Words I Forget in English (Part I)

I’m sitting in an empty airport terminal in Germany right now, waiting for my connecting flight that will take me to the United States. When I land tomorrow it will be the first time I’ve touched American soil in nearly two years.

A lot of things have changed since I’ve been gone. I can honestly say I’m not the same person now as when I left — and I’m proud of that.

But still, I’m nervous. I’m nervous to confront how I’ve changed, how my world has changed. I’m nervous about being thrown back into a society driven by the needs of individuals (and not communities). I’m nervous about surrounding myself with things I’ve learned to live without — my family, my friends, my dogs, Texas barbecue…

But I’m also nervous about something a little less abstract…

My English.

As time has ticked on and my Arabic fluency grown, my hold on the English language has slowly been falling out of my grasp. I find it more difficult to recall words and realize that my use of advanced vocabulary has sharply decreased.

It isn’t uncommon for me to say “What is it called when…?” or “What is the opposite of…?” during conversations in Arabic so that I can learn new vocabulary.

Except I do it in English now too.

It’s as if my English and Arabic language proficiencies operate inversely to one another, often leaving me feeling voiceless in both.

(Side note: it took me 5 minutes sitting here mid-paragraph to find the word “inverse” in my brain.)

Recently I’ve been keeping a list of all the words I’ve forgotten mid-conversation in English. When applicable I’ve included in parentheses what I said instead of the correct word. Here is the list for your viewing pleasure.

Words I Forget in English (Part I):

  • waiting tables (waitering?)
  • horoscope
  • drill team (kick team?)
  • cafeteria
  • greenhouse gases
  • opaque (not… transparent?)
  • light bulb (that thing that makes light?)
  • carbon dioxide
  • upgrade
  • progress
  • burnt out (died?)
  • suspend (block?)
  • excluding (discluding?)
  • permanent (things that don’t go away?)
  • parasailing
  • advisor
  • hoop
  • especially
  • trivet (those things you put hot plates on?)
  • the straw that broke the camel’s back (the needle that broke the haystack?)

America, I can’t wait to see ya.

Just please be kind to me and my English, okay?

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the blog it home contest

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GUYS. Amazing news!

I was chosen as a finalist in Peace Corps’ annual “Blog It Home” contest!!

The finalists (there’s 20 of us!) were chosen from more than 400 different blogs that are written by Peace Corps Volunteers all over the world. There is now a public voting contest on Facebook to determine the winners, who will be sent to Washington, DC in October to participate in a week full of intercultural sharing, professional development and sharing.

To vote for my blog please click on this link and “like” my photo (and share it on your own social media)!!!

The contest ends on Monday, August 10, so please vote and encourage your friends and any strangers you see on the street to do the same :)

Writing for this blog has been a beautiful and cathartic experience for me during my Peace Corps service so far, a way to both chronicle and work through my experiences. I never expected to receive a lot of attention for it — and especially not through a contest that could send me back to my favorite city in the world!


In honor of the contest I thought I’d go back and look at the posts I’ve written over my past 20 months of service.

Here are my 5 favorite posts! Click on the links to read more!

  1. 365 Days in Morocco: Year One By The Numbers — this post sums up my first year as a PCV and chronicles, by the numbers, the milestones of the beginning of my service
  2. It’s Wedding Season! — attending weddings is one of my favorite things to do in my community! in this post i describe what a traditional amazigh wedding is like where i live (don’t forget to listen to the audio clip!)
  3. How To Stay Cool in the Sahara — probably my most embarrassing post to date (why did i think those selfies were a good idea again?), in this entry i give some advice on how to survive living in one of the hottest places in the world — the sahara desert!
  4. the first desert rain — a story about the beautiful experience that is rain in the desert
  5. On quantifying your work — in this post i talk about the reports peace corps volunteers write about our projects, and why it will never truly capture the impacts we make

the desert isn’t brown

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On your first visit to the desert of southern Morocco you might notice a lot of brown. On first glance your gaze may be filled with it. The mountains, filling the horizon. The ground, littered in sand and rocks. The houses, built out of the clay they stand on. Even the camels, if you are lucky enough to happen upon a herd, are brown.

But if you take the time to look, to really see the landscape around you, you wouldn’t describe it as brown.

