I’m kind of like a weird kid grown-up. By that I don’t mean my maturity is questioned here or my physical appearance is confusing to people (well sometimes it is), but my access to spaces, both public and private, is pretty across-the-board. The reason for this is a blend of things: gender, identity, my job. Gender. I could write a whole post about this but I’ll keep it simple until I’m able to organize my thoughts on it all. There are pros and cons to being a female volunteer in Morocco. I remember my first month, I was attached to my host mom at the hip, allowing me the chance to be in the house with her and learn all the responsibilities of caring for the house and her family, attend kaskrouts (I’ll describe this as 5pm decadent social snack-times) and visit other women’s homes with her, ultimately allowing me to integrate and get to know people in my community. If I was a boy, I wouldn’t have had this same type of intense integration experience with her, allowing me to see the private spaces women occupy where men aren’t really present. On the the flip side, harassment and unwanted attention have unfortunately become normalized for me at one year of being here. I’m lucky that in my site I barely receive harassment and people do respect my presence but there are the occasional times I’ll walk to class and hear “I want to marry with you!” or “Bring me to America”, yelled by a group of boys. Just the other day my host brother and I walked past 2 boys sitting on the side of the street and he heard “take care of that bitch” whispered behind us. There are so many ways I could react but unless I feel physically threatened, I’ve chosen to just ignore it. Unfortunately, this is reality for not just me but all Moroccan girls and women and something they live with on a daily basis.
I find myself having access to different spaces because of this unique identity I’m capable of interchanging. Yes, we’re volunteers but we’re also teachers, mentors, average community members, sons/daughters, friends, brothers/sisters, and guests. I always joke that all my friends are kids or people a good 10 years older than me because its kind of true. I’m all over the place. I’ve chatted about everything from the new candy they have at the hanut to the soaring price of oranges these days at souk now that they’re out of season. So since honorary “Mean Girls Oct. 3rd Day” has passed I might as well treat this little introduction of neighborhood sub-groups like Cady Heron’s guide to the cafeteria.
You have your neighborhood kids. Just the other day I came back from the gym and sat on my doorstep with a group of 8 little kids surrounding me. I was scrolling through @NewForkCity’s Instagram (priorities) to catch up on all the new food fads in NY these days and after each click of a picture we let out a collective “Whoaaa” together. I sure wanted that 5 scoop ice cream covered in peanut butter and chocolate and they sure as hell did too. We bond over that mindless feel good stuff. Don’t get me wrong though, they’re exhausting. Around 6:30pm everyone has returned from school and thats their cue to occupy the streets. There’s soccer games, jazzy hand shakes, rocks and sticks, and chants. They’re also great hanut (bodega)-runners. My host brother and I had a pizza/movie night at my house and noticing we forgot to buy olives, just a holler out the window to Hamza and a drop of 2DH in plastic, we have olives in 5 minutes. If I leave my house around this time, I know i’m not just passing through the courtyard joining our little cluster of houses unnoticed. I’ll get pulled into a hand game, a lollipop put in my pocket, or 10 questions about the new nail polish I put on that morning. Patience, I repeat in my head. I opened my door and sat out on my doorstep that day and I think that meant open invitation to cross the boundary of in my culture I define as privacy. To knock on my door from 6:30-8:30, sit with me in my house to keep me company because being alone is loneliness, and do it again the next day. I’ve quickly learned that something I need to work on personally is setting boundaries for my own peace of mind. But for now, they’re harmless. They listen to my half-assed Arabic without a blink, make me smile on a particularly workless day and bring me flowers on my birthday.
A step up from the kiddos are the drari (this word in Arabic means kids but PCVs use it to identify the boys & girls we most likely work with). I walk the road up to the high school and its mobbed with teenagers blasting beats from their cellphones, groups of girls and their giggles as I walk by, tables of boys and their wacky Ronaldo-like haircuts hanging out in the qhwa (coffee shop) in between breaks, and then there’s me. This kind of teacher/friend/neighbor/American girl strolling through battling the culturally appropriate balance of smiling at everyone or just keeping my professional gaze straight ahead through a wave of energized teenagers. I’ve taught some of them English in the Dar Chebab, been invited to some of their houses for meals, and some I’ve never talked to before but still shoot a smile and hello so I feel approachable at any time. I’ve met some really intelligent students that shock me with their goals for the future, their determination to succeed, and curiosity to learn about other cultures. I’ve also met some students who just hang around and stare at me when I walk by, and thats okay too. We’re in the process of writing a proposal to start an English Club at the high school to accommodate the older students (since mostly younger students come to the Dar Chebab), where we can have debates, film discussions, reading circles, and exchange ideas on a variety of topics all in English, so inshallah we’ll begin one day.
