Monthly Archives: April 2012

Lost in Translation

“Use what language you will, you can never say anything but what you are.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson


Hello, my avid readers. It’s now been about two weeks since my last post and so much has happened in that time. Most notably, I hit the one month mark of my stay here in Morocco. And damn, did that month go by quickly. I can’t help but feel that it went by a lot faster than the rest of them will, especially considering how full my schedule is every day (thank you PC for 6 days a week of class. . . .) and how much information is being crammed into my head (were twelve sessions on sexual harassment really necessary??) But I do think that the next 26 months will go by fast, which is why I’m trying my best to make the most of every day–which right now, means cramming as much Darija as is physically possible into my brain.

And so I’ve decided to devote this post to language: to both the extreme amount of language that I’ve absorbed as well as to all of the faithfully departed, the language which has been lost in the great chasm known as translation.

So as I’ve mentioned before, the national language here, and the language that most people speak is known as Darija, or Moroccan Arabic. There are also two widely spoken Berber languages known as Tashelhit and Tamazight that are spoken more among the older population but have recently been recognized as national languages by the king and are now being taught in public schools. Darija, which I am learning, is known to be the most useless form of Arabic to learn, in that, outside of Morocco, no one will understand a word you say and even a foreigner who is well-versed in Darija will not be able to understand much of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or Fusha (pronounced Foos-ha). However, Darija is written using the MSA script and therefore, most Moroccans grow up being able to read, write, and speak in Fusha. And I just learned recently that the reason I can’t understand a lick of what is being spoken on television is because the news is done in Fusha. And the movies are dubbed in Fusha. And the road signs are written in Fusha. That’s right–when I’m finally able to read Arabic script, I still won’t know what the road sign says because it’s not written in Darija. And did I mention that His Royal Highness, our very own King Mohammed VI also speaks in Fusha?? Sound confusing yet? Well, I’m just getting started.

On top of the Arab languages spoken in Morocco, we also have French which was introduced here when Morocco became a French colony in 1912. Morocco has been independent from France since 1955 but is still the language of the educated elite and of all official business. French is taught in public schools beginning in 2nd grade and anyone who has completed at least a high school diploma will have a basic knowledge of French. The Moroccans have kind of a funny relationship with the French language. Clearly, the recognize that they need it to trade at an international level and attract foreign direct investment and tourists but French has also begun to fall out of favor with the codification of Berber languages and the increasing importance of Darija. Indeed, when I went to Fes for the day and saw the immense number of French-speaking tourists (other white people!!) I could see exactly why Moroccans continue to learn French. And might I point out that every Moroccan person automatically assumes that we are French. I mean, why shouldn’t they? Most of the tourists here are French. Yet somehow it still irks me, even though I am a fluent speaker of French and consider the language to be one of my greatest passions. Every single person on the street greets us with “Bonjour” and in stores and restaurants when we ask for the price in Darija, they respond in French (much to the chagrin of the non-French speaking PCVs i.e. PRACTICALLY EVERYONE). We even get hit on in French; one of the most common phrases being, “Bonjour les gazelles.” (In case you can’t translate that for yourself, yes, they are calling us a species of antelope. . . .)

And now I come to the last language spoken in Morocco and that is Spanish. I won’t spend too much time discussing this one because it’s not that widely spoken but suffice it to say that Spain has a long (and somewhat tumultuous) history with Morocco as well as being in extremely close proximity (there are places in Morocco where you can SEE Spain).  Other examples of the Morocco-Spain relationship include the large number of illegal immigrations from Morocco to Spain and the Western Sahara conflict (you’re going to have to Wikipedia that one yourself). The reason that I bring Spanish up though is that there are many Moroccans who speak it. Prime Example Number One: I have an uncle here that I like to affectionately call “Tio Mohammed” because every time he comes to visit (one never knows exactly when, or for how long Tio Mohammed is going to stay for. . . ) he insists on speaking Spanish with me. After all, every American speaks Spanish, right . . . .? “Como estas Marta?,” “Es mucho frio, Martha,” “Adios amiga.” All I have to say about that is “Non habla espagnol.”

