What If….

The other day, a man walked by me and my husband on a street in Casablanca and called out “Cote d’Ivoire!”  I think he found it clever because ivory is white and the Ivory Coast is a country of dark-skinned people.  Unfortunately I didn’t think of my comeback quite fast enough, because the man was already out of hearing range when I called back at him, “la mongolie!”  I too can play the calling-out-random-countries-at-strangers game.

This got me thinking, what would happen if things that are common on the streets of Morocco were to happen in the U.S.?  If this exact episode happened in America, I’m pretty sure that any onlookers would think that the man must have a mental illness; why else would he call out something either completely random, or potentially very offensive?

Similarly, people (men) often tell me that I am welcome in Morocco, even after more than three years of living here.  What if a white American told an Asian-American that he/she were welcome in the United States?  I don’t think that comment would go over well.

What people wear on the streets in Morocco is not the same as what they wear at work or indoors.  Today I wore a knee-length skirt to work, and plenty of men along my walk had something to say about it.  That same skirt would be considered pretty modest in the U.S., and probably would not turn any heads.

Occasionally young boys call Africans the word “azzi,” a shortened version of the Arabic word for black.  Sometimes they say “abid,” meaning slave.  If that came to the U.S., the Black Lives Matter movement would have plenty to say about it.

Morocco is not the U.S., so those things will probably keep happening for years to come.  Maybe when I get to Boston I’ll bring yelling things at random people on the street into fashion.  Or not….

 

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A Wonderful Tip for Traveling

As I mentioned in a previous post, my trip to Boston will last 28 hours, not including getting to and from the airport.  There are many things I have to do in preparation, like pack a good book, make sure I know where I’m going when I arrive, and find a way to fit all my most important items in my carry-on.  Another thing I have been working on in preparation is training my hair to not look terribly oily after two days.  I consider this to be a very important element of my trip.

Although it is perhaps unlikely that journalists will be waiting to snap my photo when I step foot in the USA for the first time in two years, I still do not want to show up looking like I need a shower.  I expect those first moments to be exciting but more than a little bit confusing, and I know it will really make me feel better if my hair looks okay.  So, I have been washing my hair only every other day, hoping that in a month and a half, my hair will be able to stay fresh without been washed during that long trip.

The traveling tip I want to share with you is dry shampoo.  Dry shampoo absorbs the oils in your hair without drying it out, so it is perfect for giving your hair a quick pick-me-up.  I have been using it on my no-wash days to get my hair to look a little fresher when I go to work, but it also is the perfect fix for oily hair during a long flight because it can be applied in an airport bathroom.  I intend to pass the time during my eight-hour layover by giving myself a dry shampoo.

There are many different recipes for dry shampoo.  The most common has a base of baking soda, but I chose to make mine out of ground oatmeal since I usually have that on hand.  You can also buy dry shampoos, but it is probably easier and cheaper to just mix it yourself, and there are tons of recipes you can find online.  I add a little cinnamon and cocoa powder to make it closer to my hair color, and grind it all up in my blender.  I just sprinkle it into my roots and rub it in all over my scalp with my fingers.  If I leave it in for too long, it starts to feel like dandruff, but if it’s just during the day it keeps my hair looking fluffy for a little longer.  Boston is going to find me sporting an excellent hairdo.

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This picture of my hair looking excellent probably would have been a little bit nicer if I had gotten a lamp to cover that naked light bulb.

Have you tried dry shampoo?  Do you have any other tips for super long plane trips?

Don’t You Dare Say Hi to Me!

Sexual harassment recently became illegal in Morocco (finally!), but I’d actually like to write about a related problem.  Often when I walk down the street, men will call out to me just with greetings.  They’ll say “bonjour” or “ça va,” as if they know me.  Generally I just ignore them and keep going, assuming that they are up to no good.  This certainly is not sexual harassment, and I am not going to report to the police that a man I do not know had the nerve to ask me how I’m doing, but it is pretty irritating just to feel so many eyes watching me as I walk down the street.  And it has been getting me into some awkward situations lately….
The method of the language center where I work involves switching teachers around each week, and we usually give classes with no more than four students who may come in as little as twice a month following an online portion of the course.  This means that there are some people who I meet only once or twice, and overall I’ve worked with probably more than one hundred students.  I also have a big church community, and many people know who I am since I got married there and am one of only two Americans, whereas I don’t remember some of the people who I haven’t talked with much.  The combination of my work and my church communities means that there are a lot of people in Casablanca who I have met but probably could not pick out of a crowd.
A couple times in the past few months, a man has greeted me on the street, but in a way that makes me think I might know him.  One man asked me if I was done teaching, making me think he was a student of mine.  Really he had just seen me come out of the library at the French institute, where I had been reading during my break.  Another referred to me as “my sister,” so I thought I might know him from church.  I don’t like to be rude, so I stopped to talk to these people.  In both cases, it became painfully clear that I did not know them when they asked me to meet them the next day “to share.”  Share what?  I don’t want to know.
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A couple of men said hi to me as I walked down this street in Laayoune, all of whom I ignored.

