Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I Have a Dagger

The silver dagger at the top and steel dagger in the middle are by
Mohammed. The leather-wrapped dagger is by Houcine.
They range from 16" to 18" long.

Mohammed at work in Shop #34 of the
dagger makers' cooperative in Kalaa,
a space he shares with Houcine.
Tok, tok, tok is the characteristic sound of my village. Heard from morning till night, it comes from the workshops of the dagger-makers all over town. Tok, tok, tok…tok, tok, tok
The village I live in is the center of dagger-making in Morocco. It just so happens that my host father is the patriarch of dagger-makers in the town. And all of his sons – my host brothers – are dagger-makers, too. So it was clear to me, from my first day here, that before I left I would buy a dagger from my family as a memento. As it turns out, I haven’t been able to stop at one. I now have three.

Two were made by my eldest brother, Mohammed, who is regarded as the top craftsman in the region. The other is by another of my brothers, Houcine, who’s right up there with him. My camera and photographic ability don’t do it justice, but the craftsmanship is amazing. I love to watch the dagger-makers as they sit at their anvils making perfect circles, arabesques, and symmetrical patterns freehand with metal punches and tiny hammers on little sheets of metal which they will later solder onto the handle or sheath.
Houcine taps a design into a piece of steel
that will become a part of a dagger's
Of the two by Mohammed, one is made of the usual material, steel, and is entirely new. The other is rarer. It has an antique blade, about 200 years old, to which he added a new sheath and handle made of silver and brass, decorated with fine, traditional designs. The dagger by Houcine is wrapped in alternating bands of leather and metal, a technique unique to him. This was his first piece made this way, though he has since made several more daggers and some letter openers and pens using the technique.
Some of my notes on dagger terminology.

The reverse side of the silver dagger.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


In my last post I promised to tell you about my work, and I will, but first a comment about the meaning of “work.”

At the top of the column on the left are Peace Corps’ three goals. None is more important than the other. So when I’m doing something that furthers global understanding (Goals 2 or 3), I’m working. When I’m having tea at someone’s house, I’m working. When I go to the hanut to buy bread, I’m working. When I joke around with some of the neighborhood kids, I’m working. When I go for a run, I’m working. What a job!
What I said about Goals 2 and 3 notwithstanding, like most Americans I tend to think of work as something I can see or can count. So, to answer the whispered question - “But what does he actually do?” - here’s my Goal 1 work:
Primary Project
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, we’re assigned a specific kind of work, which is called our Primary Project. I have an official connection to the local clinic and the nurse there is my “counterpart” – not a supervisor exactly, but a host country national to whom I’m somewhat accountable. We ‘re encouraged to seek out any appropriate ways to pursue our assignment. This is what I’m doing right now to pursue my primary project as a Rural Health Educator:

The equip-mobile in front of the sbitar.

·         Sbitar: I go to the sbitar (clinic) every Wednesday morning. That is well-baby day, so there’s lots of traffic. Probably about 50 women came through yesterday with their infants and toddlers to get shots, etc. Since I cannot give shots, I sit in the waiting room and talk to the women and children. I bring crayons and coloring pages with health themes to entertain the kids and do some stealth education. I hope to use the familiarity and trust I gain to engage in more formalized health education at the sbitar in the future.
·         Equipe-mobile: Last Monday, I went with the equipe-mobile, a mobile clinic, that goes to outlying douars (villages). We made three stops - at a mosque and two elementary schools. The nurse gave shots and other medication. We also recorded the weight and height of the first graders and gave them a very basic vision test. The equipe-mobile goes out every three months.

