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Sunday, May 2, 2010

My site in the Atlas...

It’s been awhile since my last blog entry so let me attempt to catch up. Since my last entry, I got over my bout with Zund Typhoid and have not been sick since (hamdullah!). I left my host family in Ait Gmat for my 10 day site visit, and they said that they would miss their American son. My host mother, Aicha, also informed me that I was to bring my mother to visit when my family comes to Morocco from the States; Aicha said that she and mom would be like sisters and that she wants to meet her give her lots of beautiful henna. Gotta follow up on that one.

After a morning of nailbiting in Ouarzazate, waiting for our site assignments, and were finally rewarded for our patience when the head of the Environment Sector, Mohssine, passed out a series of files with our names and the name of our site. Let me go ahead and say I am not allowed to release my specific site, due to safety reasons pertaining to being an American abroad; they do not want us easily located by anyone who cares to look. That said, I will describe my site, my accommodations, and the people I am to work with. If anyone wants my specific site location and my new mailing address (I can get packages now!!) I can email it to you if you email me at: .

The Site

First off, I absolutely love my site. It is in the Er-rachidia Province and is a small, but clean, community in the High Atlas Mountains. It is located just within the boundaries of The Eastern High Atlas National Park, which is roughly 55000 hectares of beautiful vistas, incredible geology, and two of the largest natural lakes in Morocco: Lake Isli and Lake Tislit, the Groom and the Bride. All of the mountains have long been deforested and there is no trace of trees left other than the Apples and Poplars in the fields by the “river”. That said, the area has lost none of its beauty and is as austere and rugged as Big Bend National Park and the geology is stunning. Faults, folds, and unconformities abound along with the occasional dark swath of a volcanic dike. Tilted beds and monoclines are everywhere and there seems to be very little rhyme or reason to it all. It is a clear representation of North Africa as a “bumper”: whenever Africa has collided with anything (like Europe, or South America) another range of the Atlas has been formed. My site is said to be the coldest in Morocco and, two winters ago, it apparently got two meters of snow in one storm. Oh boy, sounds like home! Minus the heated house… There are miles of hiking and backpacking, and plenty for me to do in the Eastern High Atlas National Park. I have no worries about crippling boredom; even in winter I will occupied with trying to stay warm.

The People

My site is essentially the heart of Berber culture in Northern Africa. The people here, while accepting minor changes like running water, electricity, and the Arabs invading their culture a few centuries ago, have essentially remained unchanged for several millennia. The tribe I am living and working with, the Ait Hadidou, is one of the most studied and traditional of all Berber tribes. My site is also the location of what has been called the “Wedding Festival” and “Fiancé Fair”. This is a large gathering of Berbers from the surrounding countryside (or “Bled”) who congregate in my village to find a spouse and buy supplies for the upcoming winter. While this has become a heavily touristed event, it remains very traditional and consists of 4-5 days of dancing, singing, shopping, and people proposing to eachother. This, I am sure, will include plenty of proposals to me, the village’s most eligible (and only) American. I have already been proposed to once, at a wedding dance that I attended. Since I am writing about the people of Ait Hadidou, I suppose I should include an account of this event:

The Wedding Dance

I had only been in my site for a couple of days and my host mother (Rkia) instructed me to get ready to go out, although she didn’t say for what, or at least I didn’t understand right away. I threw on my Jelaba (a traditional robe that I am becoming more and more fond of…) and a hat and followed her through the darkening streets. She had my host sister in tow and my baby brother strapped to her back. While bundled up against the cold, her colorful headscarf was still very prominent as was the traditional blue tattoo that is visible on the chin of most traditional Berber women, especially those of the Ait Hadidou.

As we approached the town center, I began to hear a fast drumbeat. When I rounded the corner I saw a large circle of people in Jelabas and many women watching with the striped capes that indicate their tribes; thin black on white striping for Ait Yaza and thick stripes for Ait Brahim (the melding of these two tribes, according to the legend, created the Ait Hadidou). In the center of the circle where many women, dancers, dressed in fine silks and sparkling jewelry; their wrists and waists decorated with shining silver disks that rattled with their movements. Music was being played by three drummers, holding hand drums and alternating their rhythms, and one wind instrument that had an almost nasal quality like the flutes of snake charmers. The dancing was fast and frenzied and I was surprised to see that the dancers had their hair loose, often in a shimmering fall of black reaching past their waist. As the pace of the songs quicken one woman would step forward and whirl her head around and around, spinning the dark curtain of her hair in a wide circle.

Once between songs, the drummers looked in consternation at their drumhead, which had apparently loosened, and one of them left the ring of onlookers. He returned a short while later with a small, mossy shrub; which I had heard was collected as firestarter from the surrounding mountains. This theory was confirmed when the drummer pulled out a lighter and proceeded to light the bush on fire, placing it on the ground in the center of the circle. The flames leapt high, but the brush burned slowly, and the drummers held out their instruments to the flames, allowing the heat to tighten the drumheads. After this spectacle, the bush was stomped out in a spray of sparks and the dancing resumed as fast as before.

People pressed in from all sides and I was right in the divide between the men and women (the circle seemed half and half). Though I was traditionally dressed, my hair, eyes, and skin made me stick out like a sore thumb; despite this, I wasn’t the most out of place. That honor was taken by three French tourists on the fringes of the circle. People spoke to me in Tamazight and were thrilled when I answered back in the same tongue, I told many people that I was the new volunteer for the village and that I was learning Tamazight as fast as I could. A girl next to me shouted something at me in with a smile, asking me to dance, and then said something else in a more serious tone. I wasn’t sure what she was saying but it soon translated for me by Ali, a shopkeeper that I had befriended and who spoke a little English. “She is asking you if you would like to get married.” said Ali, with a small smile. I looked at the girl and smiled, saying in Tamazight that I was grateful, but that I wasn’t ready to get married yet. She understood and laughed, and we both turned and continued to watch the dance.


I have the feeling that my stay here will be fascinating and enlightening. I have already seen and experienced more new things in four short days than I thought possible; I am excited to live and work and learn.

The Host Family

I am excited about my host family; they are kind and welcoming and patient with my struggling language skills. My host father, Said, is the lead mountain guide for the region and knows the entire High Atlas like the back of his hand. He has hiked from his home in my village to most of the major gateway cities, including Fez, Marrakech, Kelaat Mgouna, Ouarzazate, and Khenifra. He has climbed Mt. Toubkal over 100 times. He wasn’t bragging, it’s just his life. He is well respected and well connected in the community so I hope he will be an asset to whatever project I take on in the next couple of years.

My host mother, Rkia, is the finest cook in the region—no joke. Every meal I have had in my village has been absolutely wonderful and the feces content seems nonexistent, which is exciting. Rkia was initially leery about having a male stay with her; all other PCVs in my village have been female in the past, a trend which I have broken. Rkia told the PCV I am replacing (who was/is wonderful and successful and whose shadow I fully expect to spend at least a year crawling out of…) that she didn’t want a boy to stay because “American boys just come and eat and then leave. Despite this, and also thanks to my predecessor’s encouragement, she seems to like me just fine and says she will teach me to cook (can’t wait).

I have 3 host brothers; Rachid (10), Mohamed (13), and Sufiyan (8 months). I also have a host sister, Fatima, who is 8. They seem like nice kids and, thanks to their father’s line of work, are used to being around the occasional foreigner. I look forward to my time with my host family and arrive in Imilchil again one week from today; this time to stay.


Charlie (Hassan)

Ouarzazate Province, Morocco