The reverse of this situation is an even more embarrassing problem.  I sometimes see someone I DO know and ignore them or don’t even look at them, assuming that it is just one of many men who do not like to respect boundaries.  And then the next time I see the person at church or work, they ask me why I did not want to talk to them.  I of course feel bad about acting impolite.
So which do you think is better?  Having unwanted conversations, or being rude to my acquaintances?  I am sure it is ever going to be illegal for men to start conversations with random women, so I better figure out what to do.  Let me know what you think!

Why We Do Not Want to Stay in Morocco

When I first came to Morocco nearly four years ago, it was love at first sight.  The weather was perfect, the people were friendly, the food was delicious, and every day was an adventure.

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Beautiful rock formations in Oualidia

I thought my husband and I might stay long-term, to keep taking advantage of Morocco’s beautiful diversity of cultures.  I was so much more in love with Morocco than any of my colleagues, most of which I thought would leave after a year or two.  But as it turns out, my close friends from my first year will probably stay significantly longer than I will.  Here’s why:

  • There are not many job options outside teaching, which is not my career.  I have also worked part-time in two NGOs, but both were pretty shockingly disorganized.  I don’t think I ever attended a meeting that didn’t start at least an hour late.
  • Getting a visa is a yearly challenge, especially for Africans.  My first year, my employer did everything for me, so I never even knew how difficult it was.  These past two years, I’ve had quite a bit of trouble renewing my visa due to unhelpfulness both from my new employer and from the staff at the prefecture.  And my husband has been working for almost three years on a student visa because his employer doesn’t want to pay the fees for a foreigner’s contract.
  • It’s just really hard to walk down the street.  I’m lucky enough to be able to walk to work, but feel so much less lucky when men comment on my clothes or appearance, or especially when they try to follow me.  It’s better when I walk with my husband, except on the occasions when people (men) yell racial slurs at us.  And then there are the broken sidewalks….
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A surprisingly well-organized slum

  • The rising culture of materialism is exhausting.  Like any fast-developing country, Morocco has become more and more focused on material wealth.  The thing to do on the weekends is to go shopping, and having a car has become a status symbol.  I struggle to explain to my students that I don’t have a car because I like to walk, not because I can’t afford one, that I don’t eat at the most expensive restaurants because I actually like to cook, and that I want to become a social worker because I genuinely find that profession fascinating, not because I got rejected from programs in technology or finance.  My idea of a good career is one that I find rewarding, not necessarily one that pays a lot of money.
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This guy probably gets his hair done in a salon every week.

There are things I love about Morocco too; the community I’ve found here, the opportunities I’ve had to meet new people and learn new languages, and the chance to experience another way of life.  The ocean in Casablanca is beautiful, the vegetables are always fresh, and my husband and I have wonderful friends.  But there’s a time for everything, and I really feel like it’s time to find a place to live with more trees than cars, even if it is somewhere with cold winters and no pomegranates.

 

Back to Blogging

After almost a year, I have decided to continue posting on my blog.  Here is a short story I wrote.  If you read it, please tell me if it makes sense!

 

She could feel her stomach rumbling as she smiled at her patient, a young woman with a pretty face, smooth black hair, and carefully applied wings of black eyeliner extending her eyes. A lovely face, but not meant for smiling. Her unfortunately crooked front teeth distracted anyone who looked at her as soon as she opened her mouth.

“It’s quite a simple procedure,” Amina assured her. “We’ll just straighten those two teeth and give you a quick whitening treatment.” Amina smiled, showing her own perfectly groomed teeth, and held up a pair of invisible braces. Her stomach gave a rumble of agreement.

