Monday, May 18, 2009

Has Anyone Seen My Thief?

For anyone who doesn‘t already know, learning another language is really difficult. This is especially true if the language is one of the oldest languages still spoken, doesn‘t have a true written component, and is not codified (meaning that there are no grammatical rules and structure and vocabulary differ from one place, even person, to another.) All of these things are true of Tashlheit.

Oh, did I mention that there are at least 5 sounds that do not exist in the English language and are therefore impossible to pronounce? Well, there are. This is especially important if the difference between two of these sounds changes the entire meaning of the word. A comical example: thlgh* with one kind of ’t’ sound is the conjugated verb for “I am married”; thlgh* with another kind of ‘t’ sound is the conjugated verb for “I am tired.” (Note: the gh sound is similar to choking on your tongue and clearing your throat at the same time.) Similarly, tamghart means “wife” and tamgHart means “thief.” The inventors of this language obviously had some strong opinions about marriage.

The upside of all this is that when Sean and I come back, we will have a super cool secret language to speak to each other in that no one except the isolated mountain peoples of Morocco and us will be able to understand. Awesome.

Festival of Roses

For the last week and a half we have been running around the province meeting various Moroccan officials whose language we do not speak. There is a ton of bureaucracy that we have to go through in order to work here, and you never know how long something is going to take or even if they will have time to meet you for a scheduled meeting. As a result, we’ve spent 4 out of 10 days away from our new home. These are necessary evils, and thankfully, the volunteers who are already here have been extremely helpful in facilitating all these meetings.

There has, however, been some enjoyable time away from home. Last weekend was the Festival of Roses in nearby Klaa L’Magouna. Several of the health volunteers in our province set up an AIDS education booth at the festival, and so Sean and I as well as many of the other new and existing volunteers were able to help out. We actually didn’t really do much in the way of helping because we don’t know the language, but we were able to see first hand how events like these work and to talk to the old volunteers about all the work that goes into putting together an event like this. Next door was a booth the Small Business Development volunteers helped organize to sell products from the cooperatives they worked with. It was a great opportunity to meet and network with volunteers from all over the region.

Of course, we also got a chance to see the festival. The region surrounding Klaa L’Magouna has an abundance of wild roses that grow there. They are famous for their soaps and beauty products, and the whole town smells delicious. Many of the roses had already been harvested for the festival, so we didn’t see many in the fields, but normally there are vast fields of pink for miles. We knew that we were getting near the festival as we began to see kids selling rose necklaces on the sides of the road. There were many other vendors selling everything from soaps and oils to rose candies and heart-shaped rose wreaths--and everything was pink!

In addition to the rose-related festivities, there were also lots of other carnival-like things going on. There was a variety of song and dance performances with people dressed in their tribal garb. The outfits varied from tribe to tribe, but generally, the women wore a variety of brightly colored scarves with bells and sequins and black coal on their eyes. The women from the local tribe wear long black lace tied over one shoulder over their normal clothing. The men wear long white jellabas, white caps or scarves, and yellow pointed slippers. On the first day, they had a marathon, which we saw the tail end of, and on the second day, they had a parade. There was even a Ferris wheel and carousel!

Sean and I left a little early on the second day because we wanted to get back to our site for a language tutoring appointment. We were also pretty exhausted from all the travel and just wanted to relax and settle into our new life. The festival was a great way to get started, though!

Welcome to Home

A little more than two weeks ago our pleasantly uncrowded grand taxi pulled up to a dusty t‘Hanout (store) at the edge of a quiet, windy town where the rocky, barren High Atlas mountains meet the Saharan Desert. We were greeted by our strikingly tall host father, Ahmed Maghni. The first things I noticed about him were his easy smile and his large, well calloused hands. After the traditional elaborate exchange of greetings, he closed up his store and walked us across the road to his house, where Sean and I will be staying for the first two months of the next two years in our permanent site.

