Saturday, December 31, 2011

Out with the old, in with the new...

Breaking news, just in time for the new year – Yesterday, at 3:46 PM, my cast came OFF!

before photo, nervously anticipating the doctor
after, furiously scrubbing 6 weeks of dried skin off my foot!

And for your entertainment, below is a video that Justin shot of my hilarious Moroccan doctor goofing off just prior to taking off the cast.

I'm already able to walk, though with a bit of difficulty as my foot is quite stiff and sore. I'll be starting physical therapy next week but I'm confident that I'll be able to gain back the strength quickly.

All of this is perfect timing for me, because I truly view the new year as a chance to take stock of the past, shed the things holding us back, and embrace the opportunities that lie ahead in the coming year. I know that there's really no difference between December 31 and January 1, but for me the new year is a symbolic street sign along the road of life that reminds me to mentally reflect and plan.

So with that, here are some of my initial goals and thoughts for the coming year. I imagine that I will  add to/develop these as I spend more time in Morocco and evolve the type of work I do here.

1. Take better care of myself
This has been a year of ridiculousness. In February I broke a bone in my right hand while walking our foster dog, and then in November I fractured a bone in my leg. Accidents happen, and the February break was an accident, but I attribute the November fracture to being careless and making bad decisions. With that, I have decided that I will no longer wear flip flops (anyone who has seen me wearing flip flops in New York in December knows that this is a bold decision!). I fractured the bone in my leg by slipping on stairs in flip flops and I am convinced that wearing a piece of slippery rubber with no traction is more trouble waiting to happen. Beyond my flip-flop decision, I want to make sure that I maintain a healthy lifestyle in Morocco – exercising regularly, making smart eating decisions, etc. There are some fantastic things about our lifestyle here – lots of walking, great weather year-round for exercising outside, and not a frozen meal to be found for miles! 

2. Improve my language skills
I've been blown away by how quickly I have been able to pick up the language. In just a little over 4 months, I have gotten myself to a strong intermediate level in which I do a pretty good job of communicating with people in the community. But still, every day there are sentences I don't quite understand, or things I want to say but just don't know how. Justin and I have a tutor that we will be working with twice a week, but beyond that I want to devote time weekly to learning new vocabulary, studying new aspects of the language, and evaluating my progress.

3. Explore and travel – mainly throughout Morocco, but elsewhere if possible
This is an obvious one. I want to make sure to spend lots of time in my community, but one of the reasons that I joined the Peace Corps was to get to know another country and its culture, beyond just one city. So I want to make sure to plan lots of trips throughout the country, and hopefully beyond.

4. Continue to develop a support network in my community
I'm really proud of the integration that Justin and I have already done in the community – we have an amazing host family who think of us as one of their own and will be so important to have over the next 2 years. Beyond that, we have developed friendships with youth in their 20's who go to our Youth Center and I expect that these will develop even further with time. I also want to be sure that Justin and I develop our own friends in the community – and the natural gender divisions that occur in Moroccan culture should make this fairly easy to achieve.

5. Consistently evaluate my work and what more I can do
We've only been in the community for a short time, but as we start to really settle here, it will be important for me to not just get into a routine of teaching classes, but to constantly be talking to youth and other members of the community about issues that are meaningful to them, things they want to learn, and activities that they want to do, and making sure that I am always looking for ways to address all of these. 

6. Maintain communication with everyone back home!
Whether that means letters, emails, phone calls, Skype conversations, Facebook, smoke signals, whatever... just making sure that I am still a part of everyone's lives back home. And keeping up the blog of course – I plan to continue posting new entries at least once a week. And I want to try to potentially develop a communication network between my classes in Morocco and classes in a U.S. school. More to come on that soon.

That about covers it. I'll be sure to write updates on how I'm doing with the above goals. Tonight, our host family is throwing a big party for 30 of their closest friends and family, to celebrate what Moroccans call Rass L'Ԑam (“rass” meaning “head” and “l'Ԑam” meaning “of the year”) and I'm looking forward to ringing in 2012 Moroccan style!

From Justin and me, wishing everyone a wonderful year filled with new plans, adventures, experiences, and relationships. I look forward to continuing to chart our journey in the coming year!