Ramadan was Amina’s least favorite month. The month in the Muslim calendar when eating and drinking during the daytime were forbidden had never appealed to her. Her mother, a Hungarian, had always insisted that Amina and her brother have the choice not to participate in the tradition. Growing up in Syria made this challenging, but Amina’s father, although a practicing Muslim himself, was careful to let his wife bring her own culture and traditions to the household. Now that Amina was grown, she tried to do the same. Her husband, born and raised in Casablanca, Morocco, where they now lived, taught his culture to their two children, and she taught her own mix of Hungarian and Syrian traditions, underlined by a freedom to choose. And her choice was that she couldn’t function all day at the dental clinic without at least a morning cup of coffee.

The clinic was quiet in the afternoon; most Moroccans preferred to stay home and rest or prepare the meal for breaking the fast. Amina sat at her desk and gazed out the window at the cars speeding by on street below. Didn’t Casablanca ever get tired of moving so quickly? She thought, watching a motorcycle dash around several cars, one of which was puffing out little gray clouds of exhaust. The cars bunched up at the stoplight, then spread out again, only to bunch up all over again a minute later. Just watching it was exhausting. Amina’s thoughts wandered to the house she and her husband were having built outside of the city, in a new subdivision known for its beautiful wooded areas. It should have been ready months ago, but the completion date had been postponed several times. A car on the street below let out a long honk, and a car alarm somewhere nearby started shrieking. Amina let out a sigh. Casablanca could never just relax.

That evening, as Amina was preparing the meal for her husband to break the fast, the street noises outside invaded her thoughts more than usual. There must have been a local football match; young men were streaming down the street, all dressed in red, chanting and shouting. Amina dreaded these nights, when the football fans would come back from the stadium, yelling and chanting either the victory or defeat, both equally emotional. She wondered if they even really cared about the results, or if the fans just had some sort of desire to let out all of their emotions at once and used the football results as an excuse. Amina was always woken up by them, and her five-year-old son often woke up crying if the fans got too loud.   She prayed every day that he would not grow up to be a fan of football.

Amina put the last touches on the meal, setting everything on the table. Even though she hadn’t been fasting, she hadn’t eaten anything all day at work, not wanting her patients to know that she wasn’t a practicing Muslim. This is what it must have been like for my mother, she pondered, thinking about her Hungarian mother falling in love with her Syrian father and going to live with him in Damascus. Always a little bit of an outsider. She plucked a juicy date off the platter she had just set on the table and put it in her mouth, savoring the sweet fruit.

After dinner with her family, Amina and her husband and children headed to bed, stomachs finally full. “I can’t wait to move into our new house when it’s ready,” Amina told her husband when they were sitting in the bed in the tiny master bedroom.

“I’m tired of living in this city,” she added.

“I’m sure the house will be ready soon,” he replied. “And then we won’t bump into our furniture all the time!” He laughed, reaching over Amina to put his glasses down on their one bedside table; his side of the bed was too close to the wall to fit another one. Amina closed her eyes, picturing a house in the forest, chirping birds dancing above the trees.

***

Amina woke abruptly to the sound of a series of loud bangs and her son crying. Has a war started in Morocco? Amina wondered as the sounds of explosions got louder. She jumped up and ran to her son’s room to find him standing on the threshold with his teddy bear, sobbing. From the window of his room behind him she noticed a burst of color; the bangs were only fireworks, set off by the overly excited football fans.

“Is the noise scaring you? It’s only some colorful fireworks, see?” Amina said, trying to exhibit calm and poise.

Tears kept pouring down her son’s face. Amina sighed and scooped him up in her arms. “You can sleep with Mommy and Daddy, okay?” Her son nodded, tears still flowing. Amina carred him back to her room, her own eyelids drooping.

***

The next morning, Amina prepared herself coffee while the rest of the family was still fast asleep, her son and husband cuddled in bed. She certainly was not going to skip her coffee and observe the fast today. Both the fireworks and her son’s sobs had lasted what seemed like hours.

While she was sipping her coffee, the phone rang. She picked it up, wondering who would call her so early, especially during Ramadan.

“Hello?” she answered. The voice on the other end came through what seemed like a long distance.

“Amina, is that you?” Amina couldn’t miss her father’s voice, even through a bad connection.

“Baba! How are you?”

“We’ve left,” he called through the phone. “We’ve gone to Budapest to stay with your mother’s cousins.” She couldn’t tell if the connection was breaking or if his voice was faltering.

“To Budapest!” Amina exclaimed. “I didn’t know you were leaving Syria. Are you safe? What happened?”

“We’re fine now. But the terrorists went too far. We thought we couldn’t keep ourselves safe from them anymore, so we decided it was best to leave. Amina, it took so long just to find our way out of the country…we didn’t even know that millions of other Syrians were already on the same route. Thankfully we have our family here in Budapest. Everyone we met while traveling here was passing through Hungary just to go further west to seek asylum. At least your mother and I are safe here with her family for now.”

