Six months later — and still struggling

It’s been six months since I returned from Morocco. Six months and the most frequently asked question about my 3.5 year highly successful service with the Peace Corps is about my gender – “What was it like to be a woman there? Was there a lot of sexism?”

It’s hard to casually answer this question sitting at a bar, beer in one hand.

Do you really want to hear the truth?

Here it is: I learned to diminish myself and it’s still affecting me today.

But normally I opt for a quick, “Yeah… there was” and change the subject.

It’s taken me six months, but I’ve only lately come to realize just how much the sexism I faced and witnessed on a daily basis changed me. How much it has rocked me to my core.

I haven’t written about this before – I was too concerned with protecting the reputation of Morocco, of my town, of the men in my town who I love dearly. That’s something we are taught as girls, to minimize or rationalize the way we are treated so as not to create a fuss for others. We’re always protecting the reputations of others instead of acknowledging the truths that happen to us. But I’ve promised myself that I won’t do that anymore. My new goal is to be unapologetic – of who I am, who I strive to be, and what I’ve been through. To not stay quiet just because it might make someone else feel better.

I remember once in Morocco I was co-leading a women’s fitness and health event with an organization from Rabat, the capital city. Over the course of the weekend we facilitated fitness classes, led a 5k through the community, and tested participants for high blood pressure, diabetes, and counseled them about nutrition. Hundreds of women attended the sessions over the course of that weekend. But at the closing ceremony we, the female organizers and participants, were forced to stand and clap as an all-male group of “dignitaries” were presented with awards. Men from the local government who had done nothing but sign and stamp a few papers were awarded with medals and trophies for their work “helping women.”

I was furious. I turned to the woman standing next to me, the head of the association, and asked her how she could let this happen. She shook her head and explained that unless we “honored” the men in this way they wouldn’t allow us to host events like this again. And then she urged me to keep clapping.

This was hardly the only time I was forced to stroke men’s egos in the pursuit of securing funding, supplies, or approval for my projects.

Two ministry officials showed up just before lunch to take pictures of a girls’ empowerment camp I was hosting in my first year of service. Per cultural norms they were served lunch first – in a separate room and in heaping portions. When they were finished there wasn’t enough food left for all of the campers and staff to eat.

While living with my first host family I came home from class one afternoon to find that we were having guests over. The men and women were separated into different rooms of the house (this is very common in Morocco) for tea. My sisters and I had to prepare the food and serve it to the men first, and then wait in the other room while they ate. Only when they had finished were we allowed to eat whatever was left.

For the sake of my reputation I was instructed never to be alone with a man, never to invite men inside my home, and never to hug a man. I learned all of the polite words of respect to use, to always show immense gratitude to the men of influence who granted me an audience, to put on a smile, to be over-polite, to not make direct eye contact for too long.

It became ingrained in me. All of it.

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I came back to the U.S. unsure of how I would be able to interact with men, and I’m still struggling. I notice it still – I never initiate hugs with men, I always stand about one step behind a man when we’re walking, and I still allow men to make decisions for me (“Where do you want to go for lunch?” “Oh, anywhere is fine!”).

This all happened subconsciously. I internalized all of it. The question I struggle with now is – how do I get rid of it?

The first step is that I have to acknowledge that this didn’t start in Morocco. It’s been happening my whole life and it has continued since I returned stateside.

In high school male classmates played “basketball” during class by attempting to throw paper balls down my shirt. Adult males would comment on “how much [I’d] grown up” while staring directly at my chest. I received multiple detentions for having “too much cleavage” from female teachers who slutshamed and humiliated me. I went through my teens thinking that all I had to offer to men was a nice rack (as if they deserved anything from me at all).

Men have continued to use words to try and control me and the women around me. My ex-boyfriend emotionally manipulated me and tried to mold me into the woman he wanted me to be – even referring to me as “[his] girlfriend of the moment” to my face (we had been together almost three years by then). Just last month my supervisor at the Red Cross made a joke about sexual harassment at our all hands meeting. Other male Red Crossers consistently questioned my ability to do my job and called me “kid” and “sweetheart” instead of learning my name (wanna guess if they did this to my male co-workers?).

