Sunday, November 29, 2009

On The Strange But Delicious Death of Jackie Chan

Friday afternoon as I walked through the medina to my home, I ran into my neighbor (Soukaina’s classmate) who was headed in the opposite direction. He stopped to talk. “There’s a ram in your house,” he told me.

Me: “YES! the house or on the roof?”
Him: “In the house.”
Me: “In my room?”
Him: “ your room.”
Me: “Oh...that’s not a ram. That’s just Soukaina.”

I continued on my way and he continued on his, until a couple minutes later when he came up right behind me. He decided to accompany me home to witness my reaction to the ram.

When I opened the door to the apartment I was greeted not by affectionate kisses from my little shneula Souks, but by the angry bleating of a ram ready to fight for his life.

So I suppose this begs the question...uh...why do I have a ram in my house?

EID AL-ADHA. Also known as Eid al-Kabir. “The Festival of Sacrifice.” On this day Muslim families all over the world remember the Qur’anic account of Abraham’s submission to Allah, when he intended to follow through with the sacrifice of his promised son, Ishmael. Seeing Abraham’s submission, Allah sent a ram to sacrifice in Ishmael’s place and further blessed Abraham with a second son, Isaac.

In remembrance of Abraham and his submission and sacrifice, every Muslim family in Morocco buys a ram to sacrifice on this day. Including mine. Oh, and then we eat it.

So. Back to me and my ram...

This thing is feisty. We named him Jackie Chan. Throughout the day I’d forget about him briefly...until I’d go to the bathroom or the kitchen and there he was, staring me down, just hoping for the rope to snap so he could get a piece of me.

“Alright, alright,” I told Jackie, “today you’re in my house, but tomorrow in my belly!”

Last night I slept soundly until daybreak, when I awoke to the sound of “Baaaaaaaah” coming from every house in the city. I’m fairly certain Jackie Chan was communicating with our neighbor’s ram. It suddenly seemed to me like a conspiracy. They were organizing. Souks and I looked at each other from across the room, and I said, “l-thawra diyal kebsh!” – The Ram Revolution! Soukaina rolled over to face the wall and ignored my early-morning conspiracy theories reminiscent of Animal Farm.

I went back to sleep, but had a bizarre dream that the rams of Fez organized, with Jackie Chan as the leader, and they turned the knives on us. It kind of gives “lamb to the slaughter” an entirely new meaning.

A couple hours later Soukaina and I got up in earnest. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew we wouldn’t do the slaughtering until late morning, but I didn’t know if we had morning festivities or not. We didn’t. Souks and I did our typical morning routine – breakfast, cleaning, and dancing to whatever was on MTV Arabiyya, alternating between American and Moroccan dancing styles depending on what’s playing.

At around 11:00 Hamza came in to tell us that the time had come. He and Hamouda took the ram by the horns and dragged it up the stairs to the roof, where they did the deed.

All the neighbors watched my reaction. Normally I’m able to play it cool, “Guys, I’m practically Moroccan,” I always say, “I’m used to everything.” But this was something entirely new. I stood at a distance, eyes wide, as they slit its throat and let the blood drain out.

We (ok, they) spent the next hour cleaning the ram, and then cleaning the roof. I was fascinated, but I didn’t really want to get all bloodied up. I took pictures.

After the slaughtering it was time for family bonding. Soukaina and I made henna to dye our hair. This was my second foray into the world of henna hair-dye. The first was a disaster with my sister-in-law Mary and our friend Mic. Henna looks and smells like poo and you have to put it on your head and leave it for a couple hours. But Moroccans do the whole henna thing much more than Americans do, so I have faith in Souks’ henna advice.

With poo on our heads we had more bonding activities – cooking our old friend Jackie Chan. We started with the liver – grilled it, spiced it, rolled it in fat, then grilled it again on a shish kabob. Then we ate it on a sandwich. Mmmmm....Jackie Chan...

In the evening (after I washed the poo out of my hair) Soukaina, Latifa and I went to visit Dounia and her family. It was lovely. It was a beautiful brand of holiday family togetherness that I think must be the same in every country.

More and more guests kept showing up, with Eid Mubareks (Happy Eid's) all around. Of course, it’s always a little awkward for me, since I’m only partially an insider. The immediate family and those of the extended family who I see often treat me like just another cousin. But the more in-laws show up, the more French is thrown my way, despite Latifa’s insistence that I’ll understand a lot better if they speak to me in Arabic.

When we came home, it was just us girls. More MTV Arabiyya and dancing. Latifa joined us this time.

We had Jackie’s stomach for dinner. Um. Yeah. One bite was enough for me.