“Oh, Baba, I’m so glad you both are okay!” Amina’s hand trembled, and she set her coffee down on the counter. She had been imagining the worst as she listened: terrorists kidnapping her mother, her parents getting trapped in crowded trains, or being chased by border police, just for trying to find a safe place to sleep.

Amina talked to her father for several minutes more, letting him assure her that everything was okay. Finally it was time to go to work, so she reluctantly hung up the phone. Her husband had come in while she was on the phone, and she recounted the whole story to him before leaving, her head a jumble of thoughts and she left her apartment.

She drove to work and parked her car in the underground garage before getting in the elevator. Her thoughts kept circling around her elderly parents, sitting in a train packed full of refugees, desperate for any other life. She reached the second floor and went to unlock the door.

Someone must have been smoking, she thought. The whole corridor reeked of it. She had never smelled such a strong smell of stale smoke. She opened the door, only to find the clinic blackened with ashes. Where there had once been six chairs in a semi-circle, there were only stumps of blackened wood. The stacks of magazines waiting for clients were only piles of ash, and the formerly beige carpet was just a few tufts of black fuzz. The waiting room, which had once been clean and welcoming, now looked like it had been in a war zone. Amina didn’t know what to think. She stepped over some debris to reach the window. There was a hole in the middle windowpane, blackened around the edges, like everything else. She looked at the ground next to the window. There were the remains of a firecracker, still steaming slightly. That small toy must have been what caused all the damage.

Amina thought back to the previous night’s fireworks. It had to have been the football fans, who were so notorious for their destructive post-match behavior. There was no purpose to their violent actions, yet they had just destroyed her business. This must be what it is like to live in Syria, she thought. Your life’s work ruined by senseless people, who give no thought to the hopes and desires of others. To have everything you’ve worked for reduced to a pile of rubble just because of someone else’s uncontrolled emotions.

As she glanced over the damage, cars continued to whiz by on the street below, as always. Horns honked, and a motorcycle sped noisily down the boulevard. Casablanca will never quiet down, Amina thought, but yet it’s home. She turned around and stepped back over the rubble, exiting the office. She would call the other employees and inform them of what had happened, and tell them to just take the day off. She would go back home and spend the day with her son. She could leave the repairs to the clinic for another day.

It’s not my Party

On my way to the bathroom after the Sunday church service, the woman who had agreed to take care of decorating the church for my wedding day stopped me to talk.

“Do you have a minute? I just want to discuss your preferences for the table decoration for the wedding party.”

I told her yes, I did have time to talk, but that my fiancé wasn’t there. I had already discussed the decoration with the woman once, so I figured I should confirm what we had said with my future husband before making any big decisions.

“But it’s not his party,” she said. “You’re the bride; it’s your decoration for your party. Just tell me your ideas; it will only take five minutes.”

She wasn’t the first person to tell me that it was my party, my wedding, and my big day. I didn’t quite understand why people kept saying that; the wedding day is a time for my fiancé and I, our families, and our closest friends to celebrate our decision to build a life together. Yes, I would like to look like a princess, and yes, my veil does attach to my head by a crown, but I don’t think the day is for me any more than it is for anyone else.

If I were to imagine my ideal wedding, I would change a few things. I would like my dress to be a little fluffier in the skirt, to not have bridesmaids because I don’t like telling people what to wear, to have fewer guests, and to be able to give my vows in English, my native language. But I’m wearing the dress my mother made for me, which is the greatest gift she could give me. And I know that the three pre-teen girls I asked to be my bridesmaids danced around with joy when their parents told them that I wanted them to take part in the wedding. And even though speaking French in front of over a hundred people gives me butterflies in my stomach, it’s the native language of 90% of my guests, and I want them to understand clearly why I love my fiancé so much.

It would be nice if the decoration for my wedding looked nice and matched the colors and themes I picked out. But even if the decoration team decides to overturn all of my ideas and cover the whole church in orange streamers, I hope to remember my wedding day not as the best, worst, biggest, or most important day of my life, but as the day I shared what matters most to me with the people I love the most.

