When your landlord wants to tile your house

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Oftentimes in Morocco a situation will happen to me and I have to take a few steps back…

Am I looking at this situation as an American? As someone who has lived in Morocco for over two and a half years? Is there a cultural component that I need to consider before I react, or are some things just universal?

It’s a tough call.

How much can I trust my first reaction when I’m still learning the nuance of the culture and traditions of a country that is not my own?

Today I’m going to tell you a story.

It’s a true story, and a recent one at that. With each rendition of its telling, the story has elicited a different reaction.

I want to know — what would your reaction have been?

Here’s the story:

It was the beginning of June. My last couscous Friday in Morocco before the start of Ramadan (and thus the start of fasting during daylight hours) and my month-long trip to America.

I spent the day with my family in the village, stuffing my face with couscous, running through the oasis with some of the kids, and getting henna done on my hands with my sisters.

At nine o’clock, as the sun finally went down, I reluctantly told my family that I needed to return to my house in order to prepare for my bus ride out of our town the next morning. I rode my bike slowly in the direction of my house, henna still sticky and caked onto my fingers, my hands perched on the handlebars like claws in order to not smudge the artwork on my palms.

As I approached my house, my Moroccan baba pulled up on his motorcycle beside me.

“I just spoke to your landlord. He says he wants to do zilleej (tiling) in your house while you’re gone. Is that okay?”

I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Why not?” I was excited at the prospect of beautiful tiles adorning the floors of my home, which at this point were plain cement and had been painted a dusty red that always looks dirty no matter how much I mopped.

“Okay,” my baba said, “so that means you need to move all of the furniture in your house into one room. Tonight. Before you leave.”

My enthusiasm waning slightly, I said bye to my father and walked into my house to scratch the henna off of my hands. I couldn’t let it sit any longer if I need to move the furniture.

An hour or so later, with all of my belongings piled neatly in my bedroom, I ate a light dinner and imagined what type of tiles my landlord might choose to use.

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what zilleej dreams are made of

I didn’t think about the situation again until a few weeks later, when I was preparing to return to Morocco.

I texted one of my best friends, who is my baba’s son: “Hey can you ask your dad if/when my landlord is going to do the zilleej in my house?”

I knew it was Ramadan. And I know Morocco. I didn’t think that they would have begun the zilleej yet, but I was just looking for a timeline.

“Mom said they didn’t start it yet, sorry :(”, he responded. Later adding, “I just asked my dad and he said they will start sometime next week.”

Alright, I thought, that’s fine. Maybe I would just travel a bit in Morocco before returning back to my town, since I wouldn’t be able to live at my house while they were tiling.

I relayed these thoughts to my friend. “Ya dad said you will live in our house,” he said.

I laughed and thought about my Moroccan family, who still don’t really understand why I have a house of my own and don’t just live with them permanently. I joked that they were doing this on purpose so that I would be obligated to live with them.

The next week I caught three different flights and traveled more than fifteen hours in Morocco to arrive back in my community. I called my baba to pick me up from the bus station in town. He told me the tiling was still unfinished and so I’d be living with them.

I was looking forward to seeing my Moroccan siblings and eating some Moroccan food, both of which I missed a lot while I was traveling in America, so the thought of living with my family for three or four days was actually exciting.

The next day I asked for the key to my house so I could drop off my luggage and pack up some things for the time I’d be staying at my family’s house. When I entered my house I noticed that the tiling had not even begun. There weren’t even loose tiles in a corner somewhere, waiting to be placed. What was even stranger, was that there was a rug in the middle of my entry room, complete with a few other rugs, some shoes, and a tea set. “Maybe they just brought these things in preparation for the job,” I thought, not really thinking much else about it.

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everything i own piled into one room

A few days later, I asked for the key to my house again. My sisters and I were planning to swim at the pool in town, and I needed to pick up some clothes to swim in and some sunscreen.

“You don’t need the key,” my baba said. “They’re there, they’re always there.” I cocked my head slightly, pondering what exactly he meant when he said they were “always there,” but didn’t ask questions.

My sisters and I pedaled up to my house and parked our bikes out front. It felt weird to knock on my own front door, but we did anyway. As the door opened, I could not have predicted what happened next.