Thursday, December 22, 2011


When it rains, it pours! A lot has happened over the past week. I’m happy to say that all of the things that I wanted to get accomplished within our first month or so in our site have now been ticked off of my list. You see these lovely things??

These are keys to our beautiful apartment!! A narrated photo tour can be found at the bottom of the post, but in short,it's better than anything I ever got living in Manhattan! :) As you’ll see in the photos, it’s mostly tile (which seems to be customary in most Moroccan homes) but the apartment is fairly new so the tile is beautiful and very bright. We are less than a 5 minute walk from our Youth Center where we’ll be spending most of our time, and the neighborhood is really nice – lots of very friendly neighbors, a preschool right across from us, beautiful trees, hedges, and flowers right around us, and several small bodega-type shops nearby (called hanuts, as I mentioned in a previous post) for any quick needs. When I joined the Peace Corps, I never expected to have some of the amenities that this apartment has (hot water, a bathtub, a western toilet, a lot of space) but it’s within our budget so I won’t complain! We will have to buy furniture but will probably do that bit by bit. 

Another big update is that we have a new volunteer who has joined us in Tiflet. She came from another site (it actually happens to be Moulay Yacoub, the site where Justin and I lived during our 2 months of training). We didn't get much notice on the addition but she is one of my favorite people from our training group, so I’m happy to have her company for the 2 years. We are still working out the kinks of how to work best together without being 3 Americans around each other all the time, but I’m confident that in time we’ll be able to figure out how best to each work within a pretty large town.

Also, Justin and I now have a Darija tutor! He is an English teacher at one of the local high schools so it’s a perfect match. We have already met with him twice and have been so relieved to get answers to many questions that have come up as we have been trying to learn on our own this past month. We’ll be meeting with him twice a week for the next year, so I hope in time to improve my language so that I can impress everyone when they come to visit – that means YOU!

And lastly, but equally as exciting as the other parts – Justin and I finally got a PO box! We were waiting until the apartment was secured as there are 2 post offices in town and we wanted to make sure we got a box at the one nearest to our apartment. Below is our address, so get out your quills, inkpots, and wax to start writing me some good old-fashioned letters!  

Justin and Lauren Bernstein
Boîte Postale No 739
15402 Tiflet Medina

You’ve made it through all of the updates (phew!). The biggest one will hopefully be coming one week from now because next Friday at 3:30 PM Morocco time (10:30 PM EST time) this friggin cast will be coming OFF and you might hear my sigh of relief across the ocean.

Without any further delay, here are apartment photos – enjoy!

The opening in the center is the entrance
to our apartment from a flight of stairs. To the
left is a bathroom and then the bedroom.
A sink just outside the bathroom, to the left of the entrance.
At the bottom left is a buta, a gas tank that we have to light
in order to heat up water.
The view of the apartment from the entrance. Bathroom/bedroom are on the right,
straight ahead is what Moroccans call a "salon" (basically a living room),
to the left is what will become a kitchen space.
Justin and the kitchen area (right now has a rug and pillows in it)
a view from one end of the salon
Looking back at Justin and the kitchen area from the salon
in the bedroom - an awesome dresser/shelf set into one full wall
Looking at Justin through a window in the bedroom
Onto the bathroom. We have a bathtub and shower with hot water.
Seems like a good amount of people in our town have hot water
but this is the first bathtub I have seen.
And we have a western toilet. I haven't talked much
on the blog about squatting toilets, we have gotten used to them
but I definitely would choose otherwise if given the option!
Turning out of the bathroom
Going up the steps
Ahhhh Moroccan sun in December! This is our beautiful roof.
Home to what I hope soon will be flower pots and herb gardens!
And also lots of drying laundry.
A quick view of our neighborhood from the roof!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Our time in Tiflet so far

I realized that in between complaining about hobbling around in crutches (the cast comes off in NINETEEN days and counting the minutes!!) and teaching about Moroccan life here and there, I haven't talked much about what Justin and I have actually been doing day-to-day the past month in our new community.

