Sep 15, 2010

Back in Morocco, this time for 27 months!

After a lovely month spent with my family Tennessee (Ramadan! Eid! Food!) I'm back in Morocco! While I was gone I made a short speech at the Knoxville Rotary club, and I started packing for the Peace Corps. Now I'm here again, this time for more than two years. I'm thinking about just turning this blog into a Peace Corps blog.

Jul 25, 2010

t minus three weeks

ok ok, its been a while. time flies! Since my previous update my laptop crashed and its been tough keeping in touch with everyone online, and this blog fell by the wayside. So here's what's up in Rabat.

First off, I now know that I will be staying in Morocco for two more years as a Peace Corps volunteer! I'm going to be in Youth Development, working for the Moroccan ministry of Youth and Sports. Woooo! I can't wait to get started.

Since I have arrived in country I have visited many Moroccan cultural and heritage sites including ancient and modern mosques, ancient souks, Abasid ruins, a Roman necropolis, the Royal Palace, the National Library and Archives, archeological museums, and contemporary art exhibitions with the work of current Moroccan artists on display. Since my last update I also checked out two Moroccan music festivals: "Ganoua" North African music and Sacred music with Sufi and mystical influences. Morocco is such a culturally rich place, and is a complex mix between an Arabic/MiddleEastern/Muslim country, a modern European nation with a growing economy and infastructure, and also an African/North African "tribal" society with at least three distinct Berber languages not related to Arabic or French at all. I have also attended lectures, (hosted by the Qalam Center) on topics such as Women in Islam, Moroccan Habits and Dress, Moroccan Architecture, and Education Reform in Morocco.

One of the most gratifying and informative experiences I've had so far was a 3-day trip to a small Berber village located in the Atlas Mountains. The village population is about 15,000 people and I gained access to this remote location thanks to the help of a friendly Peace Corps volunteer who kindly invited me to visit his site. I was able to eat 2 meals with a friendly morccan family, and I also spent the day at a community center for youth, or "Dar Chabab", where I spoke with the director about current events and his work at the center. As a Youth Development volunteer I will work in a Dar Chabab also, so it was cool to get a small preview of my new job.

I have also visited a few other Moroccan cities, but with the Qalam center excursions, although I frankly stopped going on these after two tries because they were a bit too touristy and expensive. However, I've still been able to learn a lot, gaining new vocabulary and "seeing the sites" despite the obstacles. So far I've visited Essaoueria, Maraketch, Casablanca, and Meknes. Now that my language skills are better I feel comfortable making travel arrangements on my own and traveling "the Moroccan way" on the souk bus, via grand taxis, and by taking the train. My days of fully-arranged tour-bus excursions are thankfully over! Hamdullah!

Bye for now

Jun 19, 2010

Salade de couscous aux tomates confites

Hachez! Ciselez! Versez! Arrosez! Délayez et Rapez!
Cooking is fun when you learn new vocabulary.
Especially when you finally figure out what it means to rapez une carrotte

My latest culinary success:

Rotary Gala and Fundraiser for burn victims

Last night I went to a Rotary fundraiser for child burn victims. Apparently, very small children in poor families here are often at risk of falling into large ovens (fours) or open fires, which Moroccan families often use for preparing food.

The fact that these victims are known in French as  enfants brûlés, adds an aspect of Jonathan Swift-esque horror to this common domestic (kitchen) accident. Everyone seemed deeply moved and disturbed by the social/class element to this problem

In response to this issue, the Rotary club here has teamed up with l'association marocaine pour le sourire de l'enfant and the Rabat Hospital to raise funds for this cause.

The money goes towards reconstructive surgery and emergency care for the victims, and towards an awareness campaign for preventing such accidents from happening in the future. Many of the Rotarians I spoke to expressed interest in teaming up with the Knoxville club on this and other projects.

Here are some photos from the Gala! There were two bands: one from the Congo and another from Rabat.

Fundraising activities included:
1) a tombola or raffle: the top prize was either a Cartier pen and watch or a vacation package
2) a very cool fashion show followed by a dress auction: about 30 caftans or traditional Moroccan dresses were shown and auctioned off
3) and of course a cash bar with expensive drinks!

Also, Rotarians like dancing, singing, and clapping their hands so much that there was a fake wedding! This was a great chance for me to see an example of traditional Moroccan wedding attire and customs. Some ladies got into it so much that they started ululating.

