Dads & Daughters

When I told my dad that I was dropping everything to move to North Africa and teach for no salary, his response was, “Okay, good. I’m not surprised.”

He knew me. He knew that I’d always had big dreams that involved travel and adventure and risky paths. He knew that I was determined to turn those dreams into reality. And he knew that I could do it—because after all, he was the one who taught me to be ambitious and bold. My father, an immigrant who never finished high school, always fought for my future. Most importantly, he taught me to always fight for myself.

The Let Girls Learn initiative knows that good fathers can make all the difference for girls. Mine did for me. And as an educator and advocate in my Moroccan community, I see many amazing fathers paving the way for their amazing daughters.

Extraordinary girls like my student Hayat. Extraordinary fathers like her baba, Mohammed.

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Hayat, who is starting 9th grade this year, is about to fly off on her first solo adventure. Her first time on an airplane. Her first time out of Morocco. And it’s to the White House, at the personal invitation of First Lady Michelle Obama! Hayat and 45 other incredible Moroccan and Liberian girls will attend the world premiere of We Will Rise, in conjunction with International Day of the Girl.

In October, Mrs. Obama and the Let Girls Learn program are starting a global conversation about dads, daughters, and gender inequality. This week, I joined that conversation with Hayat and Mohammed. They want to share their story with the world.

Hayat:

To all the fathers in the world, I would say: take care of your daughters, but don’t take care of them too much. Give them freedom and independence.

My father never told me that boys and girls are equal, he and my mother showed me by giving my brother and I the same chances and the same encouragement. Both boys and girls should go to school. Both boys and girls should be able to make something of themselves. Both boys and girls should be able to make something for their countries.

Sometimes I feel scared, like I feel about going to the White House in America, but my father always encourages me. He told me that when special opportunities come up in our lives, we must do it. He said I should not be scared and I should focus on the positives. I should turn scary things into nice things.

My father influenced me a lot. He taught me many important lessons, like not to be too fast in making decisions or to go on the right path or to be honest. My father signs me up for school and takes me to the youth center and helps me with my homework, but he is always reminding me that in the end, my success is up to me.

“When you’re the father of two daughters, you become even more aware of how gender stereotypes pervade our society. You see the subtle and not-so-subtle social cues transmitted through culture. You feel the enormous pressure girls are under to look and behave and even think a certain way.” —President Barack Obama

Mohammed:

When Hayat was born, I immediately had a special connection with her. She was smiling at me when she was only fifteen days old, and she’s never stopped smiling since.

The most important lesson that she’s taught me is that when she wants to do something, she can. The first time she tried swimming, I was scared and doubtful. I thought she would fall in the water and drown. My instinct was to help her, but she wanted to do it by herself. Despite my fears, I let her and she did it! I learned how brave and resolute she is. And I learned never to doubt her abilities. When she wants to do something, she can.

For me, gender equality is a basic principle. It is essential. All my kids’ education was based on that. For someone to have an open road, they must have basic equality.

I don’t have a moment of being most proud of my daughter, because I am always so proud of her. She is so smart and courageous and compassionate. She doesn’t even need me, but I’m happy we have her.

Parents focus so much on teaching and telling and controlling. But to fathers of daughters, I have advice. Be patient. Learn from them. Listen to them. Work with them. And they will rise.

“People ask me what is special about my mentorship that has made Malala so bold and courageous, vocal and poised. I tell them, ‘Don’t ask me what I did. Ask me what I did not do. I did not clip her wings, and that’s all.” —Ziauddin Yousafzai

When I first arrived in my community and started teaching at the youth center, I met a little girl who insisted on attending my adult advanced classes. Not only did Hayat keep up, but she dominated the classroom. And her presence was like pure sunshine. When I asked around about this brilliant young lady, I was told that she attended the most prestigious private school in town. Immediately, I assumed that her opportunities were the result of a wealthy family. Throughout the year, I learned that was not true. Hayat is from the same disadvantaged neighborhood as my other students. The difference was investment and independence. My other students have wonderful and loving parents too, but they also have society and culture pulling them back. Many girls in my community drop out of middle school or high school. A few miles away in the countryside, the number is even higher. My other girls tell me that their fathers won’t allow them to go to university unless they’re able to live at home while they do it. Meanwhile, Hayat has always had her dreams of university in Rabat or Casablanca or Marrakech or Ifrane nourished by her parents. “Even if you get the chance to go to university abroad,” Mohammed said to her, “You must take it. Don’t let anything hold you back from opportunities you deserve.”

Every child deserves a quality education. Yet 62 million girls around the world are denied this right. Community-led programs to address this must begin with community-led conversations. In at least one town in Morocco, this conversation has begun. Join Hayat and Mohammed and all the #DadsAndDaughters of the world to say: #LetGirlsLearn!