So maybe now you can begin to see why so much here becomes lost in translation. My brain is constantly swirling in a mix of English, French, and Darija. When I speak French, Darija words come out of my mouth. When I speak English, French words come out of my mouth. My host family seems to think that if I don’t understand a word in Darija, that they can just say it in French and all will be solved. Not true. Case in point: I was at my friend Brenna’s host family’s house and they were trying to explain a recipe to me in Darija which contained many spices. Seeing that I was immensely confused, they switched into French and started listing off the names of the spices in French. For easy ones like salt, pepper, and garlic this made things much clearer. But for others like paprika, turmeric, coriander, and parsley however, I became confused yet again. “Why don’t you know all of the spice names in French????” they seemed to wonder. While I do consider myself to be fluent in French, I do not everything there is to know in French. I was pretty impressed with myself for knowing a few spices! Clearly, they were not. Just to make me even more confused, they brought down a book with the spice names in French and pictures of the plant they come from. So if I didn’t know the name of the spice to begin with, I know knew it in French, but still not in English. . . . And don’t even get me started on those pictures. As if I could actually look at a picture of the plant it came from, read the name in French, and know what it was called in English. AS IF. My confusion has sprouted into not just one language, but three.

Yet at the same time, learning a new language is fun and exciting. One of my favorite parts of learning a new language is learning all of the little idioms and expressions that people use. For example, in English to describe an event that will never happen we say it will happen “when pigs can fly.” In French, they have the same expression yet they say, “when chickens have teeth.” I can’t wait to learn what the Moroccans have to say in this case. Maybe, “when couscous has legs” or “when French is no longer spoken in Morocco” or “when we no longer eat bread.” And the Moroccans have many great expressions (mostly God-related) that you will hear me use in future blog posts. I can’t wait to learn more of these and above all, become fluent in Darija. Yes, I know that’s a lofty goal, but if you can’t set your goals high, why set them at all right?

So for now, I am lost in translation. But being lost is kind of fun anyway, right? And think of all the things you discover and learn while finding your way back.


No Means No: A Hammam Story


WARNING: graphic material.

Alright so I know its been awhile since my last post so hopefully this post will quench your thirst for tales of my life in Morocco.

So for those of you that do not know, the hammam (pronounced ha-mom) is a Turkish bathhouse. To give you a better picture, it is a huge sauna with running water so you can bathe yourself. Every city in Morocco has at least one hammam and most have more than that. Because water is expensive here in Morocco, many families choose to frequent the hammam as opposed to paying the high prices for baths and showers in the home. Now I should preface this story by saying that I had been told by current PCVs what a hammam is and what sorts of things happen at the hammam. I was both intrigued by the enigma that is the hammam but also hesitant to try it based on what I had heard. Despite varying opinions about the hammam, every PCV agreed that it was something we had to try before leaving Morocco. Seeing that I hadn’t showered in 4 days, I figured it was time to woman up and get my ass to the hammam. And so it was that one cold, blustery day, I was to have my first hammam experience. . . .

I went to the hammam with my friend and fellow PCV, Brenna, and her host mother and sister. It is quite common to go to the hammam with other people and in fact, is considered to be a social space where women can be women and men can be men. We entered the hammam and paid the 15 dirham fee (about $2) and also purchased this scrubber thing which I can only describe as sandpaper on an oven mit. Apparently all of the women have this so it was essential that Brenna and I have one as well. We entered into the changing room and reluctantly began removing our clothes. Visions of being a child in the YMCA women’s locker room flashed into my head and suddenly I felt very nervous for what was to come next (little did I know. . . .) Typically you remove all of your clothes except your underwear but seeing all of the wandering eyes staring at my all-too-white skin made me hesitant to remove any of my undergarments. But Brenna’s host mom was insistent that we take everything off, so seeing that we had no other choice, we removed our bras.

I’m not going to lie, the first couple of minutes of being naked in front of 40 other people was straight up AWKWARD. But eventually you realize that people don’t really care that much what you look like because they’re all there for the same reason. Of course there were the initial stares (“why are there non-Moroccans here???”) but those wore off pretty quickly. Now, the hammam has three rooms: hot, hotter, and hottest. We stopped in the “hotter” room, found an open space and put down our mats. As I mentioned before, the hammam reminded me a lot of the YMCA– lots of completely naked women everywhere. But at the YMCA, women don’t look around at all, let alone WASH EACH OTHER. Here, women were scrubbing their friends all over and there is even a woman who works here that you can pay to scrub your entire body. And I mean ENTIRE BODY. I quickly decided that I wasn’t ready for that type of interaction and began to wash my hair.

