Monthly Archives: October 2012

In Good Faith; Eid al-Adha

Muslim’s worldwide celebrated Eid al-Adha today by sacrificing sheep.  This traditional Islamic holiday celebrates the prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his youngest son, Ishmael, to God. As a result of Ibrahim’s good faith, God allowed him to sacrifice a ram instead.

Let us be grateful for the sheep who gave their lives today, and reflect on the moments in which we put our complete faith in the will of the Universe.

Amen, right on, shalom, salam, namaste.

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Strangely familiar, yet oh so foreign; on learning English and hanging out with Anglophones

I am two weeks into my new job as an “English Associate” with AMIDEAST here in Rabat, and things are going as well as could be expected. This month has been all about making friendly relationships with my roommates, my new co-workers, my students, and most surprisingly, the English language.

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Until recently, I’ve had a one-sided relationship with the English language. Like in any ones-sided relationship, the notion of power reigns. S(he) who beholds the power, is the baller shot-caller. With English I believed that I was running the show; I thought I was able to manipulate English to my advantage in pretty much any situation. After all, I’m usually able to select the most appropriate situations to implement my words directly or discursively. I can consciously pepper my sentences with humor and sarcasm, and engage mouthfuls of beautiful American slang. Naturally, I thought I was a true master of the English language… Needless to say, my extraterrestrial ego has been shattered, and I have been brought back to planet earth as a humble servant of the English language.

This gracious humbling has come in two forms: 1) English grammar, and 2) mingling with other native English speakers from around the globe.

It wasn’t until I began teaching English that I realized how much I still had to learn. I’ve taken being a native speaker for granted my entire life, and never considered what a complete pain in the ass it would be to learn English as a foreign language. As I stood in front of my Intermediate 4 class last Tuesday, I thought I was ready. However, my concept of being prepared was   a Powerpoint full of grammar I couldn’t explain, which I wrongly assumed would be to sufficient. Not even my background with improv could have prepared me for the ensuing hour and a half class, which I filled with lots of um’s and nervous shifty body language. For some context, on that particular day I was teaching a lesson on the 1st conditional–a concept that I have a strong natural grasp of, but very little theoretical training on. How many of you know what the 1st conditional means? …Exactly. To be VERY brief, we use conditionals when we are making “If” statements. An EXAMPLE of the 3rd conditional: If I had known this grammar point before class, I could have avoided the embarrassment of standing in front of 20 students like a deer in headlights promising to find out for Thursday.

This will surely be the first of many grammar points that I won’t be able to explain off the top of my head, because I never learned them in school. I learned to speak English naturally and correctly through immersion. I understand the frustration of my students, however, because I too have studied a foreign language, and I need the rules as much as the next person. Just ask me about French prepositions or feminine/masculine articles and I’ll launch into a tirade about how absolutely non-sensical they are. If you’re telling me to memorize something just because it SOUNDS right, but can’t give me any sort of structure or rule to apply it to, you will completely lose me.

My second (less distressing) realization that I was not a true Jedi of the English language came to me while mingling in the teachers lounge. Before coming to Rabat to teach English, my sole exposure to British slang was from the Harry Potter movies. However, here, I have been exposed to native English speakers from Australia, the U.K., and Canada, and I have begun to take careful note of their different accents and words. I love these other dialects of English because there is something so familiar about them, yet at the same time they are absolutely foreign. There have been many moments where I wonder if we truly do speak the same language. As a result, I’ve found myself analyzing my own slang, my usage of the word “like,” and my pronunciation of words with double t’s or d’s.

My favorite British colloquialisms thus far are for the word awesome: ace* and brilliant. I’ve promised myself to start using them in my everyday speech. However, I end up saying them with a monstrous British accent and all my co-workers think I’m making fun of them. But I’m not. I actually think they are brilliant.

I love the irony of the English teacher learning her own language, and I am now a firm believer that in order to be a true master of English you must hold an understanding of all the ridiculously complicated grammar rules and the various dialects. So maybe I won’t come home from Morocco with a stronger grasp of French or Spanish or Darija, but I can assure you that I will be well schooled in the many facets of English.

