Sunday, July 29, 2012

Because Morocco doesn't have windmills...

I discovered a feature on my blog that allows me to write an entry, and set it to post at a later date. So, by the time you will read this new blog post, Justin and I will be on our first trip away from Morocco in 10 months! Here's where we are:

First stop, to the land of canals, herrings, museums, and CHEESE... the Netherlands! We'll be in Amsterdam for 3 days, then we are renting a car and driving to Maastricht and Den Haag with a few stops along the way. We come back to Amsterdam and then catch an overnight train to...

... our second stop, the Czech Republic! We'll be in Prague for 3 days, and will also take a few day trips to visit castles and historic sites. Then we'll return to Amsterdam for 1 last day before flying back to Morocco.

None of the above are my photos, of course, but hopefully the blog entry upon our return will be filled with lots of new ones to share with everyone :)  In the meantime, wishing a good Ramadan to those who are fasting and a wonderful summer to everyone!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Morocco 101: Ramadan

Today is the second full day of Ramadan in Morocco. Justin and I are only going to be in Morocco for the first 4 days of it (we leave on Wednesday for a vacation) and then we'll be back for the remaining 2 weeks, but we are trying to experience as much as we can in the beginning! I thought I would use this blog post to talk a bit about Ramadan and our experiences so far.

The most well-known aspect of Ramadan for non-Muslims is the month-long fast between sunrise and sunset. For the last month or so, just about everyone we know or meet has asked the same question...

Are we fasting?

The answer is yes - sort of. Justin and I have committed to fasting while we are in Morocco, out of respect for the community and to try to get a sense of Ramadan from a closer perspective. However, since we are leaving on Wednesday to travel out of the country for 2 weeks, we'll be starting with a mini-fast of just 4 days, and then we'll try to resume fasting when we return. It's been really interesting to hear people's responses when we tell them that we are fasting - Some seem happy and proud of us, others are confused as to why we would fast if we are not also praying, and most warn us that it will not be easy! But people seem to really love Ramadan - they say that it's a beautiful time when the community comes together and experiences something very special. And just in our first day, I felt like fasting was something that mentally tied me to the community - As I walked around yesterday, I felt that I shared something in common with the whole community, which is a pretty cool feeling when you are living far away from home. And the flip side of fasting is that you have an amazingly delicious meal to break the fast each and every night. Some pictures from our first break-fast meal are at the end of this blog post!

As I mentioned above, Ramadan has started in Morocco - but exactly when it started is not as simple a question as you might think...

When does Ramadan start?

Well, that's a funny question that has been baffling me.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and as with all months in the Islamic calendar, its start is based on the sighting of the new moon. There appears to be a lot of disagreement over the starting date of the month.

Since Muslims live all over the world, but Islam started in what is now known as Saudi Arabia, they may not agree as to which country’s first moon sighting marks the start of the month. Some Muslims believe that a new moon sighting from their individual country marks the start of Ramadan. Other Muslims believe that the sighting of the new moon from Saudi Arabia marks the beginning of Ramadan. And yet other Muslims believe that technology should be used to mark the true date, and use astronomical calculations instead to determine the start of Ramadan.

In Morocco, it was based on the sighting of the moon here. So for several nights we stayed awake, waiting for a friend to tell us whether or not the new moon had been sighted. Seems like a tough way to mobilize a whole country to start fasting, but it works for people here!

Many of you may already know a lot about Ramadan, but here's a bit more information that I have learned during my time here.

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the month-long period of fasting that Muslims all over the world observe to commemorate the month in which the Qu'ran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Many Muslims also believe that during this month, the gates of Heaven are open, the gates of Hell are closed, and devils are chained in Hell. So it is a very holy time, filled with special practices which are only done this month.

Special Practices During Ramadan

Fasting all month
Although Muslims fast during other times of the year, Ramadan is the only time when fasting is obligatory during the entire month for every able Muslim. From sun-up to sun-down, Muslims (with exceptions for the ill, travelers, nursing mothers and pre-pubescent children) are required to abstain from eating, drinking, or sexual relations during daylight hours.

Charitable giving
There is also an increased emphasis on alms-giving during Ramadan. Many Muslims believe that their good actions bring a greater reward during this month than at any other time of year, because this month has been blessed by Allah. 

Increased prayer and recitation of the Qu'ran
In addition to fasting, Muslims are encouraged to read the entire Qu'ran. Some Muslims perform the recitation of the entire Qu'ran by means of special prayers which are held in the mosques every night of the month.

Iftar (the break-fast)
At sunset, the family gathers for the fast-breaking meal known as Iftar. The meal traditionally starts with the eating of three dates (as this is what the Prophet Muhammad did). Then a festive meal is served after prayers. This is a time of fellowship with families, friends, and the community.

A small meal eaten just before dawn; the final meal before the day's fast begins.

And very important... some special foods during this time!

Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about the eating portion of this month. There are many special types of food that, while available in Morocco at other times in the year, are emphasized this month. Here are the 3 big ones that I have seen so far:

Shbekia: A sesame cookie which is folded into a flower shape, fried and soaked in honey, then sprinkled with sesame seeds. Justin and I have spent HOURS making shbekia with our host family; it takes a really long time but is very good!

Sellou: Made from toasted sesames, fried almonds and flour that has been browned in the oven - very sweet!

Harira: A very tasty chickpea and tomato soup. Although eaten year-round, it seems to be especially popular in Ramadan for breaking the fast.