Even though I only have 1 good leg, it feels as if we have been able to do a lot in a short time. Here are some of the things we've done:

  • We are Fa-mi-ly: We have spent lots and lots of time with our host family, even taking a trip out to Khemisset to visit our mother's brother and sister-in-law's family (I talked about this in last week's blog post a bit).
  • Top Chef Morocco: We tried our hand at cooking our family pizza (if you recall from a previous blog post, it's our second time, after cooking it for our family in Moulay Yacoub). Not quite as good as our first time but pretty decent – hopefully we will improve with more practice!
  • Keeping up with the Joneses: Beyond our family, we have gotten to know the people in our neighborhood. Our host family runs what is called a “hanut” here (similar to bodegas in big cities in the U.S., just small little shops that sell necessary household items such as soap, canned foods, etc). So we've spent lots of time sitting with our family next to the hanut, chatting with people in the neighborhood and either impressing them with our vast language or making lots of mistakes and listening to them laugh at us (depending on the day). Lots of kids play in front of the hanut, so it keeps the area pretty lively.
  • Meeting the Yoots: We've been spending lots of time at our Youth Center (here it is called a Dar Chabab – Dar means “house” and Chabab means “youth”, so House of Youth). We've been really fortunate to be placed in a community with a Dar Chabab that is well-stocked with amenities (it has a computer lab, a library, an auditorium with a stage, 2 classrooms, a pool table, a ping-pong table, a TV, and lots of musical instruments), and with a really committed director and group of youth who spend lots of time there already. So we won't have to work too hard to get people to actually come there in the first place. The areas that are most active in the Dar Chabab seem to be music, theater, and computers – every afternoon when we are there, we sit in on the Music Club's activities which usually involves guitars, keyboards, drums, violins, tambourines, singing, and dancing. And a theater group has started rehearsing for a play in January and they let us sit in on rehearsals. Sometimes we just play pool or chat with the youth and watch football (soccer) games on TV. The center is a great place for the kids to go and they seem to really enjoy being there and being around each other.
  • Getting Ready to Teach: We've started to prepare for teaching English classes in January. Another really fortunate thing for us is that people are REALLY eager for English classes – almost every day, we have a new group of people ask about when classes are starting. Our biggest problem may be having too many people (which is a good problem to have). We have just posted an announcement around town (a small version is below, you can see our pictures on it!) that says that we are doing small assessments at the end of December to determine individual English levels, to allow us to create classes to address all levels/ages. Then we post a class schedule on January 3 and start classes week of January 10. If it were up to everyone here, we would be starting immediately, but I'm glad to be taking the time and getting to know the community a bit first.
  • Meeting the Gals: I visited a Women's Center in town (called a Nidi Niswi) and spent some time with the girls there. It's kind of like a Dar Chabab but gives some more technical assistance to women in sewing, dressmaking, etc. A Peace Corps volunteer living in Tiflet in 2007 taught them aerobics which they seemed to LOVE, and they really want me to have a class with aerobics, yoga, dancing, etc, so assuming I am cleared to use both legs early next year, I might try to start some classes with them and get some good exercise and new friends out of it!
  • Where to Live: We have talked to people about helping us to find an apartment for January. We've seen 2 apartments so far, not sure yet what we'll do but I'm glad that things are available and very much looking forward to having a place of our own!
  • Forgetting our Newly Learned Language: The director of our Youth Center has been helping us to find a Darija tutor, to continue our (slow) progress. He just gave us a number for a teacher who is willing to help us, so hopefully it will work out.
  • What Else: In between this, Justin is taking a lot of walks around the community (me, a little but ever so slowly) and reporting back on all of the things he is seeing and learning. And we are trying to study language a bit but not as much as we should be. We sometimes go to the cyber cafe near our house to catch up on emails and to Skype with people back home. We hope when we get an apartment to get an internet connection there, which should make things a bit easier.
our poster advertising English classes!

That's about all of it – otherwise, just starting to make plans for the upcoming months and reading a lot of books. My parents gave me a Kindle as a birthday present before leaving and while I was a bit hesitant about moving away from real books, it's been a much easier way to read books here where we don't have a lot of space or places to buy them (so thanks Mom and Dad!!). If anyone has recommendations on good books to read, please leave them in the comments; I have 2 years so looking for lots of suggestions!

I apologize that I haven't posted photos of our new community; the truth is that since I'm on crutches, I just don't carry around a camera very much. But hopefully come January when I have 2 workable feet, I will post lots and lots and lots of photos... so just hang tight for now!