Did I mention I joined a gym? Well its women’s aerobics class 3x a week that is taught by a male community member, which in Morocco culture is a very uncommon concept, but at the same time it’s kind of awesome and I applaud my site for being accepting of this practice. Mohamad is trained in karate, probably all other different types of sport, and an avid hiker. He’s a well known community member, spearheaded a multitude of projects on sports and the environment, and just loves what he does. The past few weeks we’ve gone out to nearby spots on Sundays discussing some ideas of developing a hiking/outdoor leadership group of about 10-12 kids that will eventually climb Mt. Toubkal together (the highest peak in North Africa), Inshallah. A group of women approached him because they wanted to do aerobics/lose that bread weight we all gain over here so he created a workout program as well as a diet plan for the women who don’t have a problem working out alongside a male. There’s about 12 of us now. Its honestly the highlight of my days. Workout classes are always a little intimidating to walk into, and that first day I wore my “step out of your comfort zone” mindset like a boss and opened the door to a place I’d never entered with no idea what to expect. All I heard was “join the gym with the women, come at 6 on Tuesday. Very specific, but it was awesome and I legitimately sweat through my shirt because it was so intense. Now it’s my routine. The first 10 minutes is chat time, catching up on the kids (I just sit there and smile), what we cooked for lunch, swapping each others weight loss amount so casually (I was shook the first time this happened). Then we jump into cardio for 20 minutes, a mix of aerobics and kickboxing, break for a second, then begin ab/arm/leg/workouts. After an hour, I’m feeling better about myself already. Maybe its the adrenaline pumping through me or the mere fact that it never takes me just an hour to feel so productive in Morocco but I feel like I got this whole IRBing thing (a term PC uses to refer to intentional relationship building), I can schmooze with anyone, crack jokes in Darija, and end my day on a positive note. So hamdullah for endorphins and still stepping out of your comfort zone a year into site.
Workout schedule (left) & food plan Mon-Sun (right)
What an experience this all is. I sit down on a stoop with a 8 year old girl and hear about how her teacher hit them today for not paying attention, or go on a walk with a 14 year old boy who talks to me about those confusing times in middle school we all felt, or sit in a cafe with a male teacher to talk about starting a project as the smoke swirls around the room and the TV blares the latest soccer highlights, and sit on a gym mat with ladies before their jellabas get slipped back on and we part ways after class, to talk about healthy recipes to incorporate into our routines. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not always feeling enthused by this versatility.
Sometimes I feel lost and I’m unsure of which category I fall in. At the end of the day the neighborhood kids get rallied up for bed, the drari go out with their friends, and the women return to their houses to prepare dinner and make sure everything’s in place for the next day. Sometimes I wish I could have my 20-something year old friends next to me, to talk about whatever 20 something year olds in America talk about these days and do what they do. Or to come home to my family sitting around the dining room table immersed in a new discussion every night. Instead, I walk up the hill, say my hellos and goodnights, and slide the key into my own house. I walk up the stairs, turn on whatever Spotify mood of music i’m feeling that night, and cook dinner for myself. Sometimes I get all fancy and put a face mask on and scroll around the NY Times for different topics to talk about with people (or just process in my own head if my Darija skills can’t cover sexual harassment scandals in the U.S. Supreme Court) or browse around Pinterest for different recipes I can improvise with in my spare time. This is what 24 looks like and I’m okay with it at the moment.
So for now, I’m navigating spaces and learning how to navigate my versatility in all of them.
Next on my reading list with all this being said, “Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in the Modern Muslim Society” by Fatima Mernissi, a famous Moroccan feminist writer and sociologist.