Getting clean for the first time in 4 days felt soooo good! And what’s great about the hammam is that the water can get as hot as you want and there is an unlimited amount (at my house we have to turn on the hot water heater to get hot water and I’m only given a large bucket of water to give myself a bucket bath with).

Mid-wash, we saw that our other PCV friend Nikki was also at the hammam and she came over and sat with us and explained that her host mom had scrubbed her entire body until it was bright red! I decided right then and there that this was not going to happen to me. Little did I know. . . .

After I had finished washing my body and shaving my legs (apparently most Moroccan women don’t like hair anywhere) Brenna and I felt pretty ready to go but Brenna’s host mom clearly had other plans for us. She grabbed Brenna’s scrubber and began to aggressively scrub Brenna’s back. Poor Brenna looked like a small child being punished by her mother in the form of a good scrubbing. Soon enough, her host mom started scrubbing everywhere. Brenna tried to protest, but to no avail. When she was finished I knew it was my turn next (because my host mom wasn’t there, Brenna’s host mom was acting as my surrogate mother–or would that be surrogate surrogate mother??) Knowing that I didn’t want to be treated like a 3-year-old, I looked her straight in the eyes and said, in French, so I knew she’d understand, “juste mon dos” (just my back).

Everything started out just fine and she was scrubbing my back just like I asked. It kind of hurt but seeing all of the dead skin coming off of my body made me feel like maybe it was a necessary kind of pain. All of a sudden, she starts scrubbing all over my body–and I mean ALL OVER. Like everywhere. She even tried to go under my bathing suit bottoms but I looked her straight in the eyes (hoping for better results this time) and said “NO.” In the United States, we learn that when a girl says “no” to a guy, she means “no.” I was desperately hoping that in Morocco, this tiny little word would carry the same force. Clearly it didn’t. (See future post about Moroccan eating habits).

After Brenna and I had been successfully made to feel like 3 year olds, Brenna’s host mom one-uped herself by washing our hair for us, even though we’d already done that.  I know she was just doing it out of kindness (being generous is, after all, the Moroccan way) but I still have boundaries. Apparently the hammam is the place in Muslim society where no boundaries exist. Where, as I said before, women can be women and gossip and enjoy each other’s company without worrying about being inappropriate in front of the men. It is the place where not only do fully covered bodies become uncovered, but also where responsibilities and societal expectations are cast aside.

And so it was that I decided that I would return to the hammam again. I know I probably made it sound like I had a terrible experience but it really wasn’t that bad. Once you convince yourself that the reason someone is awkwardly touching you is because they care for you and want you to be clean and happy, it is easy to convince yourself that you don’t mind it that much (read: this only applies to the hammam and only with people you know). And damn, did it feel good to be clean!

So for all of you who plan to visit me here in Morocco, know that you will be forced to come to the hammam with me and have this “true Moroccan experience.” And yes, I will scrub your back. Whether you want me to or not.  ; )

Ana mutatawaya mn hay’at salam. Knmsi l’toilet bezaf.


As many of you read in my previous blog post, I am beginning to learn the beautiful language of Darija, otherwise known as Moroccan Arabic. The other day, I learned this wonderful phrase which I find quite hilarious that I thought I’d share with all of you as a preface to this week’s post: “Ana mutatawaya mn hay’at salam. Knmsi l’toilet bezaf” which means “I am a Peace Corps Volunteer. I use the bathroom a lot.” Ok, so I learned the two sentences separately but I thought they were quite funny together and in all honesty, may come to describe my life in the coming two years.

So as you know I have now made the transition from orientation week in Rabat to what is referred to by the Peace Corps as PST or Pre-Service Training (remember how the PC loves acronyms?) On Thursday morning I boarded a bus with 40 other PCVs to a city in the Middle Atlas mountains called Azrou. Azrou is our “hub” site which basically means that all of us will be living in smaller towns centered around Azrou and we will reconvene several times over the next two months in Azrou to talk about how PST is going. After being dropped off in Azrou I got into a taxi with my 5 other group members and my LCF (Language and Cultural Facilitator aka my Darija teacher) and we drove to Ifrane, the town I will be living in for the next two months.