But all in all it was a good day. And the best part is that Jackie Chan will continue to provide our food for the next week or so.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

On The Beauty Of Life

Last night was a scary one in the Khattabi family.

In the evening I went out to spend some time with my fellow Wheaties – Josh and John. Around 10pm the boys walked me home, and as we approached my building I heard the familiar sound of Hamouda’s voice around the wasn’t his normal light-hearted chatter – it was his “business man” tone, so naturally my first thought was that he was called on one of his late-night business trips. When he rounded the corner I grabbed him by the arm. He looked at me, still on his phone, and I sensed the urgency in his eyes.

A second later Sa’id and Latifa sped around the corner with the same fear and gravity painted on their faces. Latifa stopped to give me a very cursory explanation: “Dounia is sick. Really sick. Soukaina is at home...stay with her tonight.”

And with that she hurried to catch up with her husband and oldest son who were already to the top of the hill.

I froze there, watching them disappear, and having hardly any idea of what was happening. Eventually Josh, John and I continued to my house. I said goodbye to them and ran up the 48 winding stairs to get a more complete report. When I walked in the apartment, Hamza was putting on his coat.

“What’s going on?” I asked him

“Somthing’s wrong with Dounia. She just passed out. I’m meeting them at the hospital.” And off he flew.

For the rest of the evening Soukaina and I pretended to watch So You Think You Can Dance and wondered what was going on with Dounia. Eventually we went to bed, and Hamza came home late. He told us that there was a gas leak in Dounia’s home, and everyone in her house was on oxygen in the hospital, including her husband Adil, her mother in-law, and of course her 5-month old son, Joey.

Soukaina, Hamza and I went back to an uneasy sleep. In the morning I woke Souks up to go to school, as I do every day. We had gotten news that Dounia and her family were out of the hospital and back home. When she came home at 11 we went to Dounia’s...a 20-minute walk into the dead-center of the medina. When we got there, we found Joey with both his grandmothers. Latifa couldn’t stop crying when she told me that Dounia was still in the hospital. The house was a flurry of anxiety as Latifa and Latifa (also the name of Adil’s mother) discussed the crisis with the family members who floated in and out of the house.

At around 1:00 we got a call from Adil, saying that Dounia had been released, and a little while later he brought her home.

Dounia and Joey rested upstairs while the rest of us sat in the living room, trying to release the stress we had all felt all day. After the emotional transition from anxiety to relief, we had to remind ourselves to laugh again. It started with Hamouda picking on me. Then with Adil picking on me. Then Adil’s brother (or friend? I’m not quite sure of the relation). Even Adil’s mom was teasing me. (The last time we met I had returned from one of my many trips to apply for residency. I didn’t realize she was in the house, and I had used some of my more “colorful” Arabic to describe my frustration at the residency process.)

Suddenly we were all laughing. A tragedy averted, we remembered once again the important truth: al-hayat zweena. Life is beautiful.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On Where My Time Goes

Time is like a sword. If you don’t cut it, it will cut you. – Moroccan Proverb

The days and weeks are flying by. I’ve already been here two and a half months, and in less than a month I’ll be back in Annapolis for Christmas. I’m not sure where my time is’s about time I take inventory.

Earlier this month I took a trip to Rabat. While there, I spoke to several groups of American students (all studying in Spain, and spending 4 or 5 days in Morocco) about the life of a Fulbright. Each group asked for a run-down of my day-to-day. What’s that? I feel like my life here is full of surprises and entirely out of control. But is it?

When I sit back and think about it, my day-to-day is actually quite consistent. So here is a “typical” day...let’s say Thursday...

At 7:30am my alarm goes off. But, hamdulilah, I don’t have class until the afternoon. When my alarm goes off I wake up Soukaina and tell her to get up and go to school. I always say the same thing:

“Good morning, darling! It’s a beautiful day! Get up and go to school! Study well so you’ll be smart!”

I suppose in a way it's my Arabic paraphrase of how my dad always woke me up: Another day, another chance to excel! But I’m not sure how to say “excel” in Arabic, and I’m not sure if it would come out of my mouth at 7:30am, anyway.

I usually go back to sleep for a bit, then around 9 I have breakfast with Latifa. Every morning she makes me black coffee without sugar. It’s an oddity in Morocco, and a labor of love. If ever I try to leave the house without eating breakfast, Latifa makes me at least drink the coffee she made just for me.

I leave the house around 10:00 or so. The trip to school is always an adventure of sorts. Just around the corner is a group of SHEBAB (young men). They’re always there. I think most of the time they’re nothing but trouble, but they’ve taken a liking to me. They’d defend me to the death if the occasion arose. I smile, say good morning to them, and continue on my way.