I miss everyone back home. This time of the year I'm thinking about New York all lit up in Christmas lights, the tree in Rockefeller, the beautiful holiday window displays, music on Steinway Street in Queens, generally how happy people get during the holiday season. I fired up my holiday music mix on my iPod to hopefully keep a little bit of the feeling here with me, and I smile when I listen to it :) Please enjoy it a bit extra for me!

More to come over the coming weeks as we (hopefully) secure an apartment and a tutor and I very soon get this cast OFF!!! Hope that everyone is doing wonderfully!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A History Lesson

Happy December everyone! I have been looking forward to this month for several reasons – it’s the last month that (hopefully) Justin and I will be living with a host family, as we are looking for a place of our own to move into in January; I am excited to see how Moroccans bring in the New Year; and most importantly, I am counting down the days until I get this friggin’ cast removed from my leg! I am in Rabat now for a check-up tomorrow (Monday) morning, so I’ll give more updates after my appointment – but right now the countdown has me getting the cast off on December 30th or 31st, so keep your fingers crossed that all goes according to schedule and that the doctors work that day!

It’s been a fun few weeks spending time with our new host family in Tiflet and getting to know the town. Last weekend, Justin and I went with our host mom and sister to visit our host mom's brother, sister-in-law, and sister-in-law's family in Khemisset, which is the next city over (only about a 20-30 minute drive). I soon found out that the sister-in law and her family are Amazigh and I spent Saturday evening watching beautiful videos of Amazigh dancing and music, and learning some dance moves from my new extended family. As I was thinking back upon the weekend, I realized that likely most of you don’t know what Amazigh means (I did not before coming here) so I thought that today’s blog post could serve as a quick history lesson for everyone! I will commence with putting on my teacher hat now :)

The Imazighen people, plural of Amazigh. You might recognize the word "Berber" as a term used; however, "Berber" is believed to have been derived from the word "barbarian," whereas the word "Amazigh" is believed to mean "free people" or "free and noble men" and to many the word "Berber" is considered offensive.

Amazigh jewelry

Archaeological evidence suggests that Morocco’s first settlers (known as the Capsian people) arrived between 10,000 and 6,000 B.C.E., after the end of the last ice age. It is from these earliest inhabitants that the Imazighen people (plural of Amazigh) are believed to have descended.

Amazigh pottery in Marrakesh

Following the ice age, Morocco’s landscape was largely made up of grassy savanna, particularly on the coastal plains, which drew inhabitants with an extremely fertile land that are well-suited to cultivating crops and rearing cattle. The Imazighen people developed into numerous groups and inhabited most of the land that makes up present-day Morocco (in addition to other parts of Northern Africa), although in the years following many of the groups moved to mountainous regions as precautions against foreign invaders.

An Amazigh silk hanging; also designs are reminiscent of
tattoos that many Imazighen people have

Today in Morocco, about 40% of its people acknowledge an Amazigh identity, though likely many more have Berber ancestry. Imazighen are identified primarily by language but also by traditional customs and culture – such as the distinctive music and dances.  

A book that I am hoping to read soon!
Amazigh Language:
The language of the Imazighen people has many dialects, but the 3 main dialects used in Morocco are called Tashelhit (spoken in southwest Morocco), Tamazight (spoken in the Middle Atlas region) and Tarifit (or Rifia, spoken in the Rif area of northern Morocco). In our town, it seems like a good number of people speak Tamazight so I may try to learn at least some basic words.

Sample Tamazight text - what it means is
"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
They are endowed with reason and conscience
and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. "
(Article 1 from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Amazigh Music:
From what I have read, Amazigh culture is extraordinarily rich and diverse, with a variety of musical styles that range from bagpipes and oboe (kind of like Celtic music) to pentatonic music (reminiscent of Chinese music), combined with African rhythms and the use of oral storytelling. These traditions have been kept alive by small bands of musicians who travel from village to village to entertain at weddings and other social occasions with songs, tales, and poetry.

To hear some of the more traditional music, here's a sample website (not a lot in English but you can click to artists and watch videos). To hear some more modern takes, here's another site to try.