The house is a sprawling and lavish contrast to our last house. Although it is constructed from the traditional mud bricks, the interior walls have been plastered and painted over. There is a central open courtyard with a variety of fruit trees, including pomegranate, apple, and fig. From there, you can enter into any of the 3-4 main wings of the house. The nicest of these is the guest parlor, which features three chandeliers, fancy ponjes (a kind of Moroccan couch low to the ground), and hand-made rugs. This is where Sean and I had our welcome tea and lunch. Nearby is the everyday use room, which is also lined with ponjes and rugs, and has the satellite TV. Most of the eating and hanging out happens in this room. From the entry courtyard you can also go into the “domestic wing” of the house, which has another open-air courtyard used for hanging laundry, and leads to the kitchen, bread-making room, and the attached animal living quarters. The remaining wing of the house leads to a large room with skylights and a raised platform in the center. This whole wing of the house smells like roses because our family gathers and processes them for bath and beauty products. I have never really seen anything happen in this room, but it has several closed rooms attached to it used for sleeping, including the one Sean and I use. All of the rooms are strangely long and skinny. Our bedroom, for example, is probably about 8 feet wide and 40 feet long. The bed is at one end, and the other end has a bunch of chests filled with pillows and blankets. It’s very nice to have a room all to ourselves, and every day after lunch we come in here and read, study, or sleep for an hour or two.

Overall, the house is very quiet, and even when there are people inside working, it is easy to escape into a quiet corner and go unnoticed. This is very different than our last house where our bedroom was the main sitting room during the day and everyone in our village was very excited to see what we were doing all the time. Our current town has had Peace Corps volunteers fairly regularly for the last 15 or so years, and so they are used to having an odd American around. In some ways, this is nice because we don’t have to do things like explain the concept of volunteerism or awkwardly explain that we don’t want to drink from the communal water cup. However, it also means that we don’t have tons of people wanting to tote us around and introduce us to everyone and everything within a 25 km radius. This doesn’t mean that our family isn’t helpful when we engage them, or that we don’t regularly receive invitations from strangers to drink sweet mint tea and aghrom (bread), it just means that we are on our own a little bit more. That is probably a good thing ultimately, but it requires a little bit more effort than before.

As I mentioned, our host father, Ahmed is a tall and kind man. He owns a store and telebotique across the street as well as several of the other buildings in our neighborhood. He works very hard from about 6am until 9pm or later every day of the week. He does, however, come home for tea breaks and meals about 5 times a day. Our host mother, Kultuma is equally hard working. She is small, gentle, and has a sandal with a squeak that follows her around the house as she does her various chores. Our host parents have a total of 8 children, but Sufian, aged 12, is the only one who still lives here. The rest have married and moved out. Three of the sons live and work abroad and have families here in Morocco. At least two of the daughters live in our town, and one, Jamilla is often in the house with her two young daughters, Sukayna (5) and Miriam (4). There are three other young women who are often in the house helping Kultuma with household activities. I’m not exactly sure how they are related, but I think they might be wives of the sons who work abroad. When the women are not in the house, they are in the fields that run along the riverbed in the center of town cutting down seemingly impossibly large loads of tuga (weed grass) from the fields to carry to the animals. The river is mostly dry because its contents are diverted to form a lush and shady network of fields, orchards, and gardens. I have yet to explore these fields extensively, but they seem to be a haven for the women who spend much of their time there. It is starting to get hot here, so they wake up at 3am and work by the light of the moon until around 11am when it gets too hot. Then they come home and make lunch, clean, and go back out around 4pm until about 7 or 8. I haven’t been able to rouse myself this early yet to join them, but I would like to so that I can see what it’s like to weed fields at night with a bunch of women.

The people here are generally more reserved than the people in the small mountain village where we completed our training. If the people we knew before were exuberant songbirds, the people here are gentle and kind doves. There is a comforting calm here that may come from the vast openness of the desert and mountains. The scenery is remarkably similar to home, except that there are ancient Kasbahs in various states of deterioration that dot the landscape. Perhaps it is just me, but I feel that the warm and dusty wind carries a subtle but certain sense of calm, adventure, and potential.