My landlord and his family had moved into my house.

Carpets adorned each room of the house. They had brought their own dishware and were making tea. My landlord and his wife were sitting in one room atop pillows while their daughter and one of my neighbors played in the living room.

“Abir! Kuli dllaH, chrbi atay! Marhababik 3nda bzzaf!” Abbey! Eat some watermelon, drink some tea! You are so welcome here with us!

I could feel my jaw visibly drop. Was I really being offered tea in my own home?

I politely greeted everyone and my landlord’s wife informed me, “We’re using your fridge, I hope that’s okay,” as I kissed her on each cheek. I turned down offers of tea, and walked into my bedroom to retrieve my belongings. My little sister followed me and whispered, “Abbey, why are these people living in your house?”

We left for the pool, excited at the prospect of swimming albeit very confused about the scene that had just transpired.

Another week passed and I was still living at my family’s house and the zilleej had not yet been started.

Frustration mounting, I decided I needed to get out of this hot, dusty little town and travel to cooler destinations in Morocco. My baba assured me that by the time I came home again I could actually, you know, go home.

I bopped around Morocco with one of my friends, traveling from coastal beach towns to waterfalls to the capital to attend to some Peace Corps business. And my baba was right, when I returned back I was finally able to return to my home.

But there was no zilleej in sight.

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still no zilleej

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Now, a little more backstory before you make your decisions. My landlord and his family live in Laayoune, a city far south of me in the Western Sahara, and usually travel to my town in the summer. I assume that this house is usually vacant in the summer, so they’ve been able to use the house at their leisure during their travels. My landlord also told me I only had to pay half-rent in July since… you know… they were living there instead.

But how would you have reacted?

Would you have pushed back? Was commandeering my house under the guise of doing zilleej just an example of Moroccans being indirect (as they often are)? Or was that just straight up lying?

I’m intrigued to hear what you would have done in my place.

But honestly, I’m just happy to have my house back.

“Will you vote for that man?”

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So it turns out, the longer I’ve been in Morocco the less inclined I’ve been to write on this blog. Maybe it’s because things are no longer exciting and new. Life in Morocco doesn’t usually thrill me anymore in the way it did in those first few months and years, the way it would make me stop and stare and gape unabashedly.

I say usually because the other day I was riding in a shared taxi with a friend when a man on the side of the road flagged us down and proceeded to transport two of his goats in the trunk of the taxi. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t my first experience travelling with animals — but as the taxi started again, and we could hear the bleats of the goats as we bumped along the road I couldn’t help but laugh. “This would never happen in America…” I thought, as I shook my head.

And so, as I begin my third year of service with the Peace Corps in Morocco I hope that I can begin sharing with you different parts of my life more frequently. The small interactions that make my day, the weird experiences that still catch me off guard, or the intricacies of working and living in a foreign country. If you have any questions or suggestions about things I should write about, please send me a message or leave a comment! I’m always eager to hear what people are curious to learn or read about!!

Here’s a post a shared on Facebook last week about how the presidential election in the United States is affecting conversations I have with community members and friends in Morocco.

As always, thanks for reading. xx

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Last night I was chatting with my Moroccan baba. He had watched coverage of the Republican National Convention on TV and wanted to talk to me, his American daughter, about it.

He railed on about how Trump was a liar and recited some of Trump’s proposals from his speech that he thought were bogus as I nodded along and commented that no, even though Trump may have a lot of money he won’t be using any of that to the benefit of the American people.

At this point my 9-year-old sister Khaoula, who had been listening to our banter intently, interrupts us, wide-eyed and says:

“Abir, why does he lie?”

And I had no answer for her.

“Abir,” she continued, “if he is one of the choices for president of the United States why is he allowed to lie?”

And I had no answer for her.

“Abir, will you vote for that man?”

And I finally had an answer.

“Absolutely not,” I said firmly as I pulled her close to me and kissed the top of her head.

As an American living abroad I am forced to defend and explain things about my native country every day.

“Does it ever get cold in America?” “How many states does America have?” “Why do people hate President Obama?” “Have you seen the show ‘The Jersey Shore’?” These questions are easy to answer.

“Why do your police keep killing people?” “Why do so many people in America have guns?” “Is it safe to live in America?” Even these questions, though complicated, I can attempt to explain.