In case you don’t remember from my last e-mail or blog post, Ifrane is known as the “Switzerland of Morocco” because the town is situated in the mountains and hosts many ski resorts and swanky hotels. There is a famous university here called Al-Akhawayn University which was founded by King Hassan II and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. The university is very prestigious and operates in the American style, as in, the classes are structured like an American university and are taught in English. Ifrane is also home to the King’s winter retreat palace. Pulling into my host family’s neighborhood seemed more like pulling into a European town. The buildings are very European-like, the streets are paved (and clean!) and there are actually well-groomed lawns all over the city. Looking at my photos, one would never guess that I was in Morocco. But as I have constantly been reminded, this is not Morocco, this is Ifrane.???????????????????

My host family here in Ifrane consists of Touria, my host mom, Nourdine, my host dad, and my three host siblings Salahddin 12, Hind 7 (with whom I share a room) and Aya 5 months. The apartment is pretty small and home-life is mainly focused in the large living room. There are also two bedrooms (one for my host parents and one for me and Hind), a kitchen and a bathroom complete with Turkish toilet. For those of you who have not yet experienced the wonder that is Turkish toilet aka “the squatty potty” count yourself lucky. To go into a little more detail for those of you who haven’t seen one, mine has a porcelain base and two foot rests where you place your feet. It does not flush but rather you take a bucket of water and wash your 1s and 2s down the hole. Another interesting fact: most Moroccans don’t use toilet paper. You heard me, NO TOILET PAPER. What, you may be wondering, do they use instead? A towel? Paper towel? A hose? Nope, all wrong. They use their left hand. Which is why Moroccans only eat with their right hand and also why one should never shake with the left hand. I know it sounds disgusting, and trust me, thinking about it definitely grosses me out sometimes, but Moroccans are, for the most part, very clean people. (Footnote: see later post about the hammam). Using the squatty potty is really not as bad as it sounds and my brief foray in India helped prepare me for this unique experience! And not that I really need to tell you this, but no, I do not use my hand. I basically carry tp around with me everywhere. One must always be prepared for anything in the Peace Corps!

The first couple days here in Ifrane were really difficult for me. To sum it up, my host family doesn’t speak any English and knows only a tiny bit of French. So basically, they speak to me in Darija all the time (which makes perfect sense) except that my Darija consists of “hello”, “how are you?”, “my name is”, “how old are you?”, “I am 22”, “are you married?” (the Moroccans are very interested in this question), “I am single” (and very bothered by this answer), “where is the bathroom?” and I can now count to 100. So to make it a bit easier to understand what I’ve been going through imagine yourself in this scenario:

You have just completed two days of Chinese class and only know how to say hello and goodbye, how to introduce yourself and ask someone else’s name and how to ask someone how they are. Then all of sudden, you are forced to move to Beijing and live with a Chinese family that doesn’t speak a lick of English. During your first 5 minutes in the home, you use all 5 phrases that you know successfully but then have nothing else to say. The family then begins to shout at you in Chinese and you have absolutely no clue what they are saying (you don’t speak Chinese after all) but you can tell they are asking you a question. Without knowing what they are asking you respond “no” then when they look at you disapprovingly you change your answer to “yes.” What is it you have just agreed to? Preparing an American meal for the entire family and all of their relatives? Eating dog? Giving them all of your American money? Doing an impression of George W. Bush? Teaching them the macarena? One can never know. . . . .

This, in a nutshell, is what I have been going through over the past 4 days. My host family is very nice but I don’t understand much of what they say. A lot of times I’ll hear one word that I know, say it, to demonstrate that I understood something, and then regret my decision when they turn to look at me and ask me a question I don’t understand. I’m trying to be patient, but as I’ve said before, patience is not my strong suit. Even though I shouldn’t, I was comparing this experience to when I studied abroad in France and understood 95% of what was being said. This is not the same thing at all. But my host family is patient with me (and with my terrible pronunciation–if only they knew my teacher thinks I speak really well!) and for that, I’ll be eternally grateful. But it’s hard. During my second day here, I actually broke into tears because people kept talking to me and trying to teach my how to read Arabic script (which looks like pretty scribbles to me) and I just got so flustered. I felt angry at the Peace Corps for putting me in this situation (why couldn’t we have had another month of language before moving in with host families???), overwhelmed by all of the new information being thrust at me (we basically have 2 months before we’re thrown into a classroom and expected to teach in Darija), confused by this foreign language and also sad that I didn’t have my friends and family to comfort me in all of sadness.

