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Saturday, June 29, 2013


Are you going to serve in Morocco with the Peace Corps?  GREAT.  It's the best.

Here's the advice I've given to a future trainee.  I hope you find it useful. I once tried not to give too much advice--its better for you to discover it on your own--but I've come to see that most of this is meaningless to you, even if you read it many times UNTIL YOU'RE ACTUALLY THERE.

Q: Thanks, Ben.  What can I do to get ready for the language? Do you know of any online tools to get ahead in learning their dialect of Arabic?

You're welcome, this is good for me, it's helping me to relive the process. I'm probably going to post this info to my blog, in order to help other people too. But I'm unemployed at the moment since my job at a school has gotten out for the summer, so I have lots of empty hours.

To summarize my advice, given that you have half a year to get ready :
-learn Arabic script
-learn the basics of French (especially numbers, their alphabet, and simple questions). People will hear you speak Arabic to them, but will respond in French, especially in markets. Also, learning French is something you can do throughout the time you are there. Some volunteers set goals of reading all the Harry Potter and Hunger Games books in French while they are there. I read a magazine each week called Tel Quel, and it was both a way to keep up with national news in Morocco and to practice French.
-looking at the onlince PC Arabic textbook (link below) will help, give it a little bit of time everyday, but they'll still make you go through training. I wouldn't worry about trying to figure out the grammar, and instead would focus on vocabulary.  You can start making your flash cards now! The grammar is pretty easy but you need a teacher for that to make sense.

-make vocabulary cards NOW with the verbs in the back of the book and from different sections that highlight grammar.