Here’s what I see:

In the early hours of the morning, when the mountains are tinged with soft blues and purples,

The blue scarves, wrapped carefully atop men’s heads, protecting themselves from the harsh Saharan sun beating down,

The radiant purple flowers shooting up over the mountains after the torrential floods, signaling the beginning of spring,

The vibrant red of a freshly picked pomegranate from a tree in the oasis, its small fruits spilling across the ground as you crack its outer core,

The way the stars shine on a clear night, and seeing a shooting star is more of a when than an if,

The joy in little children’s eyes as we run and play and duck and hide, their happiness and inner light exuding carefree bliss, to which no passerby cannot mirror,

These are the things that I see. This is the desert that I love.

It’s anything but just brown.

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What time is it?!

Americans  are well aware that time moves a bit more slowly in other parts of the world. This is surely true in Morocco. Everyone walks a bit slower here, greeting everyone they meet with long and detailed  inquiries (“How are you? How is your family? How is your health? How is your work? How is your cousin that was sick last year?”). The concept of being “late” is generally not a concern, which changes one’s perception of the trek to and from places entirely — to less of a means of reaching an end and more of a leisurely stroll to be enjoyed, an end in and of itself.

This aspect of Morocco has been easy for me to adjust to. If you’ve ever met me before, you’d understand that “being late” is more of a constant and less of thing to be avoided. After living in Washington, DC for four years, with its go go go attitude and signature power walk, I’m happy to be embracing a lifestyle that is more relaxed, to be looking up at the sights and sounds around me rather than at my feet.

But Morocco’s relationship with time doesn’t stop there.

In Morocco, the seemingly innocent question of “What time is it?” isn’t simple at all.

You see, Morocco didn’t begin observing Daylight Savings Time until 2008 — just seven years ago — after abandoning the practice in the late 1970s due to unpopularity with the Moroccan people (foreshadowing). Despite the official adoption of the DST practice in 2012, the country has yet to follow predictable start and end dates and often changes or extends the practice at the last minute.

This year we observed Daylight Savings Time on March 29, 2015, moving our clocks forward one hour.

Or at least some of us changed our clocks…

In big cities with lots of businesses and bustling streets (read: northern Morocco, like Casablanca or Rabat) the practice is almost universally adopted. But here in my little rural town in the desert things get a bit more complicated. Some people change, and some people don’t. Which means asking the question “What time is it?” requires a lot of follow up questions, most importantly of which is “old time or new time?” — specifying pre-time change as “old” and time change as “new.”

Which leads me to conversations like this one, with my Moroccan dad:

Me: What time should I meet you at the gym tomorrow?
Omar: 9 o’clock.
Me: Is that 9 o’clock new time or old time?
Omar: There is only one time.
Me: Okay but is your time the new time or the old time?
Omar: New time. Abir remember there is only one time.
Me: Okay I will remember.

While on the same day having this conversation with one of my Moroccan mamas:

Me: What time should I come over for couscous on Friday?
Rkkia: You can come at any time, but be here by 1.
Me: New time or old time?
Rkkia: Abir you know I don’t change the time.
Me: So old time then?
Rkkia: Yes, old time. Why do we need to change the time?

The start of Daylight Savings Time means the start of memorizing who goes by what schedule. 

New time: my Moroccan dad Omar (but not his wife Saidiya), the post office, the Peace Corps office in Rabat, the ministry buildings, official public transportation (trains, buses between cities)

Old time: my Moroccan mama Rkkia and her family, pretty much every other family, all local stores

And then there are the things that operate on both schedules. Here in my town the schools change their class times with DST — but they use new time in the morning and old time in the afternoon. The Dar Chebab where I work operated on new time until I begged the mudir (my boss) to change the hours to old time so that more of my students could participate in activities in the evenings.

Just when you think you’ve gotten it all figured out — BAM — Ramadan hits. And the clocks change again, as Daylight Savings Time is not observed during the holy month. The whole country goes back to old time (or continues on with old time).

On Saturday we celebrated Eid Sghir (or Eid Al-Fitr) in Morocco, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, with it marking the third time change of the year.

And back to the old question we go — what time is it?!

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The things that follow you

The pilot’s voice cracks over the intercom. A thirty minute delay.

