Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Official Ramadan update:

Ramadan is the official holy month of fasting and prayer. Its important to note that this is not just abstention from food but water too. It lasts from sunrise (around 5am) to sunset (about 6pm). As a foreigner I am in a bit of a cultural lurch. I am certainly not going to prayer, and have no higher reason to hold a month long fast. That said, I am keeping to it while I am in my town. If I am traveling, I do not feel any real problem with moderate consumption in privacy. Some pacific take the fasting very seriously, and some do not do it at all. It often depends on the relationship they have with their town.

In my case the relationship is still developing but I think is more than on its way. Many of adults seem happy that I am fasting more or less in solidarity. Many children think it is very odd that I would want to fast but am not being made to do so. Some people both old and young think I should go pray, as I seem to be taking the first steps in conversion.

In practice this is (about) how the fasting works. In a small town like mine, people naturally start their day rather early. Ramadan does not seem to significantly change this, though in larger cities the opening of shops and generally all activity can be delayed in the mornings. All activity is done just a bit slower, often into the afternoon work can grow very slow. I have noticed people taking naps all over town. It is not uncommon to lay down in front of your house for a quick 45mins. Sleep and a lack of energy are a natural bodily response to a lack of food and water. Card playing has become a huge pastime, and I suspect if someone wanted they could find a game being played somewhere in the streets of M'ssici at any time during the day. This really helps to pass the time until sundown, which is what everyone is waiting for.

The day "starts" now at sunset with a call from the mosque, which is the signal to dig-in to breakfast. I have had breakfast with some different families in town and each is a little different. Interestingly, people do not chug back water. Often a variety of juice, and coffee are available. Hard boiled eggs are pretty much universal, but no fast breaking would be complete without dates. Also popular is "berber pizza". This goes by different names but "agrum bootori" seems to be most common. Its basically bread stuffed with onions, peppers, spices, and is very greasy. Also are any of a variety in sweet fried and sugary foods. The favorite is chebecia. Really its fried dough with a sweet glaze. The main attraction though is a thick soup. There are a lot of ways to make this, and Ive had it with noodles, various beans, tomatoes, and/or veggies. It is the best for fixing that pain of hunger from not eating all day. If I am eating by myself, I usually just eat fruit and peanuts and drink a lot of water.

This is only the first meal. Later in the night, a real dinner is served. Its pretty normal. Now in my town the power cuts off around 10pm (when it existed) and people went to sleep. But not for long. Somewhere around 3am and 3:30am the power it flipped back on and/or a call from the mosque megaphone wakes everyone up. Its another meal. In larger cities people often stay up all night socializing until this final meal. This final chance to eat lasts until we hear the mosque call (or you fall back asleep). But, if you are still awake, its time for the first prayer of the day at around 5am. If you are inclined, no better time to make a quick prayer of thanks or just a little personal reflection than those first moments as the sun lightens the sky and warms the air.

So that is Ramadan in a nutshell. One interesting observation. In the Wester tradition all holidays are pretty well known. With a little time you could easily nail the exact day of the week for Christmas in 3546. But because Ramadan is based on the lunar calendar, it is a bit more flexible. In theory it moves up around 11 days a year. But, in asking people even just two weeks from its start they could not tell me what day exactly we would start the fast. It was up to the moon. This extends also to the end of the holy month, with the holiday of Laid. We wait until the start of the new lunar cycle, but no one can tell me when that will be exactly. We know its next week, but Monday? Tuesday? Not sure. I thought this was honestly just my town being small and not having a local astronomer around. But, even my boss in Rabat could not tell me the exact day. If the US wants to do a little diplomacy, we could get NASA on the case. But, there is something kinda nice about not knowing.
Cat Stevens: Folk Friend or Foe?

This week our town generator went from working four hours a night, to zero hours a night. So Ive spent most nights listening to BBC and reading by candle light. Which has put me in closer and calmer touch with life than any Ramadan fasting (more about this later). They say we will have a new generator in 4 or 5 days, but Im not really in much of a rush right now. Its a pretty slow peaceful night, a romantic time of just me and the desert.

I stayed awake today after my early meal to watch the sunrise. Wonderful, and it made me wonder what I was doing sleeping so much over the last 26 years.