These days I spend my free time reading the words of strong feminists and seeking guidance. Most recently I’ve been inspired by Mona Eltahawy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. I’m hoping that by holding those pages their strength and power will flow into my hands. I’m using their words to help find my own – and then to take back the power that men have slowly taken from me.

And on the days when I do feel that strength, when I own my power and call out bullshit I get labelled “aggressive” or “scary” or “intimidating.” More words used to diminish my strength. Why does being an independent, outspoken, smart woman make me intimidating when a guy with all of these qualities is just… another guy? I’m tired of wondering if the men I want to date are “intimidated” by me, or wondering that if I was just a little less opinionated he would have asked me out already.

So, returning back to that frequently asked question. Being a woman in Morocco was hard. The sexism and misogyny I experienced there felt, to me, much more overt. Some days being a woman felt akin to having some sort of contagious disease – always being separated from the men, never getting too close, never touching except for a brief handshake (unless he’s really religious, then you don’t touch at all). And, through it all, I was expected to roll with it, to adapt, to integrate.

At the end of my service my Regional Manager at Peace Corps commended me for how incredibly integrated I was in my community. “Not many volunteers can achieve what you achieved,” he told me. But now I wonder – how much of myself did I have to give up along the way?

This is what it’s like to walk as a woman through this world. From the time of our birth onward, our lives are shaped by the men around us. Even the well-meaning men, the men who call themselves feminists and support my right as an autonomous woman, learn from society around them that they are just a little bit superior, that ultimately they are in control. Each day men, knowingly or unknowingly, do things or say things to diminish us, to make our light shine a little bit less bright.

Morocco changed my life, in good ways and bad. Each day my readjustment process in America finds a new bump. My relationships with men feel confusing and fake. But more than that, my relationship with myself is shaky and less confident. I left one imperfect society for another, neither of which embraces me for who I am.

Finding myself again, picking up those pieces that I’ve shed over the years in attempt to be the woman society told me I needed to be, isn’t going to be easy. It likely will be a lifelong process. As we say in Morocco: shwiya b shwiya. Little by little.

Finally writing this was just the beginning.

that doesn’t mean i have to like it

[Trigger warning: this blog post talks about physical punishment and describes instances of abuse.]

Three years ago I was in a northern city of Morocco. I was a Peace Corps Trainee, still living with a host family and trying to string words in Moroccan Arabic into sentences. I had just gone through another long day of language and cultural training and was sitting with my host family eating kaskrot (snack and tea time) as the sun went down. My young host cousin was sitting across from me at the table and dutifully completing his homework.

My host sister looked over his shoulder, picked up a book from the table with both hands and proceeded to smack him across the back of his head. She ripped the paper out of his notebook and told him to begin his homework again.

I gasped, horrified. My host sister looked at me and tried to justify her actions. She explained that my cousin’s handwriting wasn’t neat enough. I froze up and didn’t know what to do. My silence seemed to make her nervous, and she kept talking. “Wach fhemti Abir? Wach fhemti 3lach?” Do you understand Abir? Do you understand why?

And that’s the thing – I didn’t understand.

I was taught that hitting is never allowed. On a familial level, my parents exclusively forbade it. I was never hit as a child and neither were my siblings. I never even hit my siblings when we got into fights. We barely even wrestled for fun. On an educational level, I understood and believed in the proven negative effects corporal punishment has on children — such as increased aggressive behaviors, depression, and anxiety. These are beliefs that I have carried throughout my life and now were being directly confronted in Morocco.

So, in that moment, I mustered up all of my courage and all of the Moroccan Arabic I had learned and tried to have a conversation with my host sister. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful for all of the hospitality her family had shown me or be culturally insensitive, but at the same time I didn’t want to lie to her and say that I thought her behavior was acceptable.