Passengers on the plane begin to fidget, craning their necks to glimpse the flight attendants. They grab the magazines who wait, knowingly in the neatly organized seat pockets.

I shrug and return to my music, enjoying the cool air blowing on my face. Souk buses never announce delays.

The passengers sitting near me stare at my hands. The henna is etched in deep, dark triangles on my palms. My fingertips are black. I look up, searching for their eyes to explain.

“This is traditional where I live,” I want to say proudly. I stop myself.

I start fidgeting now. The man in the seat next to me has taken ownership of the arm rest, his elbow inching nearer and nearer to my thigh.

My heart starts to race.

Moments on the train, on the bus, in the grand taxi, come roaring back, flooding my mind. All of a sudden my eyes start to tear up.

I ram my elbow into his, to let him know my discontent. I take deep breaths.

Once more I look down at the patterns on my hands. Morocco is following me on this vacation in more ways than one.

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Thoughts on community

Mnin ntiya f mirikan? Ach mn wilaya?

Where are you from in America? Which state?

It’s an easy question. Immediately following how-are-you and what’s-your-name. It’s basic getting-to-know-you courtesy.

But for me, it’s the hardest question. It’s the answer I’ll only save for certain people, for friends. For people who will listen.

Because how do you tell people who have lived their whole lives in the same house that I don’t feel like I’m from any one particular place? How do I tell people who are expecting a simple, one word answer my whole story instead?

I’m from Massachusetts-Illinois-Connecticut-Texas-DC-South Africa-DC-Texas-Morocco.

All of those parts are parts of me.

Lwalidin kaysknu f Texas,” I usually reply.

It’s not a lie. My parents live in Texas.

But the innocent interrogator never realizes that that’s my indirect way of dodging their question. It’s not a real answer.

How do I say that just in the past six years I’ve barely lived in the same place for more than six months? In three different countries, in fact.

Growing up I was always the new kid. I never had a shot of being in the “Kindergarten to Senior Year” picture in the yearbook. That faded away at the end of first grade, before I even know what yearbooks were.

Growing up I always had to re-teach people how to spell my name. “Abbey-with-an-E” became the way I introduced myself. Maybe because teaching people how to spell my name correctly was easier than telling my whole life story.

It’s hard making friends with people who have known their classmates since they were all babies. People who lost their first teeth together and went to CCD classes together, whose moms were friends even before that.

And now, at the age of nearly-twenty-five, I feel like I’m a part of a community for the first time in my life.

For the first time in my life I can’t walk down the street without seeing someone I know. For the first time in my life I’m invited over people’s houses for lunch more often than I prepare my own at home.

People ask about my family and they’re worried about me when I’m away. Every week I’m scolded by several of my Moroccan mommas for not eating couscous at her house.

I have found people in my community who I love dearly.

People who call me bnti (my daughter) and khti (my sister). And I believe them.

A few days ago my Moroccan family and I were all sleeping together outside under the stars, each of us side-by-side with me squished in-between my brother and my sister, exhausted from running around and from tickle fights and from splashing water at each other and from the Saharan heat.

And it felt so good. So normal. Like home.

Some Volunteers talk about how they can’t wait to get back to their “real lives back home.” They miss their families and their friends and their dogs and their roots and their homes and their favorite foods.

And I miss those things too.

But for this girl, this transient girl who never settles down, the sentiment isn’t quite the same.

Peace Corps is only a 27-month (or possibly more) commitment. There will always be an end date.

In the scheme of things it’s a quick blink of an eye. At some point I will have to leave this place and move on to the next. It’s inevitable.

But right here, right now, I can’t tell you how good it feels to call this place “home”… and mean it.

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(Here are some thoughts I wrote on a similar topic three and a half years ago. Looks like some of my predictions came true!)

My First Peace Corps House

Today is my last day living in my first Peace Corps home. Tomorrow morning I’m handing off my keys to the next volunteer who will take it over and make it his own. In honor of my last day I thought I would give y’all a tour of the place I’ve called home for the past year.

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I’ll admit it upfront: my house is big. I’ve got an enormous entry room, a bathroom, kitchen, and 3 other rooms — all for about $75 USD a month. Other utility costs, including water, electricity and wifi, cost around an additional $25 USD per month.

