“wllfti shwiya?” is a question I have been asked frequently in the last several months. The speaker is asking if I have adjusted a little – to Morocco and now to living by myself. For the most part I have.
Moving into my home has not been a completely smooth transition. I’ve taken on the burdens of being the woman of the house: trying to figure out how to set up the electricity in my name (still not entirely resolved), finding first hand the dangers of gas powered appliances (and not installing your CO detector first-thing), battling the molding furniture in this particularly wet winter, and just generally trying to keep a neat and tidy Moroccan home.
I am more than grateful for my new neighbors, whom I knew before I moved in, who have helped me immensely in setting up my house and feeding me while I still did not have my kitchen in workable order. It is excellent to have neighbors that know how to fix your plumbing and electric problem all in the same half an hour! I only hope I can be as worthy a neighbor in return.
The house itself I’ve already grown attached to. Even on the first night in the place I felt like I was at home. The roosters that crow at all hours from behind my house, the pigeons that roost above the courtyard (and make me cautious about where I hang my laundry), and the kids that play marbles outside my front door all bring me comfort in finding my place for the next two years (Inshallah).
The space is more than I need (and I would have settled for less if a suitable option presented itself to me), and one room has just become my oversized closet. Although I do not have a roof-space as I originally wanted, I do have a walled-in courtyard that the sun peers over in the morning. I may still try growing some things in hanging-baskets as I’ve heard from the previous occupants it is even sunnier in the summer.
I’ve managed to make my tiny kitchen comfortable, and I am delighted to be able to cook for myself – particularly with enough time to make things like fresh tortillas and loaves of bread. As a lot of people in the U. S. are switching from the mindset of convenience-is-best to really thinking about where their food comes from and what’s in it, I’ve got a free ticket to really explore what I can prepare with limited pre-packaged ingredients. Have I mentioned that I am literally living just off the main vegetable-market street?
Certainly, my home is not the dirt-hut I had conjured in my mind before setting off with the Peace Corps, but I won’t complain. There are places in the country that are much less developed than where I am (and even stepping outside of the city center brings me to neighborhoods closer to what I had imagined I would find). No matter my current home this is the base from which I will hopefully become a positive part of the community.
Morocco has had a history full of various inhabitants and occupiers over the centuries. You can see this in the language (Arabic, French, “ShlHA”--Tamazight/Berber, Spanish, etc), food, and architecture. It is also apparent in the way Moroccans talk about money.
The current Moroccan currency is the dirham (MAD). This does not stop many Moroccans from talking about money in rials. A rial was a currency replaced by the dirham almost a century ago (1920s).
1 MAD = 20 rials
I must admit that I learned about this before I even entered the country. A former PC volunteer who served in Morocco gave me a quick math test on converting one to the other. This is all fine and good when I’m focusing on the problem, in English, in the comfort of my own country. It was another matter when I finally got here and experienced it as one more layer of confusion.
It isn’t that I’m so terrible at math (although as an artist, I don’t think I exercise that side of my brain as often), but when a number is shouted at you at the souq, where there is already too much going on, in a different language, it can be a little tough. During training I hardly tried. I was always prepared with, “in dirhams please?” They would usually give me the dirahms in French, which I still don’t understand (on my to-do list to learn some basic French, but darija is taking all my language-learning energy right now). “I’m sorry, I don’t understand French, in Arabic please?” By this time if the seller wasn’t rolling his eyes at me he was a saint.
After swearing-in and settling down in my new community I finally started to take the rial seriously. This was followed by many a “why why why?” to my tutor when we practiced. Why talk in a currency that doesn’t exist any more? It is so ingrained into my community (after all not all Moroccans talk in rials, or in the same way) that if you quote a price in dirhams it often has to be converted into rials to be understood. “But the currency is printed with the number of dirhams on it! How is this confusing for you?”
I eventually decided that the easiest thing to do is to not fight it. I stopped asking “why?”--it is just the way it is, and there is no way my protests will change it. After this acceptance and focus I’m finally gaining some confidence in my ability to understand and talk in rials. In the afternoons I can hear the vegetable sellers shout their prices from down the street.
“Miya-arbarin-banan, miya-arbarin-banan” = 140 rials /kilo bananas = 7 MAD /kilo bananas ( < $1 /kilo bananas, by the way)
My real moment of integration was when shopping around for the cheapest onions. I was getting most quotes in rials. When one seller gave me a number in dirhams, I didn’t hesitate to ask, “In rials please?”
The first day I arrived in my assigned town my host family also celebrated the Birthday of the youngest member of the family, who just turned one. During these last two months I have watched him go from crawling, to standing on strengthening legs, to walking across the room with careful and deliberate steps.
I am continually amazed at how quickly children develop, and how they seem to know what they need to accomplish to make it to the next stage in life. I watched little Ayman work hard at his task, putting so much effort into getting himself up on two legs. When he would inevitably fall, at times with a cringe-worthy “thud”, tears would follow, but so would another attempt. Even if failure hurts, it does not mean giving up. We seem to be programmed to know that we must take the risk of those first unsteady steps in order to grow and experience life fully.
Well, my two-month stay with my Moroccan host family has come to an end. During this time, I two have grown and changed. I started out relying heavily on those whose care I was under to carry me through conversations and situations I was not yet able to handle linguistically on my own. I was guided and encouraged by those I could trust to build my language and understanding of the culture. I formed new bonds, made new contacts and friends. I also had a number of falls, painful failures, misunderstandings, and miscommunications. I had times where I wanted to give up as those I was speaking to gave me confused and frustrated expressions, but I plodded along anyway. Little by little, I’ve been able to navigate more situations by myself. My new world is opening up to me more as I am beginning to hear and understand more each day.
My boxes and bags are packed and ready to move into my new home for the next two years. I’m excited by the freedom I will gain, the control I will have over my life once again. It is also a little sad to no longer be such a part of a family, but I know we won’t be too far from each other. There are no real “goodbyes” to be said yet. I have the affection for this family as the child does for those who helped her go from crawling to walking.
I’m taking my first unsteady steps to my next challenge.
I am currently serving in Peace Corps, Morocco, as a small business developer working with artisans since September 2008. I have a Master of Fine Art, in studio art from Washington University in St. Louis.