Sunday, September 16, 2012

In light of last week's events

This week started off innocently enough. It was my first real week of work and I was eager to getting started and to begin feeling more integrated in the office environment. Tuesday was the 11th anniversary of September 11th and it was business as usual. Aside from checking Facebook news feeds and the news headlines, there was very little "on the ground" affirmation of the day. Which makes sense; when I've spoken with Moroccan friends about the terrible tragedy in New York City on September 11th, 2001 very often they respond with a comparison. They may comment about how our death count in the Middle East since 9/11 significantly overshadows the three thousand-something casualties we incurred that day; they will bring up Palestine, or the ongoing events in Syria. It's not that what happened in the US eleven years ago isn't important or wasn't devastating, but having discourses like this that don't always end in proverbial back rubbing is (for me, at least) in a way its own form of catharsis. It's nice to live in a world where the United States isn't the center of attention and to reflect on the significance of other violent and unwarranted attacks that go on around the world. My heart goes out to the victims, their families, and their communities. I can only imagine what it feels like.

In ways, being in the MENA region on the anniversary makes me think about it and its implications even more. I recognize September 11th as a terrible day not only for the American people, but as a grim indication of the impossibility for peaceful foreign and domestic policy to occur in the future. On Tuesday I hopped in a taxi on my way to work. The driver was making light conversation as we wove through morning traffic. As we drove, I looked out the window to see everyone going about their daily business: shop keepers sweeping the sidewalks, women in djellabas carrying raffia baskets and tugging along small children as they completed her errands, men colluding at coffee shops around fanned-out newspapers and cigarettes, women frying breads outside small corner stores on large metal griddles. This is what daily life in Morocco looks like to me. There are no car bombings and no anti-American banners or flag burnings. In my experience, if a Moroccan doesn't understand or agree with an element of American foreign policy, they will want to ask you about it, not attack you for it. As an American in their country they give you the benefit of the doubt. They welcome you with open arms. These are the Muslims that I interact with everyday.

It is because of my daily experiences here that I find what happened in Benghazi and what spread to consulates all over the world devastating and sickening. I have friends who work at the US Embassy in Rabat scared at the possibility that the same thing could happen to them. My family was worried for my safety. It didn't help at all when it was released that one of those killed at the US consulate in Benghazi was from my home town. He was a Navy Seal and taught English in Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer. Though I am confident that the worst is over in Morocco, I'm trying to stay up to date on the news and am checking the Moroccan US Embassy website regularly for any breaking security warnings.

 On Friday peaceful protests broke out all over the MENA region directly following midday prayer. In Morocco, there was a protest of a few hundred Salafist Muslims organized in Salé, Rabat's neighbor across the river, and one of with numbers between 300 and 400 people near the US consulate in Casablanca. Aside from the symbolic burning of the American flag, heavy police presence (especially for the one in Casablanca), and anti-American chants (seen at nearly every protest that occurred that day across the world), both were small in size and relatively mild. The only reason I know that they happened at all was because my cab driver on my way home from work was listening to the news. I felt no tension or witnessed anything firsthand.

According to a report from Al-Jazeera on Sunday, King Mohammed VI spoke on the phone to Hillary Clinton, where he called both the murder of the US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and the film that has provoked these protests and attacks as, "odious". In an official palace statement, King Mohammed VI expressed his, "sincere condolences" over Tuesday's events in Benghazi while also condemning, "the inadmissible provocation agains the sacred values of the Muslim religion".

In regards to the "anti-Islamic documentary" that supposedly started all of this, there is increasing evidence that points to the fact that the film wasn't even made by an American Jew, but rather a Coptic-Christian American named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula looking to incite violence between the West and the Muslim world. What's more is that several sources have come out saying that even the actors performing in this incredibly sub-par and low budget film claim that they were seriously misled. Mentions of the Prophet Mohammed in the film seem to have been dubbed in during post-production. Regardless, I see the events that occurred as avoidable, unnecessary, and embarrassing. There seems to be blood on everyone's hands.