But when it comes to Donald Trump, I have NO answers. And I can’t explain.

“Why does your country accept a man like Trump?” “Why does Trump hate all Muslims?” “Why does Trump want to keep people like us out of America?” These are all real questions people have asked me.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, it’s part of my job to serve as a goodwill ambassador for America to my community in Morocco every day. I teach my students, friends, and family, that America is a country of diversity, of acceptance, of tolerance, of freedom. A country that embraces you for who you are, no matter what.

And all of my words, my promises of peace, are negated every time Donald Trump opens his mouth and spews his racist, xenophobic, sexist, Islamaphobic, fat-shaming rhetoric and it is broadcasted into people’s homes throughout the world.

We must show the word that we are better than Donald Trump.

People the world over idealize America. Not because of what we are — because let’s be real, there is a lot of fixing we can and must do — but because of our ideals and of the promises of what we can be. A place where a woman is valued as equally as a man. Where you are free to practice (or not practice) the religion of your choice. Where you are free to love who you want to love. Where you can speak out if you don’t agree. Where the media isn’t controlled by the state. Where people of every color and creed are treated equally.

America, the world is watching. Let’s live up to these ideals we say we hold so dear. We can and we must do better than Trump.

‪#‎NeverTrump‬ ‪#‎ClintonKaine‬ ‪#‎ImWithHer‬

2 years in Morocco

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I have now spent two whole years in Morocco. Where has the time gone??

In honor of my second year in the ol’ Maghrib I thought I’d take a look back.

Here are my favorite moments of 2015.

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At the workshop we taught art and sports activities (such as puzzle-making) caretakers can do with their children

JANUARY – My site-mate Laura put together a 2-day workshop intended for teachers and caretakers of people with disabilities. I was able to help by leading sessions on communication methods and using yoga as a tool to develop exercise habits and calmer behavior. During the workshop, one mother came up to Laura and said to her, “We thought we were the only ones….” She had no idea that there were other families in the community experiencing the same things that her family was. It was a transformative weekend in my service. It also helped me develop relationships with local counterparts that would be instrumental throughout the remainder of the year.

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FEBRUARY – I led a Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) Camp for 30 local girls aged 11-17. The goal of the camp was to work with the girls on leadership, female empowerment, and practicing healthy lifestyles. I couldn’t have done it without the help of 4 amazing Moroccan women who have become very close friends of mine. (Read more here.)

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At the District Spelling Bee in Guelmim with Ayoub, Ali, Ayoub and Teslam

MARCH – As an English teacher at the local youth center, I get to assist my students with their English learning in a variety of ways. One of these is by preparing them to compete in a Spelling Bee! If you knew me when I was younger you probably remember that Spelling Bees are a really big deal to me (and that I won the Booth Hill Elementary School Spelling Bee in 5th grade… just saying), so sharing that excitement with my students was so cool. First, I hosted a local spelling bee at our youth center with 21 participants. Then the top three finishers of the local bee and I traveled to compete in the district spelling bee in Guelmim, more than 5 hours away! Traveling with my students was hilarious and involved a lot of selfies. It was the first time many of them had traveled without their parents and many of their first time staying at a hotel. One of my students came in 2nd place at the district bee and therefore placed to compete at the national bee in the capital the next month. Needless to say, I was beaming with pride. These kids are so intelligent and hardworking and I am so lucky to have the opportunity to help them along their paths.

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Campers at Ability Camp work together to begin a mural

APRIL – Laura (my site-mate) spent the majority of her third year in Peace Corps organizing Ability Camp, a 6-day overnight camp designed to be inclusive of campers with and without special needs. I was a counselor at the camp alongside 5 other Peace Corps Volunteers and some incredible Moroccan staff. We worked with 45 youth from our town, 15 of whom have special needs, to build an accessible playground at our local special needs association. During the camp we also played sports, did art projects, went on a field trip to a nearby oasis and put on a crazy talent show (in which I regrettably participated in a robot pop-locking dance). It was a week that I will never forget – and I’m so excited to say that I am currently planning Ability Camp 2 for this year!