Yours Truly,

Julie

Girls Leading Our World Part II: Gender Advocacy Training

In late May, the Gender and Development Committee (GAD) organized a Gender Advocacy Training, a two day conference that addressed gender issues in the Moroccan context.

We both attended, along with two GLOW girls, Sarah and Dounia. Like the Project Design & Management Training, this one was held in Fes. It was Sarah and Dounia’s first time travelling without their families, and they were very excited. (We were pretty damn excited too!)

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The train to Fes!

The Gender Advocacy Training was the perfect continuation of the GLOW Club conversations we were already having. It was eye-opening for all four of us.

We love trainings! We get put up in a nice hotel for a few days, which means a REAL SHOWER and a WESTERN TOILET and often BREAKFAST BUFFETS. And it’s always a nice inspiration/kick-in-the-ass for our work projects. But the absolute best part is getting to take our Moroccan counterparts and watching their world open up.

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One of the most meaningful threads of the training was the ongoing discussion about safe space building. It resonated so strongly with our girls because it spoke directly to their experiences and gave them the vocabulary to express it. In fact, it is the exact reason they originally initiated the GLOW Library Project.

One of my girls told me, “If it wasn’t for your English classes and the girls club, I would never go to the youth center.” I was shocked by this. I always thought of the youth center as a community gathering place—but for many girls, it’s not a comfortable place to hang out. They face street harassment walking to the youth center from their homes. They face microaggressions from men, even classmates, at the center itself. They’re constantly fed the message that girls and women do not belong in public spaces.

That’s why, when we build projects, we must build them through a gender lens. If we truly want our community impact to be equitable and sustainable, we must especially consider the needs of every member of the community.

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Kika, the GAD Chair, leads the room in discussion.

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Notes from an open discussion about safe space building during the conference, though it all can apply to any other context. 

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A goal for all four of us was to put our project, our youth center, and our city in the larger context of Morocco and the world. We wanted to build perspective from the macro and the micro. Gender inequality is an issue worldwide. Acknowledging that is important. It is systemic and deeply rooted and affects almost every aspect of human life. However, regarding practical solutions, it’s incredibly important to consider cultural and geographical specificities.

Gender inequality is everywhere, but it looks different in different places. I’ll give a few specific examples to illustrate this. In Morocco, there is no cultural expectation for women to change their last names when they get married. Whereas in America, I faced tons of offensive comments when I kept my last name after marriage. In Morocco, unlike the U.S., STEM is not as gendered. Educated Moroccan girls are just as likely to enter science, technology, engineering, and math fields as educated Moroccan boys. However, gender in Morocco is defined extremely strongly by physical space. One of the main tools of patriarchy here is keeping women out of the public domain. It’s very clear on the street, in cafes, in markets, in the workplace, and even in community centers.

It was illuminating to hear about the experiences of people from all over Morocco. One of the most interesting conference sessions we’ve ever attended was a lawyer’s presentation on the Moudawana Laws, the family code that governs many civil issues in Morocco. We learned a lot about Morocco’s legal and human rights history. And, surprisingly, so did the Moroccans. After the session, one of the girls slyly whispered to us, “Wow, I never knew that I could ask for a pre-nup to bar my future husband from taking another wife! Hmmm…” The lawyers told us that one huge issue is that Moroccan women are often unaware of the rights they have regarding marriage, divorce, custody, etc. All of us immediately thought of several women in our own lives who struggled with these problems.

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The Moroccan counterparts with the lawyer from the firm Mobilizing for Rights Associates (MRA). “Mra” means “woman” in Moroccan Arabic.

Besides the work and learning we were doing, we also got the chance to hang out and explore Fes together. When we asked the girls what the best part of the training was, they said, “It was all amazing! But to be honest, the best part was the freedom to explore the big city.”

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At Cafe Clock in Fes.

Late at night, we even started some rousing games of Settlers of Catan! (Dounia and Julie won.)

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Thank you to the GAD Committee for their hard work in putting this workshop together and giving us this awesome opportunity! We learned a lot, we shared a lot, and we were absolutely inspired to keep going with our GLOW Library.

A few men from the youth center had already expressed their discomfort with the library project. They tried to hide their sexist entitlement under fake concerns that “books can teach bad things,” but they were clearly riled that the library project is centering girl leaders and actively creating a public safe space for girls. The Gender Advocacy Training in Fes quelled any distress the GLOW girls had over the men’s disapproval. Understanding the need for safe space on a systemic level was vital. We reiterated that such a project is even more necessary when there are sexist objections. And we reminded the girls over and over again that unlike those idle men, they are taking the initiative to create real positive change in their community. This is what real leaders do. Rather than oppress others to hoard power, real leaders build everyone up. Real leaders know that the entire community benefits when every member of the community is given equal opportunity to contribute. Real leaders know—who run the world? GIRLS.