I think may also have been an opportunity for the woman who designed all the dresses and clothing for the runway show to display a broader range of her products. I think she kindly donated the dresses to the auction.

Overall the Gala was a great success. People had a good time and the Rabat-Chellah club raised lots of money for a great cause.Below: a caftan, the blushing bride, and my host counselor Sidi Oumali getting-down to Congolese music

Jun 5, 2010

Le Deuxième Sexe... au Maroc

Traveling in a Muslim country like Morocco, one cannot help but to recall familiar portrayals of "the Muslim Woman" as essentially oppressed, downtrodden, browbeaten, and so forth. This very touchy and controversial subject is of increasing interest to me as I speak to Moroccan women & men, volunteers, Rotarians, and university students about their views on the "place of women" (actual and ideal) in Moroccan society. I have been thinking about this question through the lense of Simone de Beavoir's Le Deuxième Sexe, and I thought it would be worthwhile to record some of the basic positions and points of departure for understanding gender in Moroccan society.

First, it is helpful to note that there is no such thing as "the Muslim woman" writ large, since religious beliefs concerning women, cultural practices, and family economies/structures will vary enormously even within the same city or region. Moreover, there isn't a single, clear "Islamic position" on women as far as I can tell. Every Muslim has his/her own preferred source of information on this subject. Others might say that what is written in the Qur'an is the definitive "Islamic position" on the matter, but textual literalism in this case might preclude many rights that most moderate believers would take to be fundamental, such as the complete equality of the genders in matters religious, economic, and familial.

Another useful starting point in navigating this territory is to note that the popular Orientalist view of "the Muslim woman" needs to be tempered by reflections on this facile mode of historical reconstruction, which Edward Said has famously problematized. The interesting thing about Orientalist-style writings on the position of women in Muslim societies is that they describe Muslim "practices" as enigmatic, primitive, and so on, simultaneously eschewing discussion of any gender inequality that exists in the West. For example, a 2001 report on "honor" killings in Jordan accounting for 1/4 of all homicides of women in that country resulted in Western outrage. However, this sensation obscured the fact that 1/3 of the women killed in the US are murdered by their boyfriends or husbands. The point here is definitely not to condone or "excuse" honor killings, but to make sure we understand that insidious gender norms persist even in our own progressive and secular society.

The Orientalist position also frequently exhibits a confusing stance on Muslim sexuality: in brief, that the Muslim world as a whole is at once deeply sexually repressed and appallingly licentious, open, and carnal. The binary opposition between sexual indulgence and sexual reticence is either evidence of cognitive dissonance on the part of Orientalists or an example of the paradoxes of conservative society. Another familiar and dangerous Orientalist trope is the beautiful, exoticized Oriental woman, who needs to be "rescued" from an ugly, depraved harem-lord. No doubt the function of this latter story is to make the Oriental woman more sexually available to westerners and to simultaneously demonize the Oriental man, indirectly justifying a forceful overthrow of his heavy-handed and unjust rule.

In sum, it is always a good idea to be aware of these Orientalist constructions and reconstructions. But how can cultural sensitivity be balanced with honest reflection on the situation of women in many Muslim countries, or in Morocco in particular? Any thinker sympathetic with local culture but also informed about feminist critiques and orientalist pitfalls will feel pulled in many different directions at once.

Perhaps people should be left alone, and their social structures viewed as inviolable? Yet, a shocking literacy gap exists between the genders, especially in rural Moroccan villages (22 points difference for adult literacy in the country as a whole). Surely education is consistent with any reasonable belief system? On the other hand, what if any attempt to "improve the situation of the Moroccan women" is really just a veiled missionary project that imposes western modes of behavior that don't really have anything to do with fundamental human rights. Take the veil, for example, which by itself is neither implicitly good or bad for the social equality of women. Some insist that (Sarkozy, etc) the veil effectively banishes the woman from the public sphere, making her a social non-entity that cannot engage on equal grounds with men, effectively abolishing any of her economic and individual rights. Others insist that the veil is a symbol in the fight against the sexual objectification of woman, and that, to the contrary, the veil is a affirmation of the positive role for women in public because it forces men to engage women as personalities and not as sexual objects or as bodies available for sexual pleasure.