*Ace may be the American equivalent to rad. i.e. outdated. However, like certain fashion styles, I believe words, too, should come back into style. Therefore, I have recently re-added rad, gnarly and dope back into my vocabulary… so I’m pleasantly pleased to have ace.

Out with the bath water

An integral part of Moroccan culture is the hammam.  Also know as: bathhouse, steam room or sadistic torture chamber.

Do I have your attention now? OK, because I want to tell you all the graphic details of my trip to a traditional Moroccan hammam last week. Might I add that this particular hammam I visited was no swanky spa with fluffy bathrobes, private tiled steam rooms or fine overpriced Moroccan argan oil products. Oh no, this place was the real freaking deal. No bells and whistles—just a few dozen pleasantly plump naked Moroccan ladies, 3 steam chambers of different intensities, hundreds of plastic buckets filled with scalding hot water and mountains of sloughed dead skin.

My roommate, Shaakira, and I arrived at the hammam in l’océan midday sporting our newly purchased plastic shoes, (somewhat reminiscent of the Jellies of my youth) and carrying our shampoo, towels and a change of loose fitting clothes for after our scrub down. We paid the nominal charge of 10dh (1.3$) to enter, and I purchased my very own instrument of torture, the exfoliation glove. Though Shaakira is a pro at the hammam, I am still somewhat of a newbie. I’d been once before, and had an idea of what to expect, but on this particular day we decided to be “high maintenance” and pay for a Moroccan lady to scrub us.

We stripped to our skivvies, filled up our buckets with hot water, and entered into the steam room. I could feel the eyes of all the ladies piercing my soul as I awkwardly found a place to set up shop. I chose carefully. I wanted to be right at the top next to the water tanks, because the room is on a slant, and my clean-freak self is perturbed by the thought of everyone else’s hair and/or dead skin running by me in streams of dirty bathwater. At the hammam it is not uncommon to sit directly on the floor, but thankfully Shaakira read the message of horror displayed plainly across my face, and handed me a small plastic step stool to sit on. In enters the Moroccan lady we’d paid for a scrub. She was mean muggin’ me hard core, and I got the impression that what was about to ensure was not going to be the most pleasant of experiences.

The only way to describe the sensation of being scrubbed is that it hurts so good…? (Emphasis on the question mark). Imagine all the dead skins cells on your body being sloughed away by a mitt made of small shards of broken glass. Add to the equation a gruff Moroccan grandmother all up in your business who is throwing you this way and that, and it all equals out to be the least relaxing event of your entire day. In the process I probably swore in obscene English that I would never do this again, but I couldn’t help but be amazed at the beautiful natural glow of my raw skin upon leaving the steam room.

So there I was, Lizzie the lizard, shedding layers of dead skin in a Moroccan hammam—how freaking symbolic. Now is a beautiful opportunity to cleanse and purify as well as to shed the things in my life that aren’t directly benefitting my higher purpose. And though it can sometimes be a painful experience to let go, it can also be incredibly rewarding and uplifting. So here’s to renewal and regeneration!

It is common to hear this blessing:

Besaha w raha (Biss howr ha) — to your health

Followed by the response:

Allah ya 3tek saha (Allah ya tik saHa) — and may God bless yours also.

The Agdal Hillbillies

Class distinctions in Morocco are visible on many levels. I’m incredibly aware of my privilege here, and becoming evermore aware of how I fit into the hierarchy of Moroccan class, which I’ve come to find is divided by race/ethnicity, what part of town you live in, languages spoken, and annual income.

Much like in the U.S., or anywhere, really, different socio-economic classes inhabit different neighborhoods; everything from rent to the price of a tomato varies accordingly. During my last visit to Morocco in December 2011, I spent the majority of my time in the Rabat neighborhood, l’océan, which is a working class community. The streets are loud and bustling with kids playing soccer, mechanics fixing cars and small storefronts. It is not uncommon to see graffiti or feral cats or garbage in the streets. L’océan neighbors the old medina, where you can buy almost anything you could possibly need; cellphones, shower curtains, artisan crafts, fresh figs and clothing are all widely available and relatively cheap depending on your haggling abilities. Inevitably I never get the real Moroccan price for anything, but things are affordable nonetheless. In l’océan I definitely stand out amongst the Moroccans, who are not as used to seeing foreigners in their hood. In neighborhoods like l’océan and the medina a young white woman, such as myself, will get heckled, but I’ve never felt unsafe in my surroundings. My roommates, Kaitlin and Shakira, lived in l’océan last year, and they established a rapport with the locals at the souk (market) and the hanuts (small general stores). They have some serious street cred in that part of town, and their Darija (Moroccan Arabic) skills are impressive. When I landed here in Rabat this time around, I spent a few days in their apartment in l’océan, and it was pretty clear to me, that whilst they had l’océan swag, I sure as heck did not.

