Tuesday, March 10, 2009

International Women's Day

A really lovely gathering took place the other day at a cafe in Batha. There was a nice mix of expats and locals and the most fabulous garden setting.

An all-women musical group called Jililiat played to the delight of all. There was henna and a luncheon for those with the foresight to book ahead. Because the music was so enticing, women from the surrounding houses climbed up to their terraces and joined in. I particularly liked the hair tossing! Long tresses were flung back and forth as they rocked to the rhythms of Jililiat. Ululations echoed around the courtyard and a good time was had by all. Everyone was in the mood to celebrate the feminine spirit.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Searching for Evelyn

It’s taken me some time to find my footing here is Fes. When I first arrived, I played the role of student. I was studying Arabic and I must admit I was a terrible student. That was difficult for me because I love learning and I am usually successful at my studies. And I had just graduated from my ESL course at the top of my class! But this time, I was the worst student in the class. So my knee jerk reaction was to dropout of my course. Within a few weeks of dropping out, I became a teacher. Now I was on firmer ground. I’ve taught before and even though it was my first experience teaching English as a second language, I was much more comfortable.

Next, I became a wife for the first time in my life. Once again, I was in unfamiliar territory. It was strange, exciting and unsettling. Time and time again, when seemingly insurmountable difficulties arose, I tried to ‘dropout’ but was met with strong resistance each time. So I stuck it out and it has not been without great struggles and hard-learned lessons. But the lessons have been important. I found myself behaving in a way I thought I was supposed to behave rather than being who I truly am. Of course the results were unsatisfactory. But more and more I am reconnecting with who I am and the adjustment is making my life more enjoyable.

An overlay to all these experiences is being an expat. I’ve never lived in a foreign country before. Here I am a ‘gowree-ah’ (a stranger/Westerner). Sometimes Moroccan’s find me interesting and exotic; sometimes they think I can provide a golden opportunity for their own advancement, and sometimes they respond to me with derision, envy and resentment. It runs the gamut.

My fellow expats are an interesting lot. At first, I did little to cultivate relationships with other expats. Perhaps it was because of my marriage. I was trying to fit in with Moroccans but after many unsuccessful attempts to adapt to the lifestyle of my husband, I have abandoned my attempts to reinvent myself. I didn’t really cotton to the heavily communal lifestyle. I couldn’t relate to the traditional roles of the women. And I no longer had the stamina to pull all-nighters with my husband at wedding fests or gnouah and milhoon music gatherings. So after months and months of trying to deny my ‘other-ness’, I have decided to embrace it instead. The result has been reconnecting with my strengths and experience as well as the flowering and deepening of friendships with my fellow ex-pats … all of whom have interesting and wacky aspects to them that I really admire and enjoy.

Another change in how I am perceived has to do with my economic situation. I have always held a firm place in the middle-class. And living in Marin County, California -- one of the wealthier and more privileged places in America where prices climbed into the stratosphere during my 30 years there --I found myself slipping into the lower middle-class. But here in Fes I am perceived as being rather wealthy. Little do they know! But perception and reality are often at odds and in the Medina particularly, a lot of the locals think I hold a strong economic position. Aywah! The result is I have to constantly be wary of prices I am quoted … for everything from a kilo of strawberries to the price of cement and labor. Additionally, I have to be judicious with my offers of help because fulfilling all the requests I get would leave me penniless and with no time to make a living of my own. And finally, I try to stay aware of the unique perspective I have; economically-speaking, I am a ‘have-not’ in the U.S. – I have no real estate holdings, no car, a miniscule ‘portfolio’ and no income. While here in Morocco I have more than most. I have experienced both perspectives and I am working on recognizing my own envies with the goal of eliminating them altogether. How much more satisfying and energizing it has been to feel joy for another’s good fortunes and blessings rather than being plagued by envy.

I am back to dancing. Something I love and something I had abandoned when I arrived here because it is thought to have a limited place in a woman’s life. Here, a woman dances at wedding fests and at women-only gatherings. A ‘respectable’ woman doesn’t dance in public. But I am not a respectable Moroccan woman. I am a respectable American who loves to dance and takes great joy in this form of expression. So I am now the weekly teacher of belly dance at Café Clock. I also give private lessons. Yesterday, I held a special workshop for 9 young women from the American University in Paris. It’s extra income for me and it feeds my spirit.

