried so I had to wash it off before it really set; all that remains are the colored toenails.

Great feet! I don't think I could take the bugs...
Other volunteers talk about flies bzef (many, a lot, a ton) and scorpions! Once again, I feel fortunate.
The giant bugs remind me of freshman year! Remember Gregor? (may he rest in peace). I still remember trapping him with walls of books, then having to deal the final blow. The splat stays ever in my mind.
I do remember Gregor...sometimes I think it would have been nice to have had a place on the ground floor, maybe with a little space for a garden (or a compost pile) - something I have never had back home - but I think that being up two flights helps to minimize the ininvited six- and eight-legged guests!
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