The middle school where I will work with the Health Club

·         Elementary schools: Beginning next week, I will be teaching in the three local madrassas (elementary schools) three days a week, six classes each day, 515 students. My lessons will be short – 15 to 20 minutes.
·         Lesson plans: The first week, I will tell them about myself and the Peace Corps. The second week, we (the teacher and I) will administer a survey on handwashing and toothbrushing habits. The third week, I will begin a unit on handwashing. Handwashing and Toothbrushing will make up the units for the fall semester.
·         Health Club: A health club is mandated for all middle schools and high schools in Morocco. Every other Tuesday, I will work with the health club at the local middle school. The science teacher is the advisor and the English teacher is also involved. My first units with the middle schools will be on handwashing and toothbrushing, too.
My office. That's a Morocco map on the wall. I've started
marking my travels on it.
·         Handwashing and Toothbrushing: Changes in handwashing and toothbrushing behaviors would provide the most significant improvement of overall health of anything else that could be done in this country. There is no culture of toothbrushing, which is apparent immediately, especially in small towns. People do wash their hands, but not always at the right time, and seldom with soap. There is no clear understanding of germs and the vectors of disease transmission. In this culture where people eat with their hands and do a lot of handshaking, that’s especially significant.
·         Teach. Did I Say Teach? Anyone who’s ever spoken in front of a group for 15-20 minutes knows how long that can be. And to do it in a foreign language? No matter that they’re between six and 12 years old. The big problem is that I can prepare what I want to say, but I can’t really prepare for what they’re going to say. And then when I go to the middle school and face those teenagers…that’s stress of a whole ‘nother order.
In addition to our Primary Projects, we PCVs are encouraged to do secondary projects as well. We’re supposed to discover these out of our experience in and knowledge of the community.
Secondary Projects
A topographical map of the Kalaa area.
I use it to learn more about where I live. It's
also helpful with the Road Association.
The green areas are where you'd see greenery
in the countryside. All the rest is red rock
and stony soil.
·         I’ve met with six different associations and may eventually do work with all of them. At the moment, work is continuing with two – a Road Association and a new Women’s Association.
·         Road Association: this is a group made up of 32 local communities that want to improve the road on our side of the river and the connecting link to Kalaa. My role is to help them find an ear in the royal government and to prepare their proposal. We’ve met 4 times.
·         Women’s Association: This project occupies a lot of my time and energy and it's very rewarding. It is a start-up that grew out of a comment a woman made to us PCVs way back in my pre-service training. Once I was assigned here permanently in June, I went back to her and asked her if she was serious. She said, yes, and we’ve gone on from there. Though still not formally organized, it has taken a number of significant steps already, including electing an interim board, conducting a survey of skills and interests to which 118 women have so far responded, holding several general meetings attended by from 60 to 125 women, and organizing literacy classes. The survey revealed great interest in literacy and in work other than the field and housework that forms the bulk of their days. My job is to teach them how to run and be members of an organization (they’ve never done this kind of thing before), to help them get legally organized, and to help them find resources for their training and other needs.
·         The Battle Against Illiteracy: Of the women in the Women’s Association, a majority have never attended even a year of school. 75% of them are illiterate, even though many speak three languages – Tamazight, Arabic, and French. We’ve had 85 women sign up for literacy classes and just this week got funding for them, so they’ll begin in about two weeks!
·         Handicraft Skills: The Women’s Association will also be providing classes in various handicrafts and try to develop a way to sell them, too, perhaps by forming a co-op. I’ve been making connections with PCVs who work with artisans coops to see about arranging workshops and meetings where our women can learn organizing and marketing information.

I bought a white board to use with my own classes and to
practice writing Arabic script on. It's a phonetic script and
what you see there was my attempt to write the names
 of the officers of the Women's Association. I didn't get a
single one of them exactly right. Very humbling.

·         Before Ramadan I taught English to a small group of women. We met three times a week for an hour. I also tutored a few middle school school students during the month of July. Both groups were suspended during Ramadan.
·         Now, especially with the progress the women’s association has made, two different groups are asking me to teach English – a group of men and a group of women. The men have a business motivation for wanting to learn, since, as dagger-makers, a lot of their customers are tourists. The women just seem to want to know English. These classes will begin in a few weeks, after I’ve gotten started with my elementary and middle school teaching.
So that’s my work for now. It’s more than I feel comfortable with, but Peace Corps tells us to line up lots of work because not everything planned actually pans out. If it’s too much, I’ll make a change. I’ll update you on it as the year progresses. And maybe cry for help.

Monday, October 10, 2011

An Eventful Day

Last Wednesday, October 5, 2011
6:00 am  The alarm on my iPod goes off. I hit the snooze button twice before I get up. I really like my Moroccan bed.
6:18        I get up, heat some water for coffee. Wash my face and brush my teeth (I took a shower – bucket shower – and shaved last night after my run). Have breakfast of bread with jam, corn flakes and milk, and coffee. Read at the kitchen table while eating.
7:00        Go online, check and answer email. Scan the NY Times.

In the space of about 10 minutes, the river went from a
slow-moving stream about 10 meters wide to...

7:45        Get my pack ready. Ride my bike to my landlord’s house.
8:00        My landlord insists I have breakfast with him, so I have a second breakfast of soup, dates, and coffee. We talk about a problem I’m having with my electricity. I share electricity with a neighbor. We agreed on a price before I moved in, but now he wants more. My landlord and I agree on what our approach should be, but it’s not clear yet whether my neighbor will agree.
8:30        I ride my bike to the sbitar (clinic). Wednesday is my normal day to go to the sbitar. It’s well-baby day, so lots of women come with their children for shots and check-ups.
8:45        I arrive at the sbitar. There are several women there already. I sit in the shadow of the wall with the rest of them and I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time while we wait for the adbib (nurse).
10:00     The nurse arrives on his motorbike with several plastic shopping bags of supplies. I sit in the waiting room and talk with the moms. There are a couple of older children also today. I offer them crayons and coloring pages, but they’re too shy to try them.
11:45     Hamad, the nurse, has cleared the waiting room. We have a few minutes to talk. We make arrangements for him to pick me up here at the sbitar at 8:30 tomorrow morning with the Equip-Mobile (a mobile clinic). We’ll be going to some outlying villages to give shots and do other check-ups. I’m pretty excited about this.
12:00     I leave the sbitar and ride my bike to Kalaa.