This is your home, I told her. This is your home, and your country, so you can do whatever you want. But that doesn’t mean that I have to like it or agree with it.


In the many months since then, I’ve witnessed dozens more situations just like this.

When I visit families with young children, parents will regularly beg their child to behave by threatening “Abir ghatdrebk.” Abir is going to hit you.

Last year a father brought his son to my classroom at the Dar Chebab (youth center) and asked if his son had attended my English class the previous day. I responded that he hadn’t. The father then slapped his son across the face in front of me. The son, with tears in his eyes, apologized to me as he walked away.

Last month I was sitting in the living room of a family’s house and playing with the girls. Their father came in yelling that we were being too loud. He grabbed his youngest daughter and slapped her twice across the face, leaving a handprint on her cheek. He hit her so hard that her face was swollen and bruised for over a week.

Each situation ends the same way. I am wide eyed and stunned. What do I do?


If I were to consult officials at the Peace Corps, they’d advise me to stay out of it. It’s none of your business. It’s not your culture. Don’t get involved, they’d say.

In Morocco today the debate rages on about the use of physical abuse as a punishment as well as domestic violence. According to Human Rights Watch, the Moroccan government has failed to put in place proper laws that deter domestic violence, prosecute those convicted, and provide protection for victims. The state TV channel 2M was under worldwide pressure a few months ago when they aired a segment teaching women how to disguise their bruises with makeup so that they could “carry on with [their] daily life.” Additionally, there are no explicit laws forbidding teachers from using physical punishment on students in schools — even for students with special needs.

In my experience over the past three years, physical abuse and punishment is commonplace in Morocco.

Every time I watch a student-led theater performance, there is always a scene in which the mother is hit by her husband, or a father beats his child, or a boyfriend smacks his girlfriend. And this isn’t to make commentary – this is the punchline. The crowd laughs.

I asked one of my friends why people laughed, and she said that people needed to make light of the bad things that happened in their lives. It was their way to cope.

One of the officials that works for the Ministry of Youth and Sports in my town regularly comes into my classes and “jokes” with students by pretending to hit them, either with his hands or with a lanyard. Students cringe and try to laugh it off.

I teach a girls empowerment class each week where we often discuss the problems in our community and what we can do to help solve them. The girls identify domestic violence and physical abuse as an important issue every session.

So how do I not get involved? I think of these children as my sisters, my brothers, my neighbors, my precious students. And they identify the issue as a problem.


As an outsider, I struggle with this question a lot. At what point do I intervene when I see something happening that I believe is wrong? It’s not my culture and it’s not my community — so does that mean it isn’t my place to say something?

Where is the line? How do I decide when the line has been crossed?

In the end I decided that I have to stand up for what I believe in — especially when I believe physical harm is being done.

When parents threaten their children that I will hit them, I firmly state that I will not. When the ministry official pretends to hit children in my classroom, I ask him to stop and say that we do not hit in my classroom. When I witness a child being hit, I wait until the situation is over. Then I go to them and comfort them and try to have a conversation. I tell them that I love them.

These are the only things I can do. And it never feels like enough. I know that I am powerless to change this issue. But I also know that I am a role model for these children and that what I choose to say and do matters. I hope that they will see that. I hope it will give them pause next time they are in a situation where they may be the aggressor.

Change comes from within. And I hope that my actions are helping spur that change.


[Writer’s note: I feel compelled to mention that I love my Moroccan community very dearly and do not wish to bring harm to anyone with this post. I also understand that corporal punishment towards children happens all over the world, including the United States. But I also believe that I must critique those people and things that I love the most in order to make our world a better place.]

put yourself out of the job

During our service with the Peace Corps, each volunteer becomes “known” for something in our sites. Whether it’s something about the way you dress, the place where you teach, a funny interaction that you had at a hanut (small store)– something is going to stick. As for me in my site, more often than not, I’m known as the one who teaches aerobics classes to women.

