This blog is a personal publication and does not reflect the views or opinions of the US Peace Corps or US Government...

Monday, July 11, 2011

I'm In...

Reading back over several of my older blogs from the same time this last year I have come to realize how much my life here in Morocco has changed. The same things still happen to me every day; I still go to the same stores, run the same errands, and sit in the same cafes. But now it's all normal, it's all easy, I can speak as much Tam as I need to in order to communicate in conversations about, well, anything. I have learned the importance of descriptive terms and how, if you use enough of them, you will eventually arrive at the word that you were searching for. I have friends now, good ones. Guys that walk down the street with me with their arm around my shoulders (a step up from holding hands, which everybody does), an older woman that yells at me whenever I forget to come over for tea, and merchants and cafe owners that try to marry me off to any woman that they happen to know (or see). Everybody knows me now, or at least knows of me. I can't say how many times a person, that I would swear to having never seen before, has walked up to me and struck up a conversation... always having started it by greeting me by my name (Hassan).

The gendarmes and town officials are my friends now as well, and I find them helpful and easy to work with. At fourth of July, they told me I could erect a flag pole on my roof and fly Old Glory proudly and prominently in the center of the village... provided of course that I fly a Moroccan flag above it. They loaned (or at least that was my impression) me a Moroccan Flag to use (full sized ones can be tough to obtain outside the cities), and when I went to return it the next day they refused to take it back. They said it was a gift and that, since I was Moroccan now, I could have it.

This is not the first time anyone has called me a Moroccan; no, I remember the first time very clearly. Seven or eight months ago, I was just emerging in late morning from my little cement house, blinking in the rich, golden sunlight of late fall. Feeling thin and frail, still sporting a headache and mild vertigo from my latest intestinal malady, I carefully fitted my sunglasses over my uncomfortably pale eyes and stared down the street. A boy of about 14 was headed my way, I had seen him often working in the warehouse across the street and he would always nod to me as I passed by. He stopped and appraised me for a second as I stood there swaying slightly. I smiled a little and murmured "Sbah lxir" (Good morning). He smiled back and repeated the phrase and we exchanged morning pleasantries. As I bid him farewell and turned to go to the store to buy the first food I had had in days, he took my hand and placed his other hand on my unusually prominent collarbone (did you know I have collarbones? I didn't before coming here!). He looked at me seriously and said: "Hassan, you are berber." "Hassan, shyin amazighn". Without waiting for a response, he turned and vanished into the warehouse and left me there staring after him dumbfounded and more than a little pleased. I'll always remember that.

This boy was the first, but now it is commonplace for people to call me amazighn or Hassan win Ait Haddidou (the tribe of berbers in the area; the sons of Haddidou). In fact, if an outsider from another village walks up me when I am with my Moroccan friend and refers to me as an aromi (foreigner), my friends will shame him and correct him with "No, Hassan is berber, Hassan is one of us. Hassan belongs in [village]". If I am alone and the same thing happens, inevitably a diminutive, white bearded old man in a jelaba robe and head-wrap will shuffle over to us, shake my hand, and wheeze out the same barrage of chastisements and insults to the outsider before bringing one hand up to the side of his head and shaking it in the motion for "crazy". Apparently, not only am I a member of the tribe now, but everyone and their uncle is expected to know it immediately.

I have also forged deeper connections with select Moroccans here in the village than I thought possible with my limited language. My best friend in the village, I'll call him "Haddou", and I have had hours long conversations on life, love, religion, and girls. He has come to lean on me as a confidante and often tells me many things that I likely didn't need to hear. He lights up whenever he sees me on the street and I spend a few hours with him every day in his brother's cafe where he works. He is the son of my host father's oldest brother, effectively making me his cousin, but he refers to me as his brother. One night when he was upset, (Haddou is 18 and, as I recall, being a teenager sucks) He was just sitting in a chair outside the cafe and staring at the ground. "What's wrong?", I asked. "I hate it here." He replied.

"In [village]?"
"No, the whole country, all of Morocco!"
"Oh, well, do you need a break?"
"Well, let's go to America for an hour..."

We spent the next hour or two in my living room looking at pictures of the states on my computer and listening to "The Best of Jimmy Buffett" on my massive speakers. We didn't say much to eachother at first, but by the end his head had cleared and he was smiling and laughing. I stood up and shook his hand as he got up to leave and asked he was still upset. He said no, and thanked me. I told him to come back any time.

No one insults my language anymore. Or rather if they do, they tend to retract the statement later in the conversation. One day I was sitting on a cement sewage cap by the side of the road in a nearby village, waiting for the afternoon transit to come by and take me home. A man in his fifties walked up to me, took my hand and, after we had exchanged pleasantries, he said "You don't know any Tam". Instead of my standby reaction of last year, which was blushing slightly before looking at my toes and agreeing sheepishly, I locked him in a steely gaze, smiled a little, and replied "How would you know? We haven't even talked about anything yet.". The exchange ended after a long talk about the lack of snow last winter, the wheat in the fields, whether I was fasting for Ramadan (yes, I am), and inquiries after our respective families Moroccan and American. He showed me a nasty burn on his hand, and complained about the clinic being closed (a reasonable thing to complain about), and asked me for a light for his cigarette (always carry a lighter). As he turned to go I took his good hand, and asked quietly "Do I know how to speak Tam?", he smiled broadly and smacked me on the shoulder before answering "Yes!".

When it comes to language, I am my own worst critic. I hate my lack of vocabulary and lack of training (I have never had a tutor here in the village). I think I speak like an unusually slow toddler, if was in school here, I would be the tall kid who repeated the third grade... twice. But, to my constant surprise, people continue to understand what I say and even more shocking, I understand what they say. A couple of months ago the second years, the most experienced volunteers in the country, my icons and friends, left. Their service was up, they had finished their 26 months in typical style and panache, and suddenly the people I had grown so used to spending time around and learning from were gone. In their places arrived two starry-eyed new volunteers, fresh out of training and ready to take on the Atlas. Suddenly I had two people that looked to me as I had looked to the second years. I was suddenly an example, an advisor, someone to assist in insurmountable daily obstacles that didn't seem to me like such obstacles anymore. My memories flooded back quickly and I remembered how this place, these people, and this language seemed to me a year ago. The presence of the new volunteers gave me another perspective on the village and their arrival signaled a distinct change in the nature of my service. I was no longer on the uphill scramble. I was no longer trying to fit in and integrate. I was already there, I wasn't Charlie anymore, but Hassan win Ait Haddidou. I had arrived. I was in.

Thanks for reading, sorry for the delay,


P.S. If you are still wondering, "Does Charlie ever work?" The answer is yes I do, and it's going great... but that's all a story for another time.