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Friday, October 15, 2010

A Fireside Chat

Autumn has always been my favorite season; it moves in gently just as I have grown weary of summer’s heat and light. Of a sudden, although I can never recall the first day I notice each year, the colors become richer. The light is the color of honey in the late afternoons, and the west facing mountainsides and earthen walls of the houses across my valley are painted in shining golden hues. All not illuminated at this time of day is hidden by long shadows and, even a robed farmer leading his donkey home from the fields in the evenings, looms large upon earth and stone as he passes. Sometimes I sit with my friend in his café, overlooking the souq market area, which today was abuzz with the weekly buying and selling. Most people know me now, at least enough to correct those who don’t, and café sitting has become a pleasant experience. I usually just order a silver pot of Moroccan tea and two glasses and then invite the first person I see to sit and drink tea with me.

I won’t say my life has grown quieter with the advent of Fall, but I do feel that stress is beginning to ebb away. I feel more comfortable outside, although there are still bad language days; I simply have to choose whether or not to let it bother me or not. My health has improved somewhat as well, thanks to a round of anti-parasite meds and some probiotics to aid in the repopulation effort. I don’t feel perfect, but I do feel healthy, so I suppose that is something. I have been here in North Africa for approximately seven and a half months. It has been almost a year to the day, since I left the Outer Banks behind me and drove off of Hatteras Island and headed west toward home. I also can’t believe in four short months I will have been here for a full year. It has been fascinating to watch my mind try and cope with the fact that it lives somewhere as exotic and foreign as North Africa. Only, it’s not so foreign anymore, and as I have said before, some of the things that I thought the most peculiar upon arriving here I now view as normal. I am beginning to realize now why re-entry into the society and culture of the United States, is considered so difficult. I’ll get a taste of it when I return home in December for a three week stay.

I am writing by candlelight in an effort to conserve some of the remaining electricity in my “pay-as-you-go” account. I like doing things by candlelight, it shrinks your world down to whatever you happen to be doing at the moment and everything else fades into darkness around you. I am listening to an Appalachian waltz and enjoying the warmth of my dying fire. I am now the proud owner of 300 kilos of firewood which I helped weigh, load, and stack in my hallway last evening. It should hopefully last me the better part of the winter, but there is much splitting and sawing to be done. The stove is a nice little construction; solid and small, and made from thick metal that holds the heat long after the fire has gone out. My host father helped me to cement the pipe in the roof today and I have to keep the cement moist for a few days so it doesn’t dry too quickly and crack. Apparently the leaks in my roof have been fixed before, but then the cement dried to fast and the roof simply began to leak again. I am working hard to ensure that this house is as warm and snug as possible before the hammer falls and it will soon.

I can see the half moon through my window from the desk, it was a beautiful crescent a few nights ago riding high above the mountain at sunset. The clouds have taken on a peculiar quality of late; they ride low in the sky, pouring over ridgetops like the foam on the crest of a wave and then flowing along the valley floors like a slowly retreating tide. The poplars along the river have become golden candles which, when coupled with the honeyed light, burn brilliantly every evening. The fields are being harvested for the last time and being turned over to slumber beneath the coming snows. Looking out from my rooftop in the early mornings I can see mule teams turning the sod with an old style heavy-plough, all the while being coaxed gently forward by their masters.

The apple crop this year was a good one and fresh cider has begun to flood the little shops in the village. Some volunteers in other more apple-rich areas have reported having many bags of apples being given to them by people they may or may not have ever met. A couple months ago in fact, as the apple crop had begun to ripen, I was sitting on the roadside with a friend of mine in a nearby village. The dusty street was silent and the sun was warm and bright overhead. There was no sign of transportation going our direction, but waiting is no longer tedious for most of us at this point. Looking up the road, I saw a venerable and quite aged Berber woman. She was dressed neatly in a white robe and walked hunched over with the aid of a cane. Her dark headscarf was bound with a pale cord and she shuffled toward us, smiling sweetly. Since I oftentimes am unable to see the mouths of women here, I have begun to appreciate the asked of “smiling with the eyes”; and this ancient woman was positively beaming.