#LetGirlsLearn

#GirlsLeadingOurWorld

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Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

 

 

Girls Leading Our World Part I: Origin Story

Empowerment, imagination, and accessibility. These things are important to girls and young women all around the world—including in our under-resourced Moroccan community. To make a real grassroots difference where it matters most, the students in my Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) Club are building a community library.

Morocco has an extremely low reading rate. On average, Moroccans read a quarter of a page a year (not counting textbooks or the Quran), compared to the American average of 11 books a year. The root of the problem is access. Our community is full of bright and curious minds, but we do not have any accessible libraries or affordable options. —GLOW

How GLOW Grew

I knew, from the very beginning, that I wanted to do sustainable gender advocacy work in Morocco. However, the core tenant of this work is that it must be community-led. So when we first moved to our city in April 2015, I decided to focus mainly on English, journalism, and creative writing programs. I planted the seed of a Girls Leadership Club early on, but no one seemed interested. I didn’t push. It wasn’t until September 2015 that some young women started to show interest. I scheduled a “girls only” meeting, made flyers, and posted on Facebook. No one showed up. I scheduled another one a couple weeks later. No one showed up. Finally, at the end of October 2015, I scheduled another meeting and one girl—Sarah—showed. We talked about women’s health issues, work opportunities, and the culture of marriage in Morocco. It was amazing. From there, very very very slowly, GLOW began to grow. By 2016, we were planning volunteerism projects in the community.

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How the GLOW Library Took Root

Most of the youth leaders in my GLOW Club are also in my Advanced English class. At the beginning of this year, I assigned my English students to work on a passion project in which they would have to do research on an issue and give a presentation on it.

At our next GLOW Club meeting, we were supposed to be discussing which community volunteerism project we wanted to do next. On the list, generated by the girls during the previous meeting, were: clothing drive, volunteering childcare services at the hospital, and visiting the orphanage.

In the midst of this discussion, two of my GLOW girls, Dounia and Fatima Ezzahra, brought up the English class passion project. “We’ve been researching education issues in Morocco to figure out what we want to do for our speech,” they said. “And we were so shocked at finding some of these statistics about reading in Morocco and about girls’ literacy rates.”

“Does that mean you want to do a volunteerism project based on your research?” I asked.

“Yes, definitely,” they said. “We think this is the most urgent thing our community needs. We think this could make a real difference here. Why don’t we have a library here? Can we do something about that?”

 

The Library’s Context

Our city is extremely divided, socio-economically. The longer we live here, the clearer this becomes. In the northern part of the city, there’s a golf club and two private schools. People who live there own cars and wear Ray-Bans. If you take a half-hour walk south, you’ll get to where we live. An area where kids run barefoot on the street next to donkeys munching on trash.

Our youth center is located in the city’s poorest neighborhood. Many of the students in my Advanced English class are qualified, intelligent, skilled professionals in their twenties and thirties—and unemployed. Job prospects are nonexistent. In the rare case that someone does have a job, buying a novel would cost them AT LEAST an entire day’s wages, if not more.

In city’s North, there’s a large white building. “That’s the library,” someone told us when we first moved here. We exclaimed in excitement. But when we trekked north to visit the lovely “library” a week later, we walked in to find a grand hall that was completely empty except for three pictures of the Moroccan King.

There are no affordable ways to access books here. It seems like an impossible challenge because it’s a problem at every level—structurally, culturally, economically. The issues are rooted in history, language, and the education system. So how can a small group of girls and young women even make an impact?

Join Us and See:

Coming up, we will share the GLOW Club’s journey throughout the year! From our library action plans within our city to travelling for trainings to meeting First Lady Michelle Obama.

If you would like to support girl leaders, literacy, and grassroots development, follow along as we create sustainable change in our community!

To donate or learn more, visit the GLOW fundraising page here. 

 

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

Kawtar Turns Ten

This is how it happens here. One afternoon, we get a phone call from our host sister Amal. “Kawtar’s birthday is tomorrow. We’re having a party. Come over at four!”

No advance notice. No way of knowing what we’re about to walk into. A small, family-only gathering for tea and a few pastries? Or a full-blown PARTYYYYY? Turns out it was the latter.

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Amal with her three kids.

There was even a face sheet cake involved! (And it was a photo that I took last year, when we first moved to site!)

The house was so packed with people that it felt like a furnace in there! Especially when the dancing started.

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This is something that happens way too often to me nowadays… Moroccan women forcing me to dance while I whine in protest. Usually it involves tying a scarf around my hips and then physically moving them for me. (My hips do, in fact, lie.)