A moussim, or traditional festival, in a small town in the Middle Atlas mountains

Imazighen People Today:
While the Imazighen people have a storied past in Morocco, their heritage was not always recognized by the state. After Morocco won independence in 1956 the King sought to solidify a unified national identity and banned Tamazight in schools and public places (such as hospitals and the courts). Eventually there were 2 major Amazigh revolts, one in 1973 and a second in the 1980s, both of which were suppressed by the Moroccan government and for years, Imazighen people who continued to assert their identity were jailed. By the 1990s the Imazighen movement had built up momentum but little was done until the current king took over (Mohamed VI - whose mother is Amazigh). He reintroduced Tamazight in primary schools and commissioned a research institute to develop a curriculum and promote study of the language. And in the recent constitutional changes Tamazight became an official state language.
Below is the official Amazigh flag, adopted by the Amazigh World Congress in 1998. Each color in the flag symbolizes a territory inhabited by the Imazighen people:
- blue symbolizes the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean;
- green symbolizes nature and the green mountains;
- yellow symbolizes the sands of the Sahara Desert

The letter in the middle of the flag is a yaz, which symbolizes a "free man", the meaning of Amazigh, and is in red, the color of life and also the color of resistance.

There are so many parts of Amazigh and Moroccan culture that I have yet to learn so this is just a small sampling – hopefully, over 2 years, I’ll be able to impart lots of new lessons as I learn more myself! Lots more to come on Moroccan music in general – Justin and I have been spending time at our Youth Center where they LOVE playing music and singing and dancing together, and last week we went to a concert at a local high school with about 95% Moroccan music - the remaining 5% was a small rock band who seemed to really like Bob Dylan :)

And by the way - if there are any aspects of Morocco or Moroccan culture that you are particularly interested in learning, just leave me a comment and I’ll try to address it in a future blog post. Sending everyone best wishes for a great month, and more to come soon!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tiflet and bum foot update

For those who have been following updates on my Facebook page, you may already know the news of my latest adventure in Morocco; for those unaware yet, I have had the unfortunate luck of learning firsthand about the Moroccan medical system:

Yes, that is my foot. Last Wednesday - on our last day of training in Fes before leaving for Rabat the following morning - I bounded down the stairs into the breakfast area and managed to skip the very last stair and land with my left foot twisted underneath me. I heard a crack at the time and while I tried to convince myself that it was a sprain, I was pretty sure it was worse than that.
Fortunately, our medical staff was walking into the building at the same time as my little fall and they were put right to work. Within 2 hours, I was taken to a medical clinic, where x-rays indicated that I had fractured a small part of the tibia in my left leg (a bone just above the ankle), and I was immediately put into a cast and given crutches. It was a FAR quicker process than I have ever dealt with in the U.S. (and completely free), so I was pleased about that! But as you can imagine, it has caused a lot of challenges in dealing with day-to-day life (as it would in the U.S. too, but I would know a lot more about my surroundings back home).

Justin and I were taken to Rabat a day early with our medical staff and I met with a specialist there who confirmed the fracture and gave me some medicine. The following day (last Thursday), we were sworn in as official Peace Corps volunteers! We met the U.S. Ambassador to Morocco and his wife; he asked me where I was living before joining the Peace Corps and I told him Brooklyn – he looked down at my cast and said that if I’m a New Yorker I shouldn’t have any problems dealing with a broken leg :) I took that as a compliment!

Our full training group and staff at Peace Corps Headquarters in Rabat

The U.S. Ambassador to Morocco and his wife at our ceremony

We all tried to wear traditional dress; photos of me coming soon I promise!

On Friday, Justin and I left Rabat for our new home, Tiflet. We are only a 45 minute taxi ride from Rabat, so fortunately the travel was fairly easy. We met our new host family and they welcomed us into our home where we will live until the end of the year while we look for a place to live permanently. And I breathed a sigh of relief that our bedroom is on the first floor of the house!

Since then, we have been moving pretty slowly given my casted leg. Fortunately, the expectations for us between now and early next year are not too major - mainly to get to know the community and the Youth Center where we will work, to look for a place to live permanently, and to find a language tutor. Even so, it’s been really frustrating for me to not be able to fully explore my new community. I am excited to be in a new place and it’s hard to not just be able to walk around and see as much as I can. I’m trying to remind myself that we’ll be living here for 2 years and I will have plenty of time to see and learn everything.