For language, you can download the book now :
On this site, it says : download the new 2011 darija book and then 'associate audio files'. Darija is the language of Morocco, it's part Berber, part Arabic, part French. It's very different than Modern Arabic. There's not a lot of use for studying 'Arabic' like you get in college textbooks until after you've been in Peace Corps. However, DO LEARN the script. For me, their Arabic is like that of a person that didn't know how to read Arabic trying to speak Arabic. "real" Arabic has lots of 'short' vowel signs that aren't written. Moroccan Arabic sounds like someone trying to speak Arabic that doesn't know what those vowels are, so they just run the consonants together with the occasional 'long' vowel, that IS written. So, the word 'accept' for them is this : qbl. Yes, Q B L, with nothing in between. Learning Moroccan Arabic then hearing someone speak Classical Arabic, you hear the same stuff but with 10x the vowels, and so the words flow more beautifully and sound twice as long. Standard Arabic for 'accept' sounds like : qu-bi-la.  (Even though written it would look the same for both).  And I'm not being critical, this is just a natural thing that occurs linguistically.  And it ends up taking on a life of its own.  
My feeling this happened because of people not having highly developed schooling and literacy for hundreds of years. The same thing kind of with our English and the different accepts that developed because our country was a bunch of frontier land settled far from England. You have the words in front of you but dont know how to pronounce something, so then you decide on your own way and everyone around you follows that.
Before I went, all I studied was the arabic script, and that was a very good thing that helped me a lot (signs and things are written in French and Arabic almost always, sometimes just Arabic, so being able to look at a road sign and know what it says is important). PC when I was there did not teach script, and they went through great pains to create their own romanization of it. You'll see this is in the book. I think it was the wrong way to do it, when people spend nearly as much time on learning the PC roman alphabet way as it takes to learn the real script. For me, the roman way was more confusing, and it made the pronunciation harder to remember, as well as missing out on having any kind of long-term skill (being able to read Arabic) that you can use after you leave Peace Corps.
The best book for learning the alphabet script is Alif-Ba. You can buy it online, and it comes with a DVD. One month with that and I was fine. It's really fun to be able to write your friends and relatives names (or the occasional tourist that you have a crush on) using Arabic.
The PC alphabet is like this :
capital H means one thing, (the sound of aHHHHHH, or aspirated H).
little h means a different thing.
the 3 is the letter they use for the "ayn" sound, which is the sound of a goat.
if the letters S, D or T have a dot above them, then it means you accent the sound of that letter.
It gets confusing when you have all of the letters written together, because then you start reading it like its English, and its not.
Last bit of advice, language wise : if you're placed in a Berber town, where they speak Tashleheet or Tamazight, make the appearance of trying to learn it.
One reason I wouldn't invest too much time right now is the fact that you're not really there until the plane touches down. People break a leg, and then they get deferred to another country later on, or who-knows-what.
I'm having so much fun writing all of this to you, maybe I'll get to work on those memoirs that I've been meaning to write. I promised my Moroccan family not to write about them, so this will be just for me to enjoy and keep. In fact, if you want a good project to work on once you're there, I'd like to write kids books that feature a Western character and a Moroccan character. I've got one that I'm going to do and I'll send it your way. But it'd be fun to make that into a cultural outreach project.
Tala f rask! (its a saying they have that means, Take care of your head) Broken down it means
Tala : take care
f : of
ras : head
k: your.
But you say it all together : tala frask.
*I know with Rosetta Stone, they used to have one month subscriptions to languages for 50 bucks.  I'd plan on doing that with French.  Especially if you hope to visit other parts of Africa, French will be a major help.  It's also worthwhile studying it because 1)  it's like a 2-for-1 deal, being able to learn both while you are there,  and 2) you will make a lot more progress very very quickly with French because of all of the cognates.  So you will feel more confidence early on.  And also because you may end up working with government people in the ministry, and in government there is a bias for French over Arabic.  Also, with its bilingual nature, pamphlets and forms are printed in French and classical Arabic, so its worth it to be able to read the French side and understand what people are talking about that way.
  • Ben,
  • I saw your posted on the FPCV page about being a volunteer in Morocco, and I got to take a look at your blog! I have two questions I was wondering about:
    1. How tough will it be to be a vegetarian there?
    and 2. What were your free time activities like/did you do any side projects?
  • Hey,
  • Depends a bit how strict of a vegetarian you are. Usually eating with another Moroccan, you'll be sharing a giant plate and picking what you want to eat from that plate, often by dipping bread into it and picking up what you want with that bread. So a big dish of lentils, and you are all making a claw out of bread and grabbing stuff like that. If you are fine with meat being cooked with vegetables, and you just pick the vegetables, it'll be no problem at all. I went through my two years like that, since I stayed with a host family the whole time. Vegetarians are not unheard of there, with so many European tourists that have interesting demands. Also, you can use a tradition they already understand as Muslims (not eating pork) and then just tell them that you take the same idea but apply that to all kinds of meat.
    It's harder if you hate the idea of stuff being cooked together, but not impossible. Probably easier there than in most other Peace Corps countries. In my case, my not eating meat became a joke. Humor can help diffuse any tension. During training I was more picky, so the family cooked an extra plate of eggs just for me. Training, we usually ate with other volunteers, so a lady was contracte to cook HUGE salads. I dont think you'll have much worry.
    Once training is over, there's a second mandatory home stay with a family lasting two months. This might be the hardest time as a vegetarian, since you're probably in a small town that has less exposure to tourists and also because you're not eating half of your meals with other trainees. BUT after those two months, most people end up moving out and living completely on their own, cooking their own meals 3x a day and so they are able to be hardcore vegans with little trouble at all. You'll like it: all your produce you'll get at farmer's markets and it's all fresh. Eating in Morocco was a never-ending joy, though a bit repetitive. Some stuff I didn't know was not vegetarian until after I'd been there more than a year: the 'berber pizza', is a kind of bread with a spicy interior, but it's really made using lard smeared on the inside of the bread, enough for the spices to stick. Or how the dates were especially yummy, but I learned to not look at them too closely because you could find insects crawling inside some of them (so, to spare myself I'd just eat them without a whole lot of scrutiny). Also the cous cous is made with lard.
    Foodwise, lots and lots of bread, olive oil, vegetarian tajines, big plates of almonds and dates.
    As far as activities and my life outside of work, a big part was traveling all over the country. I was in Bolivia for 8 months and rarely left my town, but in Morocco I made it a game to try and visit all of the people in my staj ("cohort", you might say). That really was fun and enlightening, too, because I saw how different the experience was for everyone, as well as the enormous variety in how Moroccans are and how they live. I saw everyone that made it through the whole two years (close to 30 ppl), though not the towns of the people that left early. I lived in the South, and so there were lots of chances for outdoor fun, hiking, random bike rides, marathon training. I read five hours a day (two in the morning, three at night) without feeling like it negatively impacted my service. Especially in Ramadan, it was fun to try to be invited to random people's homes for tea.
    Morocco is a very good country for its proximity to other places. I flew to Spain several times, to Italy twice, and after my service I flew to Mali then overlanded it back to Morocco, through Senegal and Mauritania. To be able to fly to Spain (60 dollars round trip) just to see a concert was awesome.
    Peace Corps is a good time to develop new interests and talents. Learning guitar, or an Arabic instrument (I tried to take lessons for the Oud, but the music teacher got shuffled to a different region and I lost that possibility). Writing, too, is especially good to do. I put a lot of effort into my blog, though I was told not to mention my host family at all.
    If you get into a region with people you like, then that really makes the experience. There was always a get-together for someone's birthday, or a chance meeting in a city like Ourzazate just to decompress and eat good international food. Once a month I'd go just to buy nice groceries, including a tube of Pringles and hole myself up in a hotel room for a night.
    The way I got to see so many volunteers' sites was because I'd try to volunteer on helping their projects getting up and going. With Youth Development, there were camps a couple of times a year, and I'd always sign up for the most remote one from my area, since that allowed me a couple of days going and a couple of days coming back where I could make a giant loop of the country and stay with volunteers along the way. Other people would just do the ccamps near them, because only a certain amount of funds were given for travel, but I thought that was a mistake. There's no reason to hoard lots of dirhams, it'd take forever for them to add up to what one paycheck in the States would be, so with that in mind I'd splurge when the opportunity presented itself.
    Well, you can probably tell I really liked my time there. It was mentally hard, but your enjoyment rises and falls just like your confidence level, and lots of the challenges can be postponed til the moment when you feel up for it.
    I wish you luck, and don't hesitate to ask me more questions!
  • Friday