But this is what i signed up for. And I knew this wasn’t going to be easy when we started. You know, it’s funny because people either have a very romantic vision of what it is to be in the Peace Corps (you know, where you’re saving African babies from malaria and famine and you fall in love with your fellow PCV who just happens to resemble a younger, rugged-looking Brad Pitt) or they have a very negative vision (we all live in mud huts, with no running water or electricity and we are constantly surrounded by cockroach and mosquitos). I think in a way, both of these visions are true and both are false. One of my good friend’s who is also in the PC, Yuey, is serving in Madagascar and she doesn’t have running water or electricity but she’s having the time of her life. There are also PCVs who live in very modern apartments and have wi-fi. We all go through such different experiences and all experience frustration and difficulty in different ways.

As my wise former-PCV friend Andrew once said (this will always stick with me, so thanks Andrew!) “you will have the best day of your life in the PC and you will have the worst day of your life in the PC.” I don’t think that I have had the worst day of my life yet but I have already had some hard days. No, it doesn’t mean that I want to quit and no, it doesn’t mean that I want to come home. It just means that sometimes we experience hard days and that is when we have to do everything we can to push through, because as corny as it sounds, better days are ahead. It is during these difficult days that I have to remind myself how badly I want this and how long I’ve dreamed about being in the Peace Corps (I’m finally here!!!!) and how many people have gone through the same thing that I am going through (there have been 200,000 PCVs to date and there are 8,600 PCVs currently serving in 75 countries around the world). My friend Amelia gave me this amazing book before I left for Morocco that was filled with funny pictures and inspirational quotes. I think this quote by Kelle Hampton sums up perfectly how I have been feeling: “What a beautiful thing it is to be able to fully feel sadness and fear, annoyance and bitterness, loneliness and desperation and to know that they are real and meaningful feelings, but that they are replaceable, reversible, and recoverable. With time, and the more we submerge ourselves in little pleasures . . .the more we learn to accept the duration of the rain, to let it seep deep into our soul to renew parched roots, and to find richer beauty once is subsides and its rewards make themselves known.”

It is now my fourth day in Ifrane, and already things are getting better. Yesterday I went to the hammam (blog post to follow) and today I went to the souk with my family and then helped to prepare lunch. I think they can tell that I am trying very hard to learn Darija and that it may be awhile before I am able to put together coherent sentences. There is also the issue of privacy (remember that I share a room with a 7-year-old) which I was really worried about at first but I think now, is working itself out. As I have recently learned, the Moroccans don’t really have this concept of privacy. Moroccan life is centered around the family and with the exception of sleeping and cooking, you basically spend all of your time in the living room. In case you haven’t gotten the point already, here’s another example: Moroccans eat out of one dish at each meal which is placed in the middle of the table. Everyone shares all the time. So as you can imagine, I was both worried I wouldn’t have my privacy but also worried about offending my host family by spending time alone in my room. And so I am trying to find a balance. As many current PCVs have told us, in order to be a successful volunteer, we need to do whatever it is that makes us happy–whether that be going for a run everyday (haha yeah right!), doing yoga (again–haha), reading, checking our e-mail, or taking a walk–we need to do what is going to make us happy and therefore, more productive volunteers. For me, this means taking at least an hour every day to myself. To read, to write, to blog, to talk on the phone, or just to relax. So I have decided to make this a part of my daily routine, that way, my host family just understands that this is something I do every day and that I’m not doing it because I don’t want to spend time with them.

Alright, I think that’s it for now. I have class at 8:30 tomorrow morning (until 5:30 everyday) so I’m going to hit the hay. Look out for my next blog post about the ritual that is known as the visit to the hammam. But for now, Layla Saida!