There have literally been instances when a woman will stop me in the street and says, “Are you the one who teaches aerobics classes?” Men will approach me too, asking for the class times because they want their wives to attend. Even my young students at the Dar Chebab (youth center) know and encourage their mothers to work out with me.

My aerobics class is held in the 9aa moghatat three times a week – it’s basically a glorified indoor basketball court. If you were to join me for a class, we would open the doors to find the women had showed up long before we did, taking advantage of the women’s hours and gossiping as they ran laps around the court. Once the class begins, we each use a puzzle-piece shaped mat to stand on for the exercises. A group of more than 50 women form a circle with their mats around me. The women range from young women fresh out of university to old Hajjas of 70 years old. Some women live a stone’s throw away from the gym while others walk 2 kilometers from their duwar (village) to join us. It’s an amazing sight to see and I feel such a great sense of purpose and pride when I walk into the gym for each class.

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Building this aerobics class has been many years in the making. My former sitemate Laura first began the class four years ago in a cramped old classroom at the Nadi Neswi (women’s center). As the class size began to grow, they eventually migrated to the 9aa moghatat. We have since worked together to organize long walks with the women to show them safe places to walk on the weekends. We also introduced regular fitness tests to demonstrate their progress and began training Moroccan counterparts to teach classes.

For my third year of service, I was eager to build upon the progress that we’d made – to train more women to lead classes, to bring the classes to the villages of Tata – I had so many plans. This was the class I was most excited to teach.

But sometimes in Morocco, just as you think you’ve gotten it all figured out, life likes to throw you a curve ball.

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It was a Saturday early last month, and I had just finished teaching the class. The sweat on my forehead was still fresh and the endorphins were buzzing through my body.

A small group walked over and huddled around me. These were my “regulars” – some of the most dedicated women in the group. Fatima began: “So Abir, starting Tuesday we have a new trainer.” I kind of cocked my head and told her I didn’t understand. She repeated the sentence, this time adding: “Do you know Loubna? From the other gym in center? She’s our trainer now.” I could feel my eyes beginning to water and it became more and more difficult for me to comprehend what they were saying.

Another woman quickly grabbed my hand and begged me to continue attending the classes with them, even though I wouldn’t be teaching. The other women chimed in: “wlfnak – we’re so accustomed to you.” They kept repeating it. “We love laughing with you,” they added. I nodded my head and walked quickly out of the gym. I didn’t want them to see my sadness. My shock. My disbelief.

I couldn’t bring myself to attend the classes the next week. This, combined with the election results… I just couldn’t get out of bed. I had worked so hard for this! Laura and I were the reasons this class existed – how could they do this to me? It was hard not to feel as if this was a direct attack, as if I wasn’t good enough so they decided to replace me.

Slowly, I worked up the courage to go to one of the classes. I gave 150% that day. I went hard on every exercise, continuing repetitions after all of the other women had tired. I wanted to prove to the women how fit I was – that they had made a mistake and wouldn’t be as strong under the leadership of the new trainer.

After the class, I began prodding my now former students. How were the classes? Did she do the same routine each time? Were they maybe paying her to teach? The women seemed satisfied, which obviously aggravated me. But I couldn’t let it go. Something just didn’t feel right.


A few days later I was sitting down to breakfast with my Moroccan baba Omar, who coincidentally is the mudir (director) of the gym where I now used to teach. I gingerly dipped a piece of bread into the olive oil and casually said, “So…did you hear what happened with my class…?”

I wasn’t expecting what he said next: “It’s the delegue’s fault.”

“The people at the local ministry office said that you don’t have a certificate to teach aerobics and that’s why there is a new trainer.” I quickly opened my mouth to protest, but he continued – “I tried to help by saying that you do have a certificate, but they wanted proof.”

“It’s just an excuse anyway,” he said. “The Ministry of Youth and Sports wants to take credit for your class and Loubna is the wife of one of the men who works in the office.”