  • Hey man,
    I thought of another thing : there's no dating in Morocco. Doesn't exist outside of Casablanca and Rabat the capital. This led to two pretty lonely years. As beautiful as the girls were, with some exceptions somehow psychologically I couldn't get past the fact that they started seeming to me to be more like sisters and cousins. My advice to a guy would be to bring a Fleshlight, or some such thing.
    Some other things I thought of : in Morocco, there is a giant mountain called Toubkal that is fun to do, and you can snow ski AND surf, plus the touristy things like riding camels. If you run, there's an epic race called the Marathon des Sables, and that can be a good opportunity to race it and raise money for charities . I did it and loved it. Also, some volunteers started a health outreach program where 10-15 volunteers and Moroccan health people ride bicycles for a weekend from town to town into the mountains, and you get to camp out on an island and have a barbecue. This was one of my favorite things.
    Lifestyle things, I enjoyed sleeping under the stars in the summertime when it was too hot to sleep inside the adobe casbahs. The first few nights I was so excited and in awe of the innumerable stars that I had to return inside in order to calm down enough to sleep. Lots of hours watching Barcelona and Madrid matches with full-to-capacity cafes of my Moroccan friends. Plus all the great Islamic holidays where everyone empties out into the streets.
    What's your story? Did you get an invite to Morocco? Or somewehre else?
    This is a great song : 

    As much fun as it is that I'm describing, there's an equal balance of despair and doubt. And I mean EQUAL, 50/50.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Top songs of 2011

Songs with heavy rotation on my iPod and the best songs I saw performed live this year

And the next are songs that I performed on stage (and in front of friends in their rooms or balconies)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Moroccan way of making it official

First print your name.

Then the red stamp.

Then the signature on top of the stamp.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Poem for Nkob

''Limitless Wealth''

// 2 years is nothing; a student says to me.
How wholeheartedly I agree!

Apparently the spirits are conspiring to make me smile,
the moment i most earnestly start to crumble


Crepuscular rays paint the far end of the sky,
competing for splendor and glory with
their children in the East, (the mountains I've tried to climb)
large golden clouds bursting with long-withheld rain.


Slowly they wink out and so the ebullient clouds conquer the sky,
continuing to loom, evermore daunting,
filled now with the blood of a consumptive night.

If you never swim the same river,
we're doomed to never return here
no matter the many times you might come back.
The less the rain, the harder the earth,
the faster the flood carries us away.
That's alright;I'm ready to go.