I have been having some discussions with people about faith and religion. Which does not have to be bad, it can be good. I did not know a lot about Islam before I came, and I know something more now. Maybe my aquired knowledge is not exactly in agreement with Imams everywhere, but at the same time, it gives me (and now you) some insight on how the faith works in a small town. Its more than clear that a lot of people here have no experience with another beliefe system. I would say that most people are not hostile to it, but more perplexed. The idea that I do not want to convert is not itself a threat but as I was told by one very nice elderly lady "you have to go to prayer to go to heaven". I suppose there is nothing wrong with trying to save another soul. I'm from Kansas, I should be used to this type of thing :)

One person who has not helped me in my discussions is Cat Stevens. This folk trubador made a bit of a splash in 1977 when he converted to Islam, and took up the name Yusuf Islam. People here know him as "Sammie Yusuf". I am asked if I am familur with his music at least a few times a week. This might happen when I am sitting with a family having tea, talking to young children, or recently when trying to buy an oven. Mr. Islam has been embrassed with a certain zeal, but its a little unclear how many people are really familure with his music either before or after conversion. Regardess of knowing his music, it is well known that he made the switch and there is always the question (sometimes spoken, sometimes implied) that I can follow in his footsteps. I have declined. Interestingly, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, does not have the same name cache. His conversion in 1975 is not any more far distant in time. I am not sure why the Sportsman of the Century is not held as a similar role model.

It is a fair thing to say that I am the only non-Muslim in my town, and if there is anyone else who does not pray they are certainly keeping it to themselves. I have noticed that young children seem particularly keen about conforming to the religous norm of the town, but people of all ages, gender, and background will initiate a discussion about prayer very openly and willingly. Something that would only very caususly in our society, is often one of the first topics to come up. This honestly catches me by suprise sometimes, and can be a little intimidating. Also, young children can have a hard time grasping difference (as they often do in many subjects). It keeps life interesting.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Community Based Training (CBT) and Me

CBT. I said I would include more on this unique aspect of the Peace Corps training process, and here it is. Community Based Training (CBT) is immersion into a town with a small group of other volunteers, so that we can learn both the language and culture directly from real Moroccan families. As I said in the last post, my town was Ait Ridi. It is a small town, just west of Kelaa M’Gouna, which should be on most maps

The region is known of its Rose festival, because the local industry is growing and picking roses. Everything is about roses, and shops in Kala are pink with floor to high ceiling racks and racks of rose based products. Want rose soap? They have 5 kinds. Rose shampoo? 6. Rose air freshener? More types than I can count. Its was truly a rosey place. Interestingly, the roses are not the huge American Beauty variety with petals that ooze a soft, warm, sensuousness. They are a smaller rose, one grown not for its beauty but only for its oil. The roses are grown in long rows and picked in the morning, then sent to the processing factory in Kala to be steamed boiled and extracted. While I am no expert in this process, I am under the impression that it produces different grades of oil, something like the olive oil extraction process. Not exactly romantic, but I have found the reality of Morocco is usually not the same as in movies.

Ait Ridi is a small town, that stretches out in a fertile valley at the junction of two slow muddy rivers. The area has slowly been growing and now several town closely abut to each other so that a person can walk from one town to the next and have no idea of it. Not unlike American suburbs. Most people in Ait Ridi have some economic connection to farming. My host mother worked in the fields most days, and we raised a cow (sold to market during my time), goats, and chickens as well. The farming fields in Morocco are much smaller than their American counterparts and the work is done manually, often without the help of tractors towing tillers. In many places the irrigation is down via "targua's", which essentially divert the water from small streams that flow around the perimeters into the field and flood it as often as is needed and practical. Even in macaque, which is solidly in the Sahara Desert this is how watering is down in the small fields close to town. The main targua's are community property, and the smaller ones leading to individual fields are privately owned and maintained.

Interestingly my host father was a welder. Here in Morocco, the job of welder is more related to "metal artist" than "joiner of metal". He made doors, window grills, and various things for around the house. Many of the people in the Small Business Development work with artisans such as carpenters or welders. Its been interesting to see how while both Morocco and America have people working in these vocations, the work done can be very different.

In any case, my CBT had 4 people in it. Dave, Kellie, Becca, and myself. Because we all got to be pretty close with each other it is possible that their names will surface later. Becca is the closest person from my stage to me, so I see her more regularly than any of the other group. Dave and Kellie are on the other side of the Atlas Mountains near Azile. All volunteers are assigned to a host family, and they went from helping us take the first baby steps in the language to being people who I still send a text message or a short phone call now and again. A really great family, and one that can help shed some light on who is in a Moroccan family. But, that is for another post :)

We rotate though CBT on increasingly long stints. First 4 days, then 6, finally 8 or 9. This alternates with our time in Ouarzazate, so between the two we are bombarded morning to night with language and culture. At CBT we met at the home of our Language and Culture Facilitator (LCF), which is a really fancy title for "personal teacher". So daily when my two host sisters (age 4 and 6) were getting ready to go off to preschool and kindergarten, I was drinking down cups of coffee to prepare for my day at my own little "madrasa".