As she drew closer, I noticed that she was carrying a large digging tool on her back and realized that she had probably been working in the fields all morning long. There are no retirement plans here in the Atlas, work is life; it is simply what you do and while I have seen many of the people here tired out from a long day, I have seen very few that are unhappy with this simple existence. When the woman was even with me, I raised a hand and said “lعwn” and she turned and spouted off a stream of Tam that I understood most of. After the formalities of greeting were out of the way, we spoke about the weather and about the Wedding Festival. As she was turning to walk away, she reached a weathered hand into a fold of her robe at her back and drew out two small apples, handing them to my friend and I. She then blessed us and hobbled off into the dust. That is how this culture operates here, these are genuinely kind and loving people. And their religion fosters this warmth and strong sense of family. I am beginning to understand now that I understood nothing before coming here and being immersed in a culture that many people in our country are convinced hates us. And I can tell you now, that it simply isn’t true, it just isn’t! I have had conversations with only a handful of people here that dislike my country; while I have had countless conversations with people back home that despise not just this nation, but an entire race and creed.

Some events in the past few months have given me pause; I occasionally read the news here in Morocco, trying in vain to keep abreast of current events outside my mountain walls. I watched the overblown fiasco of the “mosque” at Ground Zero explode into protests and hate-speech. I saw as Reverend Jones threatened to burn the Qu’ran, which thankfully did not happen. All these people see on the news is that the U.S.A. hates Islam and, while this I am sure has my liberal friends muttering their disapproval, it has many of us PCVs over here in absolute fits. On 9/11, a day where we were meant to unite in reverence and mourning for those who fell when the twin towers were destroyed, I found myself confined to my house; alone and ashamed of my country. On that day of all days, I should not have felt ashamed to be an American, but I was told to stay inside by the agency “just in case” any Anti-American sentiment be expressed. Few Moroccans mentioned the Qu’ran burning to me and those that did expressed confusion and sadness, not anger or hate. I think I was angrier than most of them.

This is not to say that I am actually ashamed to be an American, I am just ashamed of what we do sometimes, we are like a belligerent relative at a family reunion that everybody tries to ignore. No, being here in Morocco, I have come to realize that I love my country deeply and I love the principles on which it was founded. But sometimes think we need to consider that there is a world outside our borders filled with humans who are just as kind, decent, and incredible as we are.


So why am I going off on this? Well because it’s my job. Here are the three goals of Peace Corps:

Goal 1: To fulfill a community’s need for training and skilled manpower

Strangely this is the only goal that seems to do with the “aid worker” image of the PCV, and as you can see from the next two, the main purpose of a PCV is diplomatic.

Goal 2: To educate residents of the host nation on the culture and traditions of the United States of America.
So we are essentially P.R. agents, preaching a message of “hey look! This is what Americans are really like. We’re not all fat, rich, and arrogant. Most importantly, we don’t hate you, in fact we would like to be your friends.”

And then there’s goal 3, it’s one of the most difficult. Because we will be fulfilling it for years after we return, not just while we are serving here.

Goal 3: To educate residents of the United States of America on the unique cultures and peoples encountered while serving in the Peace Corps.

This, to me, is the most important goal of all. To promote global understanding of one another. This is what JFK had in mind when he created the Peace Corps in the 1960s. His ultimate vision was to have a huge number of future Americans that not only know about other cultures, but that can truly say they can understand another culture. Ultimately, JFK hoped this would lead to better foreign policy on our part.

So this blog, everything I tell you in my correspondence, and the stories I will inevitably tell when I return, are all part of this Third Goal. I hope that by reading this, you feel that you understand Morocco a little better; I certainly do. Because I haven’t just learned about these people, I have learned from them; and many have become my friends along the way. So when I do finally return from my two years, I will see a lot of things differently than I did before and I am not sure what that will be and to what extent. But I do know this, if anyone trashes these good people or their faith in my presence. They will have me to answer to.

Well it’s getting cold and the fire has gone out. I have a lot of work ahead of me for tomorrow and bit by bit I am getting ready for winter. In a couple of weeks I go to Marrakech for a week-long training and after that I have a meeting in the capital. Couple that with possibly teaching at the local Highschool and counting Barbary Sheep (Ammotragus lervia) for the Moroccan Eaux et Forets I have a busy time ahead of me.

Thanks for reading,