The gendarmes take caskrout,
the usual tea and the usual smoke.
They make such a handsome picture!
No photography's allowed - but I am given a peek.

Transfigured and dying (for such is what travel most truly means
'to have the heroism to choose one of the many paths',
ignorant but invigorated as to what´s ahead)
Im a magnet that pulls all the haggard, shining spirits
out to the streets for one last--no, one more --
verbal fête, one final Moroccan tête-a-tête//

Saturday, September 24, 2011

This was a nice 'advice' post on a PC Mali blog

My Mudir for the SOS village told me a joke that I wanted to share.

One difference between Arabic/Tashleheet and English is that in English our salutations are questions :

how are you? how's your family? are you alright?

For them, its more like declarative with no really questions or answers.

Eh! Addi! Tarsa! La bas! Bixihir! Kif dayr! thenna! mitanit! hamdullah! hamdullah laybarfik!

Therefore you can pick and choose and just shout out the ones you feel like saying at that moment, and noone waiting to hear a certain response. That's fun because it means you dont have to pause, but just say 8 or 9 of them and they're talking simultaneously with you, saying their eight or nine, and its only awkward if you look at them and listen like you're expecting some kind of response. So ideally, you get two people doing this at the same time, full force, not listening to each other because listening is not the point!

Person one: Eh! Addi! Tarsa! La bas! Bixihir! Kif Tarsa! La bas! Bixihir!dayr! thenna! mitanit! hamdullah! hamdullah laybarfik!

Person two: Eh! Said! Tarsa! thenna! mitanit! hamdullah! hamdullah laybarfik! La bas! Bixihir! Kif dayr! thenna! mitanit! hamdullah! hamdullah laybarfik!

But the joke comes in when a person learns English the dialogue method, without anyone explaining what the words literally mean. So, two kids talking, one says : 'how are you' is like 'bixihir', kif kif. 'Mitanit' is like 'ca va?'

So the joke is, a Moroccan student is trying to speak English, and it's something like this:

A: Hello?

M: Hello how are you

A: Im fine. And you?

M: Im fine. And you!

A: Im fine.

M: And you!

: p

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

This came from Time's site : its a person that live-blogged 3 different events at the same time, and the result reads like a strange postmodern novel about ADD, national values and ennui- possibly by David Foster Wallace?-- sadly, not to be.

In my mind, I can imagine CNN having put the 3 live feeds side by side on a tv screen. Maybe its a taste of things to come?

75 minutes. Now it is time to rehash the old debates about Mitt Romney’s efforts to reform health care in Massachusetts. Nothing new is said. But as Romney defends himself, the Miss Universe pageant really kicks into high gear. Miss France, Miss Kosovo, Miss Columbia and Miss China all move on to the next round. And to add insult to injury, the Patriots score another touchdown. It’s now 21 to 14. Good game.

76 minutes. Perry, once again, attacks Romney’s health care efforts. Miss Angola and Miss Australia move on to the next round.

77 minutes. Perry again defends himself. Miss Netherlands is moving on.

78 minutes. Blitzer asks Paul who should pay to take care of a 30-year-old man who goes into a coma without health insurance. “What he should do is whatever he wants to do, and assume responsibility for himself,” Paul says. That would be tough to do in a coma. Miss Ukraine. Miss Panama. Miss Costa Rica. Miss Philippines — they are moving on.

80 minutes. Bachmann really wants in on this conversation. She pulls a Huntsman and tries a dual attack on Romney and Perry for being wishy-washy on repealing ObamaCare. “If you believe that states can have it and that it’s constitutional, you’re not committed,” she says. “If you’ve implemented this in your state, you’re not committed. I’m committed.”

82 minutes. Cut to commercial. Miss Universe has a montage of all the ladies shopping and dancing in various locals around Brazil. The Dolphins just kicked a field goal, making it 21 to 17. 3:36 left in the third quarter. Really good game.

Read more: http://swampland.time.com/2011/09/13/what-you-missed-while-not-watching-last-nights-tea-party-debate/#ixzz1ATocoIlb

ANYWAY, congratulations (apparently) go to : Mitt Romney, the Patriots and ANGOLA and Senhorinha Lopes