As we rotated off of CBT each group would meet and we would get our rooms back at our training hotel in Oz and everyone could share new stories of horribly embarrising events that happened to them.

Its funny to look back on CBT as being one the more idealic times that I have had so far in Morocco, but it really was. Partly because I was with other volenteers most of the time. And partly because I was not living on my own and doing all the work associted with keeping my own house. By comparison, Ait Ridi, is a lush and green area compaired to M'ssici, and maybe that left an impression on me to. in anycase, CBT was learning experience and a gradual entry into Moroccan society.
So, I have a lot of explaining to do I suppose. Having been rather absent my duty to explain my life during training and such I will do my best now to catch you up as I also drop in some updates about Morocco and my ongoing life.

One thing you may note in reading this blog. We have been told (several times) that PCVs in other countries have gotten in major trouble for being excessively criticial of parts of their host country. While its natural that some aspect might either truely be wrong, or at least seem that way to a visitor or someone living there, it seems these PCVs crossed some vauge line in their analysis. You might note a general positive spin to most of my posts. This is because Im a postive kinda guy, and because we do not want any one to find this blog and say "damn, Scott is a pretty inconsiderate guy, and does not appriciate this culture, etc etc". But really, I'm still a pretty upbeat fellow.

When you first leave for Peace Corps life, its a pretty nice experience. My group met at a good hotel in Phildolphia (University Sheridan, I think), and spent the first few days in very pliminary lectures and such. Not a bad way to start it, and very nice beds. I say "we", and I mean the appromiately 25 Environmental sector people and the 25 Health sector together in one room. Both groups tend to serve in more or less the same types of areas and our work compliments eachother more closely than either the Small Business Development or Youth Development.

An interesting point to make is that Enviroment is mostly men, and Health (partially due to many Maternial Health volenteers) is mostly women. So you can guess our groups have a certain level of interest in each other which is not entirely professional in nature. Some things, change very very little.

From the City of Brotherly love, we flew out of JFK (a fitting airport to leave from) right to Casablanca. It was a direct flight, and while the food was good, the movies were not. Such is life. Casa is home to the major international airport here, and about an hour and a half bus ride from Rabat where we went directly. I say an hour and a half, but honestly I slept most the way. Morocco is on GMT, with no changing for daylight saving. I think the time change was about 5 hours from the East Coast at the time, so when we landed and cleared customs by around 8am, I was still in relatively good shape. But, that didnt last long, and it took a few more days to catch up. Fortentially there were many more lengthy lectures in the next few days.

Rabat is not exactly a tourist Mecca, but I now know it has some great things that larger towns have here, and I wish I had taken closer note of. Namely, the video store. These lectures where pretty basic and helped us to get a better idea of what we were getting into, they also served as a good time to give us a lot of vacinations. The hotel we stayed at in Rabat was...nice. Really a quality hotel by any standards, even if the beds were a bit hard, as were the pillows.

Waking up one night around 5am, my roomate Brandon and I talked quietly as people do when they wake up in a new country unsure of the future.
"Scott, are you thinking of what Im thinking of?"
"No, what are you thinking of?"
"Now Im thinking of what your thinking of."

Sadly, after to few days, we had to move on to our final training areas. Environment is is Ozarrazate, and the Heath is in Azilal. These areas were picked because they are close to towns where the different languages that we would learn are spoke. Im sure there are some other reasons they are picked as well, like decent hotels. Sadly they are around 8 hours away from eachother, so it was impossible to see our Healthy friends.

Ouarzazate. Called by tourism promoters "The Hollywood of Morrocco". Its where Gladiator and City of God were both shot. Its a medium sized town and generally a nice place for us to slowly get our feet under us in this new culture. This is where our "real training" took place. Stage (thats French for training), consistes basicly of two main parts. Community Based Training (CBT) and Ouarzazate. Both involve about 4 hours of language a day, but CBT is more hands on and technical, where is the time we spent in Oz was more lecture style. Also CBT is, in a community with a small group of people, where as Oz is with all 25 of our fellow trainies (PCTs). My CBT village was Ait Ridi, and I think Ill post about that later and in more detail.

Stage lasted until May 22nd, where we had a very nice swearing in ceremony at the nicest hotel in town followed by everyone relaxing. Many peope decided to relax in a way that is common (but not exlusively so) to the younger generation. This can be an excellent way to share time with friends, but does leave one a bit bleary eyed the next morning when we had to ship off to our final sites. My bus left at 8am, and I had a ticket with both destiny and M'ssici.