“The women never wanted to get rid of you,” he said kindly while sipping his tea. “They were really upset.”

Everything suddenly made sense.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned during my Peace Corps service – it’s patience. If this had happened to me two years ago, during my first year of service, I would have lashed out. I would have been aggressive. I probably would have confronted the women and asked them to their faces why they had done what they did. I would have demanded answers. I would have gone to the delegue and told him why what he did was wrong. But what good would any of that have done? What good would it have been to act before I knew the whole story? To be upset with the women who were just as upset as I was?

During my nearly three years in Morocco I’ve learned to step back, wait for events to unfold, think critically – and then choose how to act thoughtfully. It is so easy to misread a situation – with language barriers, cultural barriers, the concept of being direct or indirect in certain situations – I know two years ago I would have gotten this one wrong.

So, to the new Peace Corps Morocco Volunteers: have patience. Trust in yourself, in your work, and in the people who care about you. These things will always prevail – even if it doesn’t seem that way from your first read of the situation.

Even though I am no longer teaching these women’s aerobics classes, I believe that the work that I’ve done speaks for itself. We helped create a safe environment for women to exercise. We helped demonstrate to our community that women’s fitness is important. We helped change our town’s perception of women’s fitness – and the delegue recognized that and wanted to be part of it.

You know, as Peace Corps Volunteers, as development workers – the ultimate goal that we are seeking is to put ourselves out of a job.

And now, after stepping back and taking a second look at this situation – I believe that I have achieved that goal.


This post was originally given as a “TED Talk” speech to the incoming group of Peace Corps Morocco Volunteers on December 8, the day before their swearing-in ceremony. The theme of the morning was success stories and overcoming challenges.

Teaching about the US Election in Morocco

Teaching about the US Election in Morocco

Last week I was asked to guest teach an English lesson to a group of 24 high school students. I was given a 2-hour time period to teach them any topic of my choice about America or American culture. Naturally, given the current political climate in the United States and the news coverage this election cycle is receiving around the world I felt compelled to teach about the 2016 American election.

If you know me personally, you know that I am a huge geek when it comes to government and politics. In high school, I volunteered during President Obama’s campaign in 2008 and worked at the polls. I was also an active member of my school’s Young Democrats club, which maxed out at around 10 members (yay Texas). Then in college I attended one of the most politically active universities in the country – American University.  One of the biggest parties I attended during undergrad was the night of the 2012 election. We even drove to the White House afterwards to celebrate.

much to the chagrin of my friends I insisted on carrying around an “OBAMA 2008” cup in high school (they hated me then for the cup and probably will hate me now for the photo)

All of this is to tell you that I knew when I was creating my lesson plan that I needed to be very careful and thoughtful about how to teach about the election in a bipartisan and fair way. I know that I am definitely not an impartial person to talk to when it comes to this subject (see this post about when people ask me about Trump for reference). I have a lot of opinions and I’m normally not afraid to share them with anyone. But when it came to this lesson, I wanted to try my hardest to present the information in the most fair and equal light that I could.

But this election cycle isn’t normal. And it was really difficult for me to find a way to teach about our presidential candidates in this “fair and equal light.” How do I fairly portray a candidate who has said derogatory comments that could be applied to the very students who sat in the classroom I was supposed to teach?

I decided the best thing I could do was to let the students make up their minds on their own. I would provide them with all of the information they needed, and they would make their choice as to who they would vote for.

After briefly explaining the “Three Branches of Government” and reinforcing the fact that the American president does not have the same powers as a king, we played an activity called “Four Corners.” Each corner of the room was labelled with a different paper: “I strongly agree,” “I agree,” “I disagree,” and “I strongly disagree.” As I read a statement aloud, the students were instructed to walk to the corner that best described their reaction to the statement.

I had selected a list of nine issues in the American election, ranging from gun control to immigration to ISIS to taxes, that I felt were the “hot topics” of the election and that the students would easily understand without too much of a backstory. I wanted to see how these Moroccan teenagers felt about our issues in America while forcing them to take a position and practice supporting that position in English.