As soon as I pass my gang, I trudge up a big hill. Once I’m to the top I snake around a few more corners and find my way out of the medina, saying hello to the 2 community guards that I pass on the way.

Just outside the medina is the BATHA parking lot and a high school, and there are always crowds of students outside. As I swim through the crowd, the shebab (being the diligent students that they are) practice their English while they're hitting on me. Resourceful little devils.

On the other side of the sea of students sit my favorite parking attendants, and I give a wave. Sometimes one of them, HAMZA DIYAL BATHA, joins me on my walk so he can help me fend off 2 of my suitors who are always lurking around Batha.

On my trek through the Batha parking lot I inevitably run into someone I know and exchange niceties for a couple minutes before I finally make it to my 3D taxi. I get dropped off in the middle of town and walk the rest of the way to school.

I spend the next couple of hours in JJ’s. I love that place. I do homework, catch up with other students, chat with the waiters (they’re the only people who laugh at all my Arabic jokes...even if they’re not funny), and drink my Qhwa Americania – American coffee.

From 2-4 I have my Arabic lessson. I have a private tutor, and we work on both Fusha and Darija. The lessons have been wonderful. My teacher is really pushing me, and even just in the past few weeks I feel like both my Darija and my Fusha have improved immensely. Plus, I really enjoy what we do...reading stories and articles, watching controversial Moroccan movies, Islamic cartoons, name it.

After class I go home, eat lunch, play with our new puppy, and then head out for my aerobics of my favorite hobbies in Morocco. It’s been one of the best places to make Moroccan lady friends. I’m one of 3 Americans in the class, and we have anywhere between 15 and 30 Moroccan classmates – all different ages and personalities. For some reason when you get a big group of Moroccan women together, they get hilarious.

In the evenings it’s time to socialize a bit. parties...spending time with other Americans and/or Moroccans...going to Cafés...taking walks...visiting Dounia and Joey...and the like.

And finally I return to my home to hang out with the family, study, read, eat dinner and go to bed.

And that’s a typical Thursday. But other days are different. When I have class in the morning, I tend to spend the whole afternoon visiting Moroccan friends. On weekends I let my conscience be my guide.

But of course, my motto here has to be “Semper Gumby” (another one of my dad’s standards.) Plans change and schedules get messed up and sometimes you just have to go with the flow. In some arenas I feel like I’m not accomplishing nearly as much as I’d like...but in others I feel like I’m accomplishing much more. I’m not doing “research” yet, but I’m getting to know a lot of pretty amazing people. And that's my job, yeah?


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On Hathi Ghayba

Feen hathi ghayba?

I’m asked this question a lot. It literally translates to “Where is this absence?” But carries the meaning, “Where have you been?”

Every morning I stumble into one of three establishments that serve coffee. Before 10am I can barely speak English, let alone Arabic, but somehow I spit out the words: Qahwa...Kehla...Qasha. Bla sucar. Laikhaleek. Which means, “Coffee...Black...Strong. Without Sugar. Please.”

After the first sip my strong, black, sugarless coffee I perk up a little bit and get chatty. Suddenly whoever gave me the coffee is my new best friend. I start jabbering away in darija and I don’t shut up until I scamper off to class.

But of course, there are days when my schedule doesn’t allow such interaction, and I skip a day at the Cafe. On those days, my coffee people miss me, and the next time I come in I get interrogated on my absence.

Usually I find the “where have you been” question stressful. I never know where I’ve been. I'm always running from one place to another, I never feel like I have enough time with anyone or anything. I always feel like I need to (and want to) spend more time with my Moroccan friends...and with my American friends...and with the Khattabis...and talking to people from back home...and studying...and reading...and traveling. When someone asks where I’ve been, the answer is usually, “I have no idea. But I want to come visit you very soon.”

This week, though, Feen hathi ghayba? has been my favorite question. I went to Rabat last weekend. Even though I was only gone for a couple days (and had a wonderful time), I missed Fez. When I got back, I realized I, too, had been missed. Little brother Hamza, who usually feigns indifference to me, came in my room and said, “Really, Megan...I missed you so much.” It warmed my heart a little bit. Just a little.

And it went right down to the parking attendant in Batha. "Feen hathi ghayba?” He asked me. I told him I had been in Rabat, and he said, “Oh...I was worried that you went back to America and didn’t say goodbye.”

Not to get all cheesy and emotional on you or anything, but starting to be treated like a part of the community is really special. And, of course, if the parking guy were to disappear...I’m pretty sure I’d miss him too.