In l’océan, French is not the primary language spoken, Darija is. So anytime I open my mouth and to ask for something, it becomes rather clear that I have no idea what I’m doing. I have mostly been keeping my mouth shut, while Shakira and Kaitlin haggle for me in the Medina, catch cabs, and buy our vegetables. Needless to say, I need to work on my Darija so that I can do some of these things on my own. I’ve got a few dozen words and can now count to 50, but my accent is rather comical, and if anyone talks to me in Darija I just stare blankly back at them.

Though I’m pretty useless on the streets, my French speaking skills have come in handy for more formal transactions. We recently made our move from l’océan to our new (BALLER) apartment in Agdal. Agdal is what Kaitlin and Shakira call “cheeky bzaff,” which means super posh.  (Note that cheeky is a derivative of the French word “chic”). So basically I live on the “Upper East Side of Rabat.” For the girls, they are also navigating living in a new part of Rabat. Here their street cred is taken less seriously, and I can move around with much more ease speaking the language of the colonizer. My French has come in handy when we needed to turn on the water and electricity and to set up our internet and phone connections for the apartment. It has also helped to make inquiries at the bank about setting up accounts and to meet a few expats from France. But speaking French here is a politicized act, which connotes privilege. Many upper class Moroccans use French as a way to show their socio-economic status, to identify themselves as more “western” and especially to separate themselves from the working class. I am acutely aware of how I come across to different people when I speak French, and often wish that I could speak both French and Darija so that I could move more fluidly between communities. Thus, I signed up for Spanish classes at the Cervantes Language School… I guess it’s my way of waving a linguistic white flag.

Though I can blend much more easily into my surroundings here in Agdal, my teacher salary (which I will not begin see until after my first month of work) leaves me on relative budget. The cost of living here in Agdal is much more than in l’océan, so we’ve been making trips back to Kaitlin’s old stomping grounds to buy food and random household necessities like light bulbs. We bought all my furniture from the second hand market, and Kaitlin and I rode in the back of open bed truck holding my mattress and night stand down. We got honks and stares and laughs as we rolled up to our new place. I joked that we were the Agdal hillbillies, because nobody on this side of town would EVER consider buying furniture for the second hand souk. Though we might conserve money on such items we are also privy to the flip side of the coin. Labor is so obscenely cheap here that we can afford a house keeper/cook to come clean for us once a week. For literally 150dh a day (approx. 17 $) we can have a lovely Moroccan woman come keep us company. She came last week to help us get the moving grime off all of our furniture and carpets and to clean my bed (which I’m still a little nervous to sleep in). We are all so unaccustomed to the idea of hired help that we had no idea what to do with her when she showed up. Not only did we not have cleaning supplies, but we also didn’t know what was appropriate to ask her to do for us. Kaitlin ended up telling her something along the lines of, “do what you do…you’re the boss.” She was surely laughing at us on the inside.

So where do I fit in here? I would say somewhere between the lower bracket of the upper class and the high bracket of the middle class. As a young teacher with a good salary by Moroccan standards, I will be able to afford a high quality of life here with many luxuries. I am not, however, used to living highbrow life styles like those of the people I am surrounded by in Agdal, though I obviously show my privilege by the color of my skin, the languages I communicate with, and the lovely neighborhood/apartment I live in. I am cognitive, however, of this privilege, and do not take it for granted. Humdillah (thanks be to God), I am extremely grateful for the lifestyle I am able to lead here and for all the interesting cultural exchanges I will have.

Here are some photos of the new abode and my roomies!