With the statement: “America should not let Syrian refugees in to the country,” the students looked at me incredulously and ran to the corner of the room labelled “I strongly disagree.” Every student camped out in that corner. Every. Single. One. When I explained to them that some Americans believed that some Syrian refugees may be terrorists or create crime in America, they almost laughed. “They have nowhere else to go!” the students pleaded with me. “It is so dangerous in Syria they cannot stay there,” another student added.

The students had a similar, unanimous opinion when it came to gun control or guns in schools. I told them about the shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and that some people believe that if the teachers had had guns the tragedy would have been prevented. But they held their ground. They also unanimously believed that America should use its military to fight ISIS and that America must take steps to address climate change.


The only issues that brought up some forms of debate were in regards to the death penalty and whether to increase taxes for the rich. When a student told me he believed that the rich were already paying their fair share, I jokingly told him I thought he was probably a Republican. Afterwards he looked as if my words had wounded him. I tried to reassure him that being a Republican wasn’t a bad thing, but the media coverage of Donald Trump had already effected the way he saw the Republican Party in America as a whole.

After we finished the “Four Corners” activity, the students watched campaign ads from each of the candidates. My goal was to have them watch the ads and make up their own minds about the candidates’ messages, while practicing their listening skills in English.

This was a difficult activity to prepare because Donald Trump is not running a traditional campaign. He has run very few traditional campaign ads, none of which are listed on his website. Ultimately, I had to select an ad that was basically a clip from one of his stump speeches. It ran in stark contrast to the Clinton campaign, which has a highly sophisticated network of videos on a variety of platforms, including her own YouTube channel.

During the videos, the students latched on to the idea that Hillary Clinton was kind, compassionate, and an advocate for the poor, whereas Donald Trump wanted to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the United States and only promised to make America “great.”

Next, I presented the students with a side-by-side look of how the candidates stand on the issues. Again, the abnormal nature of the Trump campaign made it difficult for me to write out the candidates’ platforms in an equal and unbiased way because he has taken a stance on so few issues. I tried to do research on many reputable websites, including his own campaign website, and even then was forced to draw a literal question mark (“?”) on the poster when it came to his stance on health care.

Once the students were presented with all of the information, I asked them to write about who they would vote for and why. Which issue was the most important to them?

As the students finished with their writing assignments, I began passing around a “ballot box” I had fashioned from an old crackers box, some white paper, and patriotic-colored markers. I asked the students to write their choice for the next American president on a piece of paper and slip it inside. Though it was only a mock election, the students couldn’t contain their excitement. Each student wanted their picture taken while they put their ballot in the box (don’t worry I did tell them that voting is actually private in America).


Later I took the slips of paper out of the box one-by-one and we tallied the votes on the board. Each student had voted for Hillary Clinton.

As the students read their reasons aloud for the support of Hillary Clinton, I understood why their choice was united. They saw themselves in the people Secretary Clinton promises to help. They live in a rural, poor community. They are Muslim. Some of them would like to immigrate to the United States one day. They see global warming as their generation’s problem. And they kept repeating that Donald Trump was racist.

But what they really wanted to say is: “Donald Trump doesn’t like me.”

My job as a Peace Corps Volunteer, as a de facto ambassador of America each day that I bike and prance around my Moroccan community has never felt more important. It has never been more critical for me to prove to Moroccans that I meet that Americans can be kindhearted, accepting, funny, considerate, and willing to learn about new cultures. Donald Trump does not represent the America that I love and that I want to share with my Moroccan community.

Now that class is over there’s no need to be “fair and equal.” And you can bet your asses I’m sending in my absentee ballot all the way from this tiny town in the desert to vote for the first female president of the United States.

When your landlord wants to tile your house

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.

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.

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.

still no zilleej


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?”

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


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

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.

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.


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.)

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.

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!

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.)