All of a sudden, with last week's events, we (Americans) are back with the image of Muslims as extremists and the entire MENA region as a breeding pool of blind hatred towards the West. How many years of progress in foreign relations have been erased? How many will it take to bounce back? To all that were involved I wish to ask this simple question: was it worth it?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

3la salemtek! Welcome back.

After a summer’s long vacation from writing, September feels like a perfect time to resume. 
This summer went by in a blur. I spent June and July in Rabat. With a lightened workload, I had ample time to travel, try new things, and spend time with friends. One of my goals for the summer was to learn how to surf. There is a small surf shack on the beach that offers a very attractive surfing “package”, where you pay for twelve lessons that include an instructor, wetsuit, and surfboard. As you can imagine, the surf instructor are very laid back guys who do this because they absolutely love it. There is no time limit to your lesson. You arrive, wait for the mouja mezyena (good waves), and then set out until you tell them safee (that’s it, I’m done). The best times of day to surf this summer were either early in the morning or about 6 at night. 

For one reason or another, I ended up doing the latter time, which placed me floating in the surf just as the sun was beginning to set over the Atlantic. While my goal was never to become an expert surfer, as someone who has always enjoyed swimming there is something incredibly exhilarating about finding a new way to enjoy the ocean. It has also been fun to be a part of a different side of Morocco, meet new people, and learn new words along the way. My sister visited me for a weekend in the very beginning of the summer and I was able to take her surfing. She loved it and was able to stand up on her first lesson! It was great to be able to share something like this with her. 

Us post-surf lesson with our instructor Hamza 

 In the beginning of July a few friends and I did a four-day trek up Mt. Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa. Our journey started by taking a train to Marrakech, where we spent one night in a hotel before setting out early the next morning to meet our grand taxi driver. We drove an hour and a half up winding dusty roads to a small village in the mountains to meet our two mules (b’ghla), guides and begin our journey. Over the course of four days we saw breathtaking views (that brought upon many ‘Sound of Music’ inspired sing-a-longs), hiked up countless switchbacks, stopped for lunch in a small village, danced, and met new friends each night as we congregated for tea and cookies in the mountain refuges. Our guide, Hicham, spoke English fluently and was very gracious to us. He told us that he has several sisters and was therefore not phased at all by spending four whole days isolated on mountain trails with a group of four girls. For that, we were lucky. He also impressed us by the ease at which he maintained his brisk pace. He always had his hands casually slid into his pockets and barely ate or drank anything while we hiked. He told us he was practicing for when he has to work during Ramadan.

The view from the house in a small mountain village where we stopped for lunch the first day
Being in the mountains meant that Darija was replaced by Teshelheit (a Berber dialect) as the lingua franca. In the evenings after dinner we would sit around with the mountain guides at the refuge and they would try to teach us songs in the local language. While the words didn’t stick, we did acquire a fun list of new words in Teshelheit during our trip: 

Or geese eelie - there isn’t…

Or geese ajmeel - you’re welcome

Aghrome  - bread

Aman - water

Eemeem - delicious

Goma - brother

Ultima - sister

Eesh/ch’e - eat
Zund zund  - same

Eemik eemik  - so-so

Timinseeween  - good night

Throughout the trip, the summit had been the goal. Everyday we were getting closer and closer to reaching it. In the morning on our second day, I had my first experience with altitude sickness.  The climb was steep and the altitude raised quickly. All I could think about was old PBS documentaries on climbing Mt. Everest when they showed hikers experiencing altitude sickness and needed oxygen masks and coughed up blood. Of course, our experience was not that bad. I did feel incredibly nauseated, had serious vertigo, and as it was happening felt like I would never be able to summon the strength to continue. Apparently, one of the easiest ways to ward off altitude sickness is by drinking enough water. Finally, the episode passed and we moved forward. I learned never to underestimate the power of proper hydration. 