Making shbekia with my host mother.
The shbekia "before" picture - sesame-based dough
that will be fried and then drenched in honey.
The completed shbekia! Covered in honey and sesame seeds.
The break-fast table - Ours was a little nontraditional; note the pizza in the middle!
Also pictured are sellou, fried fish, shbekia, juices, and harira to come.
Close-up on the sellou.
And last but not least, the harira!
I could eat this stuff ALL. DAY. LONG. When I'm not fasting of course :)

I hope you enjoyed hearing a bit about Ramadan. Wishing you a Ramadan Kareem, a month filled with generosity and holiness!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Language (and food) updates

It's been a long time since I talked about our language progress (here's the last one, way back in February!) so I thought I would do a short update.

This past week, Justin and I took a day trip into Rabat to help Peace Corps staff with "Language Proficiency Interviews" (LPI, for short). After the initial 2-month training period, all Peace Corps Volunteers take an LPI test that assesses their level of acquired language, ranging from Beginner Low/Medium/High, to Intermediate Low/Medium/High, to Advanced Low/Medium/High, and up to the most fluent level of Superior. To become an LPI tester takes quite a bit of training and practice, and Justin and I were serving as the guinea pig interviewees for the testers. We were of course excited to do this as it was more practice in language for us, and might help us get a sense of how our language has progressed.

So how has our language progress been going? In the few months after coming to our permanent site, I think our language skills were the strongest, as we were forced to use Darija to find and set up an apartment, meet new people, begin English classes, and generally explain who we are and what we are doing in Morocco. Nowadays, we tend to have similar conversations each day - greeting friends, shopping in the market, or discussing familiar activities in our Youth Center. We meet with a Darija tutor once or twice a week (he is an English teacher at a local high school) but neither of us have studied regularly enough to make much progress outside of our tutoring sessions. 

So our progress has been focused more on improving speaking, understanding others, and pronunciation, rather than acquiring new vocabulary or grammatical structures. Fortunately we both picked up the language pretty well during our training period, which has helped us here. Justin originally tested at an Intermediate Low level and I tested at an Intermediate Mid level (though I think I should have been Intermediate Low). After our testing in Rabat this week, we were told informally (as these were not official tests) that we are both at an Intermediate Mid level - which is high enough to be able to perform all of our tasks, make friends, and work well with counterparts. And apparently we have both developed strong communication strategies to make up for language that we don't know (so if, for example, we don't know a particular word, we just find a way to talk around that word to get our point across). 

So it may be difficult to improve our language levels, but I think if I dedicated myself to studying just a little bit every few days, it could make a big difference. My goal would be to speak at an Intermediate High or Advanced Low level by the time I leave Morocco... Inshallah!* 
* that means "If God wills it" - a very commonly used phrase here!

In other news - Summer is in full swing in Morocco. We are very fortunate to be in a site that's not too hot - Today it was 115 in Fes, and for us today only about 92 at its highest, so while it's hot, it's nowhere near as bad as it is elsewhere in Morocco. Ramadan is coming up next week, which I'll write more about in the next blog post, and I'm really looking forward to learning firsthand about what it's like. Justin and I will be in Morocco for the first few days of Ramadan, and then we'll be leaving to travel for 2 weeks. More on that soon. And I've been doing a bit more cooking since we've had some spare time - Check out a few photos of the latest dishes below, and visit my recipe page if you are interested!

Homemade lasagna bolognese - even the noodles were homemade. Took SO. LONG.
Gnocchi in a tomato cream sauce! Hopefully the Italian side of my in-laws are proud :)
French fries - very easy, wouldn't do often but fun to have!
Tortillas - have made these lots but never took a photo. Very easy and very good!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Moroccan Travels, Part Four... Essaouira

After regional meetings and a visit from my parents (if you missed those, you can read about them here and here), Justin and I headed west to Essaouira for our last round of travel adventures for a little while. 

Essaouira is a beautiful city on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, about 3 hours west of Marrakech. The town consists of a heavily fortified 18th-century old "medina" (city) along with a more modern new medina. Remains of those 18th century towers, gateways, and bastions can be found throughout the old medina and look out upon stunning views of the Atlantic. Lots of great fish caught fresh and sold in Essaouira's port, along with really interesting art, fun shopping, and great restaurants. And a beach, of course!

We visited Essaouira during a famous annual music event that has taken place for 15 years now - the Gnaoua World Music festival. Gnaoua music is a mix of religious songs and rhythms pulled from sub-Saharan African, Berber, and Sufi influences and is both a blend of music as well as Islamic rituals and prayers. Gnaoua music today is mainly concentrated in Morocco and Algeria. The festival included plenty of Gnaoua music but also other popular music for Moroccans - we heard a band from Mali for instance, as well as a ska band from Casablanca. It was a crazy time to be in Essaouira as the town was packed full of people there for the festival, but that lended to a really fun and vibrant atmosphere and an interesting experience. I'd like to visit Essaouira when it's a little less busy to get a better feel for the town - hopefully we'll get the chance again!

Now Justin and I are back in Tiflet and making plans for the rest of the summer, which will include some travels, visits from friends, planning for the fall, and hopefully lots of cooking and new adventures! More to come soon :)

A view of the Atlantic coast from a tower
One of the Gnaoua Festival stages
Justin and I with the Atlantic peeping out behind us
An old tower and the city's port (with lots of fish, which explains all the birds!)
An Essaouira sunset
A fishing boat coming into the port
Camel riding on the beach!
Fresh, wonderful fish
Haven't had much fish in Morocco, so I was veeeery excited :)
Some of our Peace Corps friends, enjoying Essaouira with us