My apartment is located in the center of town, just minutes away from pretty much anything I could need — hanuts that sell food, the marche where I buy vegetables, a cybercafe to print class materials, etc. I use an exterior door from the street to enter an alley that leads to my building, so people on the street can’t just knock on my door or stop by. Sometimes I’ve loved this about my house, and sometimes I wished that I had more visitors. Many of my students and friends decide to just scream my name, “ABIR! ABIR!”, from the street until I pop my head out the window and ask what’s up.

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My favorite room in my house is my bedroom. This is the first time I have ever lived alone, and this room just feels like “me.” It’s already really hot this time of year so from the photos you may notice my lack of blankets on the bed, a tarp over the window that blocks sunlight/heat, and my fan tucked away near my pillows. All of these things (and more) are necessary for battling the fierce Saharan sun.

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This is my living room. I do most of my work while sitting in this room. I like to make big lists and goals and hang them from my walls as reminders. I also paint large calendars so I can keep my ever-changing work schedule straight. This room also serves as my guest room when other volunteers and friends come to visit!

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The main entry room into my house is a large, awkwardly shaped space. It’s very long and large, resembling a rectangle that isn’t even on both sides and then randomly juts out to create a nook. In this room is my bookshelf, workout area, and an additional seating area.

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Can you guess from looking at the bookshelf where I’m going on vacation this summer?

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There are no windows here, so in the summer this is the coolest place to be. There is, however, a little skylight of sorts in the middle of the ceiling that is not, in fact, a skylight to the sky but rather a skylight into my upstairs neighbors’ apartment. At night I can see the little feet of my landlord’s daughters running across.

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Here’s the kitchen. To prepare food I use a stovetop and oven that are hooked up to a buta gas tank. Using the buta gas to cook every day can be a little stressful (thanks Peace Corps for instilling the fear of CO poisoning and explosions in us) but thankfully I haven’t had any incidents. Not pictured in this photo is my minifridge (no freezer) and plastic shelves with my dishware and spices.

The color(s) of my kitchen is a pretty bad story. You can’t tell here but it’s actually painted four different colors. The original color of the kitchen is the light blue that you can see underneath the countertop. The volunteer before me decided to paint it yellow, but she never finished the job. Last year during Ramadan I decided I wanted to re-paint the kitchen, first trying the dark blue that I used to paint my entry room and bathroom. Then I decided to paint it green. Long story short the guy who owns the only paint store went out of town all summer and any time I’ve checked since (okay, only 2 times) he’s been out of the green. I always told myself that I’d finish the job but I guess now I never will. Oops! I wonder what color the new volunteer will add to it…

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The final room on today’s house tour is my bathroom. The first thing most people back home notice is the toilet. Call it what you’d like — from a “Turkish toilet” to a “squatty potty” to a “hole in the ground” — but I’m tellin’ y’all that I don’t miss Western toilets at all. I’m pretty sure scientifically it’s better for your bowels, which is why some companies have even created a special step stool you can attach to your Western toilet to mimic the squatting strategy.

For bathing I take a shower using the shower head right near the toilet, which serves as the drain. I don’t have hot water so my showers are always cold (thankfully 8 months of the year I wouldn’t dream of taking a hot shower). During the winter when I want to bathe myself with warm water I will boil water over the stove and then pour it into one of the large buckets you can see under the sink. I then use a smaller cup to pour the water over myself while sitting on a stool. We like to call this activity “The Bucket Bath.”

I also do all of my laundry in the bathroom by soaking my clothes in soapy water (shown above) and then rinsing it in another bucket of cold water. The best part about living in the Sahara is that your clothes dry on the clothesline in about 30 minutes.

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Even though I’m sad to leave this first place behind, I couldn’t be more excited about what’s to come. I’ve decided to move into a village at the edge of the town I live in, which is one of my favorites places in my site. It’s home to some of my favorite people in town, including the people I call my family, and I would say is also arguably one of the most beautiful places in town. Some external factors out of my control have kept me from securing my own house in the village yet, but I’m optimistic that it will happen soon! In the meantime I’ll be travelling for work and living with my adopted family in the village, who may or may not have planned these delays all along just so I would live with them… :) Just kidding.