Additionally, I host overnight guests in my house. The ground floor is quite comfortable now and I no longer feel like I am camping out all the time. When some tourists are referred to me by mutual acquaintances and the conditions are right (i.e., no workmen in the house and there are plenty of clean linens available) I open my house to these travelers. I’ve had people from Spain, Italy, New Zealand, England and Germany stay with me. I like sharing my space with people who appreciate my style. And I like it when they leave, too.

So now I am a teacher, a wife, a dancer, a quasi-business owner, and a strange character in society. I guess you could say I have fully embraced my “gowhree-ah-ness”. And with the exception of being a wife, I have been played all of these roles before. The main difference is my audience has changed. Now I am playing a lead role in an off, off-Broadway production. And like any good actress, I draw upon my previous experiences to bring authenticity to my character. And that’s something I have always known but seemed to have forgotten these past two years. Be authentic. Be true to yourself. Even in the midst of significant change, never forget who you really are.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


After two years of unemployment, my husband has finally landed a job! And it’s not something I envisioned at all but it seems perfect! My habibi will be working full-time as a rep for a furniture company in Casablanca. And the job begins this week.

Destiny played her hand after both of us had reached the end of our ropes. I had delivered yet another ultimatum to my spouse. In response, he fell ill and went home to be nursed back to health. During that miraculous week, he healed. He got physically better and spiritually stronger. He quit smoking altogether. Hash and cigarettes are a thing of the past. He began praying five times a day. And knowing I wouldn’t turn down the request of his good friend, Adil, they both approached me one day and asked for a 400 dirham advance to go to Casablanca to work on what I understood to be a construction job. As it turned out, that job was actually building a faux waterfall in a furniture showroom. The owners saw something in Hassan that sparked their interest and before the week was over, he was offered a job to represent their line of furnishings. He will be provided with an allowance for his housing and his car and will be paid on a commission basis. Hassan is a superb salesman and this is a great opportunity for him!

Hassan returned from Casablanca bearing small gifts and enough money to pay for his car insurance (the car had been sitting in the parking lot for three weeks). My loan was repaid and the women in Hassan’s family switched into high gear to clean and press suitable clothes for his work. Suits, slacks, shirts and shoes were piled high in the salon yesterday and we all carefully stacked his work clothes into suitcases for the return trip to Casablanca. None of his clothing remains in our house on Derb Ben Salem for his home will be Casablanca for the foreseeable future. His energy is remarkable and I feel like I am seeing the real Hassan for the first time. It was a joy to have him around this weekend.

Sunday night, as I waved goodbye as he drove away, I felt really hopeful about the whole situation. I really don’t mind living on my own for the majority of my time. I am rather used to it.

During the past three weeks things have picked up for me, too. I have two marketing projects and am now teaching dance at Café Clock every Monday evening. I still enjoy my English teaching job and have just begun another major project on the house. That project is being funded by the money I’ve collected from overnight guests. In the end, I hope to have one more salon ready on the upper floor with an en-suite bathroom. Just in time for the Sacred Music Festival and tourists coming to visit on spring break. So there is plenty to keep me occupied in my solitude. Next week I have four days off from work (there is a small holiday in honor of the prophet’s birthday). Inshallah, I will travel to Casablanca to meet Hassan’s new employers and we will stay at his sister’s apartment. Hassan’s mind is full of plans for the future and his determination is inspiring. While in Casablanca, we intend to visit the American Consulate to see about securing a visa for him so he can visit the U.S. with me this summer.

Blessed be!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

10 Things

Ten things I never used to do before living in Morocco

1. Drink my coffee with milk and sugar.
2. Sleep in my clothes and wear them again the next day.
3. Wear slippers on the street.
4. Take taxis everywhere.
5. Ride trains.
6. Sleep until noon.
7. Live within my means.
8. Speak Arabic, French and English in one sentence and be understood.
9. Bathe from a bucket.
10. Pay cash for everything.

Ten things I don’t do anymore living in Morocco

1. Cook (at all).
2. Wear revealing clothes.
3. Drink alcohol.
4. Go to the movies.
5. Launder my own clothes.
6. Move every 6 months.
7. Eat junk food.
8. See a therapist (of any kind).
9. Use a credit card.
10. Wear wigs (a real pity).