...a torrent 70 meters wide and rose about 5 feet.

12:30     There’s no mail for me at the P.O.
12:35     I stop at the paint store where I’ve bought my paint. It happens that the co-owner is the treasurer of an association that has agreed to fund a literacy class for the new women’s association that I’m working with. We’ve had so many women sign up, I ask him if they’re willing to fund a second class. He tells me he’ll ask the association, but if they won’t, maybe another will, and he introduces me to one of his employees, who is a member of a different association that does similar work. We talk for a while and exchange contact info. I leave feeling we’ll get our second class funded one way or the other.
12:50     I ride my bike to the Gendarmes station to get my carte de sejour renewed and to notify them of my travel plans (this is common procedure for foreigners in Morocco). I’m daydreaming as I ride and go past the station. When I realize it, I do a little u-turn through the weeds at the side of the road.
1:05        I get my carte de sejour renewed for another month and chat for a bit with the officer about the destination (Nkoub) for my weekend trip.
1:15        I go out to my bike and see that I have a flat back tire. I pump it up and start heading back to town. I soon notice that my front tire is going flat, too. I stop and see that now both are flat. I walk my bike back to the dagger-maker’s co-op, where two of my host brothers have their shop, and ask them if I can leave my bike there while I go to souq (market)
1:30        I walk to souq.
1:45        As I’m wandering through the stalls someone calls my name. It’s Rachida, a friend and the vice-president of our new women’s association. She asks what I’m looking for. “A mousetrap,” I say. I’ve spotted a mouse in my kitchen – a rather brazen one. I need a trap or a cat. I’m planning to try the trap first. She say’s, “Oh, no, poison,” and takes me to a stall where I buy some rat poison. She admonishes me to wash my hands after I’ve handled it. Later, I buy some cord so that I can hang the white board I bought a couple of days ago. Then we wander for a while on her business, including stopping at her father’s stall (he’s a blacksmith), where I have tea and watch him repair a 3-legged tea tray. We take off and drop off the tea tray with the owner then go to another stall where her mother sells the handcrafted goods the women of the family make. I say goodbye. On my way out of souq I buy a mousetrap.

I waded to my knees in the rising water.

2:45        Back at the dagger-makers co-op I take the tires off my bike and discover they’re riddled with thorns. One inner tube has six holes in it, the other many more than that. My host brother says, “You need new tubes!”
3:15        He and I walk into Kalaa where I buy 2 new inner tubes (23 dh, about 3 dollars, each).
4:00        I put the tires with new tubes back on my bike, stop and talk with my landlord (who also has a shop at the co-op) some more about the power problem.
4:45        I ride into Kalaa and buy some things from the supermarket, then start back to my village.

5:30        As I near the river I see a bunch of people on the ridge on the other side and wonder what’s going on. As I get to the bank, I see that the river is higher than usual, and about 10 meters of water separates the bank (and me) from the footbridge. One of my host brothers is on the bridge and spots me. He yells, “hurry,” splashes back through the water, grabs my bike. and heads back across the bridge. I wade into the water with my shoes on, carrying my plastic bags of souq and supermarket purchases. It has taken me a few seconds to comprehend the urgency in his voice, but even as we’re crossing the bridge, I can see the water rising. When we get to the other side, a sheet of brown water is gurgling over the usually dry stones. I climb the ridge and watch with the other people. In the space of about 10 minutes, the river has gone from a barely moving stream about 10 meters wide, to a torrent 70 meters wide and has risen about five feet. The bridge has been inundated. I wonder where it will end up this time, or if we’ll even see it afterwards. (As it turns out, when the water settles the next day, the bridge is still in place and repairs are easily made.)

The Moroccan version of the old standby - just like the American, except
all metal.

6:15        I go home and wash and change into clean, dry clothes. I put my purchases away. And I set my mousetrap, baited with bread soaked in oil. I’m being clever. The brazen beast has been nibbling at the top of my bottle of cooking oil. He must need fat in his diet.
7:30.      I go to dinner at a friend’s house.
9:30        I come home, and see that I’ve killed a mouse. I dispose of its body outside and rebait the trap. In the morning I will discover another tiny carcass. I hope that’s the last. I really do not want a cat.
10:00     I go to bed. I read for about half an hour by the light of my headlamp, then go to sleep in my comfy bed.
The flat tires and flash flood are unusual circumstances, but the rest of day’s events gives a pretty fair representation of the pace and content of my days. I haven’t talked about work much so far in this blog. In fact some people have said to me, “But what do you do?” I’ll talk about that in my next post.