There are Chatty Women in French Classes all over the World

When I entered the classroom, there was one Moroccan woman sitting ready in her seat, new course books in front of her. She looked to be about ten years younger than my mother, and was wearing a beige and blue veil that almost matched the blue of our course book. I whispered “bonjour” to the woman before sitting in my own seat and arranging my own books on the desk, two blue paperback books for French as a foreign language. More students filed in, mostly Moroccan women. About half were the same age as the first woman, and about half around my age. We were all students in the high intermediate class at the French Institute in Casablanca, Morocco, although were all there for different reasons. Once the class was nearly full, everyone started quietly flipping through the course book, waiting for the class to start. The teacher came in about 5 minutes late, bringing an abrupt end to the silence in the room.

“Bonjour les enfants!” She waltzed into the room, not pausing for a second to check if anyone had been offended that she had referred to them as children. “Vous allez bien? Vous n’avez pas froid? Il fait vraiment froid aujourd’hui, je l’ai dit ce matin, et je continue à le dire. C’est vraiment l’hiver!” The other students smiled and nodded, still a little shy. The teacher set down her bag and arranged her coat and scarf on the chair before beginning to walk around the circle of desks to ask for introductions. The first student to speak was a Moroccan university student, still living with his parents, but thinking about studying in France. As soon as he finished his introduction, all shyness seemed to have dissipated from the room, at least from the Moroccans. One of the older women began a story about a Moroccan girl she had known who left her family at 18 years to study in France and who became an alcoholic. “But that’s not typical,” she explained. “My daughter is 20 years old, and she is studying in Belgium. She’s a good student, very sure of her values, knows where she comes from.” The teacher stopped the introductions to give a quick description of the French language exams we could take and what would be required for university studies. Her description was punctuated by frequent comments from the students, who already knew a few things about the exams. The next woman then introduced herself; a 30-year-old housewife, married to a doctor, and four months pregnant. Everyone congratulated her, and another one of the older women gave a quick and unsolicited warning about not consuming too much sugar during the pregnancy.

The next student was a student of medicine. She said she had already been accepted to do the preparatory years in France, but her parents wouldn’t let her go. She had therefore lost one year of study, and had been obliged to do the program in Morocco, but wanted to reapply the next year to go abroad. The three older women were next; all three were housewives, and all three had grown children. I was last, since I had sat at the far end of the circle, furthest from the door but close to the board. I knew I had a soft voice, so I figured I would be more likely to be heard if I sat near the teacher. I gave my name, described a bit about my job, explained where I am from in the U.S., and how long I had lived in Morocco. “C’est tout,” I said, and shrugged my shoulders.

As soon as I finished, one of the older women called out, “Are you married?” I smiled and said no, not married, but engaged. The woman next to her shouted out, “to a Moroccan?”

“No,” I said, “not to a Moroccan.”

“All the better for her!” Called the student of medicine. The teacher jumped back into the conversation at that point, shushing the building commotion.

“Les enfants! Calmez-vous! We are going to speak one by one. Why do you say better for her? What is wrong with marrying a Moroccan?”

Five hands shot up. One by one, the other students explained that the Moroccan Man is lazy, does not know how to wash dishes, and sits watching TV while his wife works in the home. The two male students in the class objected briefly, but after some prodding, revealed that neither of them had ever washed a dish. “My mother doesn’t even let me wash dishes at home! She knows I would just break them.” One of the older women admitted to being ashamed for having to ask her husband for money for the French classes, but said that he preferred that she not work. The medicine student said that Moroccan men are spoiled by their mothers and expect the same from their wives. The pregnant woman finished by telling me that it’s really much better for me to marry an American anyway.

The teacher, noticing that everyone in the French class had spoken a lot except me, asked me if I could say how I met my fiancé. In giving the story of how we met at our church in another city in Morocco, I mentioned that he is not in fact American, but Central African. The teacher moved closer to me and asked if I could say what country he was from. “La Centrafrique,” I repeated.

“Il est noir?” the medical student asked. The teacher said, “ah ok, le centre d’Afrique. Il n’est pas Americain alors.” I wanted to jump in again and clarify that he is in fact from “La Centrafrique,” or “La Republique Centrafricaine,” a country that is in the center of Africa, but I didn’t because I always have difficultly pronouncing all the syllables the name of the country and didn’t want to trip over my words on the very first day. The class was no longer erupting with new comments; it was totally quiet for a few seconds. Then the pregnant woman chimed in again to give the last word. “My husband is a doctor, and he once worked in Senegal. He said that his coworkers were very kind. Well-educated, gentle, respectful; yes, they are really nice people.”

I wanted to answer her by saying that I have never known anyone from Senegal, and that I have no idea whether that’s true or not. But I decided to hold my tongue; that was enough excitement for one session of French class.