And Justin has been a saint in the last week, amazingly patient and understanding and willing to walk slowly next to me as I hobble along in the crutches. I hope that in the coming weeks I will be able to put some more weight on my foot which will allow me to walk further, and based on the current calculations, my cast should be off by December 30th (fingers crossed!!). So I hope to enter the new year healthy and excited to fully learn about my new home. I imagine that the next month or so will be both physically and emotionally difficult for me, but like I said I’m trying to remain as positive as possible. More to come soon!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sandy update!

In previous posts, I mentioned quite possibly the greatest dog in the history of the universe - our beautiful Sandy. We fostered her from late December through mid April and attribute her joining a wonderful forever family largely to our "Adopt Sandy!" campaign :) We think of her often and have (perhaps over-enthusiastically) shared pictures and videos with many of our fellow Peace Corps colleagues.

We recently received an update from her great parents along with new pictures, and I wanted to take a break from the Morocco-related posts to share. She is not surprisingly doing wonderfully! She had some health issues around the summer, but those seem to be resolved and she is healthy and beautiful. We've been told that she is now what they call a "veggie dog" and her favorite treat is baby carrots. We also hear that she is bilingual which they discovered when a Spanish language program came on the TV. She reacted to it, and they tried out some commands in Spanish, and you can guess the rest - we always knew she was a smart girl! We feel so privileged that we had her in our lives for even a few short months and are very grateful that she has found a wonderful family who is willing to keep us in the loop :)

Here are some recent photos - hope you enjoy.

P.S. - while she still doesn't like the rain, she enjoyed playing in the October snow in New York!!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

One door closes...

Today marks exactly 2 months since Justin and I joined the Peace Corps, and it also marks the end of one phase of our time here and the beginning of a new one. This morning, we left our training community in Moulay Yacoub and exchanged tearful goodbyes with our host family who has done so, so much for us. They sent us off with jllabas (pictures forthcoming!) and a slew of other memorabilia that we will cherish and think of our time here. In just a short time we have truly connected with our family and with the Moulay Yacoub community and it will always fill a donkey-shaped place in my heart. Justin and I are absolutely planning to go back and visit, hopefully when our language is even better and they might understand what we are saying :)

A "quilt" from a program that I ran with girls in our community. Thought it looked cute :)

While we are sad to leave, we ended our time in Moulay Yacoub with a bang – this week was L-3id L-kbir (also known as “the great feast”), one of the largest holidays in the Muslim community. The holiday is held on the tenth day of the month of du l-Hijja in the Islamic calendar (the last month of the year) and is derived from the sacrifice story of Abraham and his son Isaac. For those who don't know or need a reminder – the holiday honors when God (or Allah) told Abraham (for Muslims, he is called Ibrahim) to sacrifice his son Isaac (for Muslims, Isma'il) as a test of his faith. As Abraham was about to kill Isaac, God stopped him and gave him a lamb to sacrifice instead. *16-Nov: Clarification at bottom of post!

For 3id, each household purchases its own sheep (those who cannot afford a sheep buy a lamb or a less expensive animal). Then, the head of the family kills the sheep (or in some families, a butcher comes to the house and performs the ritual). Over the days following this, the family eats all the different parts of the sheep. And when I say all I mean ALL. They also eat a TON of sweets at every meal- cookies, cakes, candies, the works. I am refraining from posting some of the more graphic pictures and descriptions of the week but I’m happy to share upon request! In addition, families buy new clothing to wear for the holiday, usually get haircuts, and women use henna as cosmetic and as a means of protection against evil influences. For us, the week was overwhelming but a really interesting experience and allowed us to spend a lot of time with our family, which we really appreciated. 

Our friend the sheep who is no longer...
A sample of our typical non-meat spreads last week

So we’ve said goodbye to the beautiful Moulay Yacoub with its mountains, hammams, donkeys, steps and steps and steps, and the amazingly welcoming people who took us in and allowed us to be part of the community for our short time. We are now in Fes where we will spend 4 days, then 1 day in Rabat in which we will be sworn in as official Peace Corps volunteers. My host sister sewed me a beautiful purple jllaba for 3id which I will be wearing again at our official swearing-in ceremony on Thursday, so you will be seeing it soon. Then, on Friday we head off to our new community (Tiflet) to begin our 2-year adventure. More to come over our next few days the next door opens!