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With my friends (and fellow PCVs) Garrett and Anooj at the Gnaoua Music Festival

MAY – I traveled to Essaouira to work at the Gnaoua Music Festival with the ALCS, a Moroccan association that helps people with AIDS. Although the infection rate of AIDS in Morocco is still relatively low, there still remains a lot of stigma and misinformation about the disease. About twenty other Peace Corps Volunteers and I worked at the festival and had conversations with festival-goers about AIDS and encouraged them to get free testing done at the ALCS booth. By the end of the festival more than 1,100 people were tested! (Oh, and we got to see amazing live music each night.)

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My sister Khawla and me in our blanket fort

JUNE – During June I had a brief period of homelessness and decided to live with my Moroccan family for about 3 weeks. After living in homestays for my first 4 months of service, I never thought I would want to repeat the experience (personal space is my friend). But living with them was so much fun. Each day I would run around with my sisters, practice English with my brothers, shoot the shit with my baba, and try and fail to help my mama cook. Then at night we’d all snuggle up outside underneath the stars and have tickle fights before we fell asleep. Now if I am away from their house for more than two days I’m greeted with “where have you been??” before I can even walk through the door.

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Laura and me on the pink street in Lisbon

JULY – Laura’s contract with the Peace Corps ended at the end of June and then we went on a trip to Portugal together! She had a huge role in why I had such an incredible and successful first year in Peace Corps and I am so thankful for the friendship and guidance she has given me. We had an amazing trip in Portugal discovering hidden beaches on the edges of cliffs, indulging in things we’d missed while in Morocco, and working on our tans. Living in our desert town without her here just doesn’t feel the same.

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Three generations in Spain

AUGUST – In August I traveled to Spain where I met my mom and grandmother for ten days of travel through Madrid and Barcelona! It was a hilarious trip. If you ever thought that I have a loud laugh, then you should meet my mom and grandma. And then imagine us sitting together at a restaurant sipping sangria. It’s definitely a sight to see.

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With my friends on my first night in my new house, which also happened to be the day of my 25th birthday

SEPTEMBER – After seven months of searching, I finally moved into a new house in a small village at the edge of town. I made the decision to move because I wanted to be closer to my favorite people in town and to integrate and share more in their unique Amazigh traditions. Other perks include living on the edge of the oasis (there are tons of palm trees right outside my back door), cooler temperatures, a giant private roof, and a quieter neighborhood.

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In Austin with my sister Molly

OCTOBER – 2015 was a big year of travel for me. Not only did I take vacations to Portugal and Spain, but I also made my way back to America for the first time in nearly 2 years! I spent time at my parents’ house in Texas, visited my sister at the University of Texas at Austin, made my return to Washington, DC, and went to my friends’ beautiful wedding. Even though I don’t miss America very often, I do miss the people that live there a lot. It meant so much to me that I was able to see all of my favorite people.

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My book club students (plus a few friends) at one of our classes

NOVEMBER – When I returned to my town in the desert from America I found out that my youth center had been shut down for construction. It was originally only supposed to take two weeks, but I wasn’t optimistic that things would finish that quickly. I relayed this information to my students, and a group of them refused to halt our classes just because the youth center was closed. For the next two months, my book club students and I met at the café at the pool each week for our classes. Their dedication and enthusiasm for learning English continues to inspire me and drive my teaching.

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In Chefchaouen, the blue city, with Kara

DECEMBER – I’m really lucky because several of my closest friends from college also joined the Peace Corps. We’ve been able to bond and empathize with each other throughout our services as we go through similar journeys. In December, my friend Kara completed her service in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho and then came to visit me in Morocco! It was so surreal to have her by my side and to share Morocco with her. Traveling with her also made me fall in love with Morocco all over again. At nearly every restaurant we went to we were given free pots of tea, a tile maker in Chefchaouen chiseled each of us small blue hearts as gifts, and a calligraphy artist in Assilah wrote both of our names in Arabic calligraphy for us after I complimented his work. I felt so much love for the country that is now my home and to the people who made my trip with Kara so wonderful.

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More than anything, it was the people in my life that made 2015 so memorable. This next year has a lot of changes and unknowns in store for me, but I know with these folks by my side I can handle anything.

(Want to read more? Check out my 2014 Peace Corps recap.)

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