Post-dinner tea time on the roof of the refuge our first night
The next day was summit day and I woke up nervous. I knew that the altitude we would reach today would be even higher than yesterday and my fear of coming down with altitude sickness for another time haunted me. As usual, we set out early in the morning. I couldn’t believe it when we could finally see the metal triangle perched atop the peak in the distance and Hicham gave us the estimated time as 30 more minutes. In the final stretch, my heart began pounding and I broke into a jog. At that moment, it all felt so easy. We finally reached this incredible peak that for days seemed threatening and unattainable. From the top, there were several groups from all over the world taking pictures, holding flags, laughing, and enjoying well-deserved snacks. Hicham surprised us with a huge bag of cookies and nuts. We looked out in all directions over the clouds as a large group began praying in a circle, hands out, heads bowed. We sang more folk songs, took pictures, and then started our descent down. In total, it took about two and a half hours to reach the top from our refuge, and about 3 hours to get down.

Group shot at the refuge before beginning our summit hike on day 3


Less than a week after returning from our hike, I packed up my bag again and set out on a three day trip to Brussels in hopes of setting up contact with several people and associations who could help me with my Fulbright application. The days went by fast and were filled with pleasant surprises. Cold calls turned into warm meetings and I left feeling euphoric by the way the puzzle pieces felt like they were finally fitting together. 

Shortly after coming back from Belgium, I could feel that there was something different in the air. The streets of Rabat became flooded with cars that had MRE (Marocains résident à l’étranger - Moroccans living abroad) license plates from France, Spain, England, Italy, and Belgium. This could only mean one thing: summer vacation was here and Ramadan was quickly approaching. The date sellers in the markets nearly doubled, as did the honey-soaked chebakiyya pastries and large tupperwares. Billboards popped up all over town showing major Ramadan sales at supermarkets and department stores. Interestingly, as the city began to fill up with extended families, it also simultaneously became more peaceful and quiet. 

Just as Moroccans were welcoming their extended families living overseas back home for the holidays, I was lucky enough to have the rest of my family visit for one week. We hired a driver and went down south to the beach towns of Essaouira and Agadir as a way to beat the heat and enjoy the seaside culture à la marocaine. After five days down south exploring Argan cooperatives, ancient medinas, resort-style beaches, and learning to respect the incessant and powerful wind Essaouira is known for, we returned back to Rabat and Fez for our last few nights together. Ramadan began during our trip, which provided us with an added challenge of finding food throughout the day while everyone else was fasting. Despite that, it was a great experience to be able to observe the holiday with my family. I think we all realized that while we may not fully grasp the purpose behind this strict month-long regime of fasting and feasting, we could respect the similarities that it shared to holidays that we hold as sacred: how time slows down and people take the time to be with those that they love. 

After saying goodbye to my family I began a two-week house/cat-sitting “post” at a friend’s house in Agdal. The couple has two very loving and attention-hungry cats that feed off human affection. It was nice to be around clean and domesticated cats again as opposed to the all too often run-ins with cute but dirty dumpster-diving ferrel variety. As teachers at the Rabat American School, their house was equipped with many comforts of home, including dependable wi-fi, a verdurous garden, and an ‘American telephone’ that I could use to call home. In the evenings I would have friends over after they broke their fast. We enjoyed several Mexican fiesta dinners followed by long games of cards that lasted well into the night. 

The garden tortoise that always found his way into the house

Finally, I returned home to Boston for a short three week trip. It felt wonderful being home again with my family just in time to celebrate my birthday and savor the last few weeks of summer in New England. I left to come back before my heart or head was ready, but new opportunities were on the horizon back in Morocco that I needed to attend to. Last week I signed a one year contract with an American-Moroccan development agency and moved into a cozy new apartment on the beach. While things are moving fast and at times feel overwhelming, I don’t think I’d have it any other way. Inch’allah my exchange of comfort and familiarity for new and challenging will be one that will prove to be as rewarding as I imagine it will be. I’m looking forward to all the lies ahead while trying to take things one step at a time. Shweeya b shweeya.