* Clarification on 16-Nov: I realized that one piece of my description of Abraham's sacrifice may have been unclear. While Ibrahim is of course the Arabic version of the name Abraham, I did not mean to suggest that Isma'il is just the Arabic equivalent of Isaac. As you may know, Abraham had 2 sons by different women: Isma'il (or Ishmael) and Isaac. In the Torah and Christian Bible, Isaac is the son that Abraham was about to sacrifice, whereas in the Qur'an, Abraham was about to sacrifice his first son, Isma'il, when Allah sent the ram. The theological importance of the distinction is that Jews trace their descent from Isaac and Christians believe that Jesus was a descendant of Isaac, whereas Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohamed was a descendant of Isma'il.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Our home for the next 2 years

Drumroll please!! 

Justin and I have finally learned of our site for the next 2 years. It's been a whirlwind month and a half and I am nervously anticipating the next stage, but am very excited for the adventures to come. With no further ado, I introduce to you our new home:

Meet Tiflet! (the dot in red on the map above) 

- Pronounced "Teeeee-flt" or "Teeee-flit" - I learned how to write it in Arabic script and I'll try to write a pretty one and post it sometime soon.
- Population: Around 100,000, we think.
- Location: In Northwest Morocco, about an hour west of Meknes and 45 minutes southeast of Rabat.
- History: Dates back to settlements by the Phoenicians and Romans in the first millenium B.C. Apparently lots of excavations in the area with historical artifacts according to our guidebook.
- Geography: Tiflet is in a valley, surrounded by hills. From what we've been told, it's relatively flat. We're just excited to go from climbing stairs every day to a paved road or two :)
- Language: Mostly Darija with a bit of French.
- Known for: A strong beekeeping industry, producing some wonderful honey for the region. Also apparently known for really good watermelon.
- For our jobs: Seems as if there will be lots to do. We have 2 youth centers which will be great since there are 2 of us. There are 3 women's centers which is a lot, and I'm looking forward to doing lots of activities with girls and women in the community. Otherwise, a lot of nonprofits and some human rights associations that we're also hoping to get involved with.

That's about all that I know so far! We have another week and a half left in our training site (Moulay Yacoub), which will include a big Moroccan holiday starting Monday (look for a blog post all about it next week!) and a camp with the youth to conclude our time with them. Then, we will return to Fes to complete our training, then off to Rabat to be officially sworn in as Peace Corps volunteers. From there, we are off to Tiflet, where we will live with a host family for the first month to help us meet people in the community, get acclimated, and search for an apartment. 

So a lot has happened, but as you can see, lots more to come! And now that you all know our official site, start planning those visits!!!! :)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Top Chef Morocco?

So I’ve talked a lot about food since we’ve been here, but it’s mostly been about eating the food, not about cooking it. Now I get to talk about the other side of it - this past Sunday was our first chance to get in a Moroccan kitchen and cook some food!

Justin and I had been talking with our host family for a little while now about cooking them a meal, and when we asked them specifically what they wanted us to cook, there was 1 request: pizza. Coming from New York where pizza is king, we were reeeeally nervous about how to go about making pizza in Morocco, but up to the challenge. We decided to pair the pizza with a very American dessert – apple pie – and the menu was set.

Now, this is not the type of easy process where in the U.S. I might just find a recipe and then go out and buy whatever I needed. Here, there are some ingredients that I just couldn’t find anywhere in our area – In this case cider vinegar, nutmeg, and brown sugar for the apple pie, and basil and a bay leaf for the pizza sauce – So we just had to adjust the recipes to cut out those ingredients. Beyond that, the only cheese sold in our small community is the Laughing Cow triangles and I would not be allowed back in the state of New York if I tried to put that on a pizza – so luckily Justin and I found cheese in Fes on a quick overnight trip for training. Oh yes and I forgot to mention that since the concept of pre-made pizza dough or pie crust does not exist, we were making everything from scratch – the dough, pie crust, pizza sauce, etc. None of which I have ever done before. So I was more than a little nervous that I might disappoint my family that makes every amazing meal from scratch.