My only decisive view on women in Morocco (and in Muslim societies as a whole) is that anyone who has a decisive view ("women are free to do what they want!" or "women are oppressed!") is either naive, poorly informed or overly simplistic in their outlook. This is not a clear-cut issue folks!

Evidently, I'm beginning to get lost in my own writing, so I will conclude with a thought-provoking passage from existentialist and feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir about "patriarchal times" in the distant and not-so-distant past. Although the excerpt below focus on the "Arab people,"  de Beauvoir also discusses in the second division of her work the Neanderthal, Greek, Babylonian, ancient Egyptian, and 13th-18th century European views on the role of women in society. (Note to crazy opinionated people: I am not supporting or refuting anything she says on this blog, I'm just putting something up for discussion and thought!).

I'd welcome any comments below. Do you think de Beauvoir has a point, or is she simply another Orientalist hack when it comes to her research on the so called "Arab-world"? Does her portrayal of the lives of Arab women have any bearing to the lives of contemporary women in Morocco, or is it all romanticized nonsense? Or perhaps more nuance is required in understanding the import of this passage?

"When the family and the private patrimony remain beyond question the bases of society, then woman remains totally submerged. This occurs in the Moslem world. Its structure is feudal...There is no power to check that of the patriarchal chief. The religion created when the Arab people were warlike and triumphant professed for woman the utmost scorn. The Koran proclaims: "Men are superior to women on account of the qualities in which God has given them pre-eminence and also because they furnish dowry for women..." The Bedouin woman works hard, she plows and carries burdens: thus she sets up with her spouse a bond of reciprocal dependence; she walks abroad freely with uncovered face. The veiled and sequestered Moslem woman is still today in most social strata a kind of slave...

I recall seeing in a primitive village of Tunisia a subterranean cavern in which four women were squatting: the old one-eyed and toothless wife, her face horribly devastated, was cooking dough on a small brazier in the midst of an acrid smoke; the two wives somewhat younger but almost as disfigured, were lulling children in their arms...seated before a loom, a young idol [the fourth woman] magnificently decked out in silk, gold, and silver was knotting threads of wool. As I left this gloomy cave--kingdom of immanence, womb, and tomb--in the corridor leading upward toward the light of day I passed the male, dressed in white, well groomed, smiling, sunny. He was returning from the marketplace, where he had discussed world affairs with other men...[but] for the withered old women, for the young wife doomed to the same rapid decay, there was no universe other than the smokey cave, whence they emerged only at night, silent and veiled."

Beignets sur la plage et Oudaya

la plage de sable d'or
Check out my awesome farmers tan.
Thanks Mahmoud, for the hat.
Beignets + Beach

A nice garden in Oudaya

Typical chic cafe in Rabat

Nice ocean-view, near Oudaya

Top Chef, Morocco

Today I decided to engage in a culinary experiment. I can't say the results were amazing but they did meet my basic criteria for food: 1) edible and 2) nutritious. Here's my recipe, for anyone who needs a good laugh:

-1 scoop of large green lentils (about 2 1/2 cups?)
-every spice you can locate in your kitchen. 1 tablespoon of each (cumin, paprika, and about 4 other spices I couldn't identify because they were in mysterious unlabeled containers)
-5 cups of water
-1 potatoe
-1 one red onion
-about 10 saudi-style dates, with pits removed
-cooking oil of some kind

First, dice up the onion and put it in a pan on low heat with some oil. Cook until translucent and then put to the side for later.

Then put 5 cups of water in a large pot, along with all the spices you can find, and some salt. bring the water to a low boil, add the lentils, dates, and potatoes, cover, and put on mid-low heat.

After about 15-20 minutes, remove the dates and let them cool on a plate. Then get a knife and start to chop them up into smaller bits. Eventually the dates will transform from strandy bits into a glob of sticky, delicious mush. Add the dates back in and stir in the mush. I discovered the hard way that if the heat is too high, the lentils will begin to stick to the bottom!

Keep the pot a-simmerin' for another 20 minutes or so, checking periodically that you don't need more water and that the lentils aren't sticking. I aimed for a thick, soup-like consistency. Add the onions and then keep cooking until the lentils aren't tough (you can taste periodically to see).

Comments: I've never used green lentils before, and I was disappointed that they taste, well, green. Adding the dates was a great idea, but I don't think they complemented the potatoes. Next time I will choose either dates or potatoes, not both. I thought about adding tomato sauce, but concluded that this would only increase the flavor confusion.