So our ingredients and recipes were set, and we went to our local market the morning of our big meal to get everything needed (here, people just buy whatever food is needed for each day which by the way I LOVE). We were able to get everything that we needed and we went back to the house to start cooking. This was the first time that Justin was fully allowed into the kitchen, which was exciting. Up until now the family has only let him bring dishes down from the kitchen to the dining table – I’ll talk more about gender roles in another post. As we cooked, our family sat around and eagerly watched – even 2 of our host brothers, who rarely come into the kitchen and certainly don’t stay for very long, watched excitedly for about 3 hours’ worth. In keeping with the American theme of the day, we put on some of our own music. Our youngest host brother (8 years old and adorable!) seemed to be really into Marvin Gaye and Al Green which was cute.

The cooking process presented a lot of obstacles which just required some flexibility and patience. For example, the ovens are hooked up to gas and are lit with a lighter and there’s no chance of trying to calibrate that thing to a particular temperature (not to mention that the door is falling off of the oven so it needs to be rigged up a bit when cooking). So, we just had to keep a close eye on everything to make sure it was going well. And, we had to find cooking supplies in the kitchen that we could use, many of which were very different from what we might use in the U.S. (for example, no pizza or pie pans, but we found things in the kitchen that would make do). Beyond that, we had to deal with the family watching our every move and trying to help when they could (my host mother laughed at how slowly I diced an onion and she took one and literally did it in 5 seconds flat – she really should be on Top Chef!).

But overall, we found everything that we needed to make it work and the food was GREAT! I was actually truly surprised by how good it turned out. It was a huge learning experience for Justin and I in what goes into cooking in a Moroccan kitchen, and the importance of flexibility and advance planning when figuring out what recipes might work here and what might not. And, I think it was fun for our host family to be a part of the cooking experience. Enjoy the photos of the final results! 
The ingredient list - that’s my handwriting in Arabic script on the right!
The apple pie before going into the oven
tomato sauce from scratch! sooo good
pizza with peppers and onions on top
plain pizza
Moroccan-style pizza - half olives and half harissa
close-up of the Moroccan-style pizza
the whole spread!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A training update

The weeks are going by faster and faster! It has now been 5 weeks since Justin and I arrived in Morocco, though it feels like months with all that we have done and learned. In 2 weeks, we will find out our permanent site placement for the next 2 years, and in 1 month, we will (hopefully) be sworn in as Peace Corps volunteers and leave for our final site. 

I’m very much looking forward to having my own space and exploring a new community, but there’s a LOT to do in our training site between now and then. Every 2 weeks a new “Phase” of training ends and a new one starts (there are 4 Phases total). Right now I am in Fes with our full training group to mark the end of Phase 2 and the beginning of Phase 3. In Phase 2, we conducted in-depth community assessment work to try to understand some of the issues that youth in our community are facing (we are Youth Development volunteers, so all of our work is very youth-focused). We had a number of interviews and meetings with community leaders along with creative exercises with youth. 

The 2 most pronounced concerns for youth that have come out of our assessment work are education (primarily English education) and empowerment of women. In our community, students are only required to go to school through the 6th grade. We have a school for students from the 7-9th grades but many students in the community are not able to continue going to school, typically because they must work outside or inside of the home to help the family. There is no high school in the town, so after 9th grade, students have to take a bus or taxi every day to Fes to continue their education. For most families, this is a financial strain and there are also concerns for girls’ security, so few students in the community continue their education after 9th grade. Particularly for women, there’s not a lot of encouragement for education or the pursuit of their skills and talents. In my host family, I have two sisters age 16 and 17 who are no longer in school but are working in a women’s center in the community that is helping them train to become dressmakers… but in many families girls don’t even have these opportunities. 

Our group is planning a program at the end of our training to help address the issues of education and female empowerment. I’m planning an activity geared toward young girls, helping them to think about and discuss their individual talents or talents/skills that they would like to learn, in an open and supportive environment. It’s a bit frustrating that we are only in the community for another month and as such there is only so much that we can do for them, but at the same time I’m happy that we’re able to give something and to gain lessons that will help us in our permanent site.

 More to come on our training and the program planning as the weeks go by! I’ll end with a few more photos from the past week:

View of our community from the mountain - so beautiful!
My host sisters dressed me up on
Sunday in a traditional Moroccan dress!
Then they paraded me around town
and got me some henna - on the side
of my hand is "Layla," my Moroccan name here :)
An example of a daily "traffic jam"
in our community :)
your weekly allotment of food photos!
This is a tagine with kfta, onions
and olives... soooo good!
I miss everyone very much, and hope all is well!