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Kawtar is such a special person, so we were very happy that we got to celebrate her! Even at ten, her sense of compassion and her sense of humor are extraordinary. She feeds sick street cats even though she’s scared of them. She gets along with anyone. She takes being a kid very seriously. Even though her family doesn’t have much, she makes the most of everything. It’s ALWAYS fun hanging out with her. She’s hilarious. She’s always making the silliest faces and jokes.

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We love all of Amal’s kids to no end. Fatine, Youssef, and Kawtar have been big parts of this past year of our lives. And we’re very grateful they welcomed us into their family.

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Bonus pictures of Robert wrangling some kiddos:

(These pictures are symbolic of why we love kids and also don’t ever want any of our own, hahahahaha!)

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

First Time in Fes

Rabat is Morocco’s official capital city—its governmental and administrative capital. Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city, is its economic capital. But Fes, you’ll hear people say, is the cultural capital of Morocco. The ancient center of art and architecture and science and scholarship in North Africa.

It also has a reputation, both among tourists and Moroccans, of being very harassment-heavy. Maybe that’s why I lived in Morocco for a year and a half before setting foot in the historical medina.

If it weren’t for Project Design and Management (PDM) Training, it might’ve been even longer!

To develop our Story Project more, Bochra and I hopped on the train to Fes—and it turned out to be a wonderful few days that turned both of our expectations upside down.

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The training itself was inspiring and momentum-building. We moved our project action plan forward, and got to learn about other peoples’ ideas for improving their own communities. We spent our days in a conference room full of radiant ideas and positive energy (and coffee).

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Samira and Mina, the Regional Managers who coordinated and facilitated PDM, did a wonderful job. Their expertise and enthusiasm were what brought the whole workshop together. I also captured an inordinate number of photos of Samira with her arms raised! Go Project Design and Management!

Of course, between the serious work, we had plenty of time to be silly!

While the coffee-fueled days were spent going over sustainability tests and timelines and asset lists, the evenings were ours to spend as we liked. And when you get a group of PCVs and counterparts together like this, you’re bound to get some adventure.

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Our group crowding into Cafe Clock in the old medina for Traditional Storytelling. (I’m in the bottom lefthand corner.)

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Bochra is an apprentice storyteller at the Cafe Clock in Marrakech, so the Fes Master Storyteller and his apprentices successfully roped her into doing an impromptu performance. She rocked it, of course.

We were able to explore the New City and the Old City, both with their own charms.

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PDM was actually the first training of my service. Robert attended the Community Health Workshop last year, but I didn’t go to any because I didn’t want to cancel my classes. This year though, with concrete projects in the works, I know that trainings like PDM will be of invaluable benefit.

Robert subbed for my classes while Bochra and I partied it up in Fes. (Hamdullah for supportive spouses!) Besides the obvious work-related benefits of the trip, we also had an amazing time hanging out and exploring a new city. We roamed around in a giant half-Moroccan, half-American pack, code-switching constantly in our Darija-English mix, probably confusing many Fes locals!

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We had such a great time that Bochra and I decided to stay in Fes for an extra day, since she had the weekend off anyways and I had an extra day between PDM and Mid-Service Conference in Rabat.

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Breakfast at our Riad

We spent the extra day exploring all that we’d missed while cloistered in our conference room. We saw University of Al Quaraouiyine, the world’s oldest continuously functioning university. It was founded by a Muslim woman in 859. We saw all the old madrasas and mosques with thousands of years of history. We saw the famous tanneries and the beautiful leather goods they produce. Before we entered the area, the tanners handed up sprigs of mint to hold under our noses because of the rank tanning smell.

Not only did we see all the typical things that might be on a visitor’s list, but we also spent an indulgent amount of time exploring bookshops and book souks. Bochra, sister of my soul, is a fellow bookworm of the same intensity. Robert once said to me, “It’s eerie when Bochra talks about books, because for a moment, I always think it’s you speaking!”

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Fes, of any place I’ve been in Morocco, has the best selection of books! Bochra, wistfully lamenting the lack of selection in Marrakech, agreed. It makes sense, Fes being the cultural capital of Morocco and all. So many ancient scholars came from this place. And some not-so-ancient ones as well. Fatima Mernissi, the feminist writer and sociologist whom I admire greatly, was from Fes. Bochra, I should add, is absolutely a future Mernissi.

Ah, Fes. I’m sorry for judging you prematurely. Turns out, I adore you. You are teeming with books and adventures. And you contain the hands-down BEST tea I’ve ever had (Bochra also agreed, so it was Moroccan approved). Rather than the constant harassment I’d expected, we had so many genuinely lovely conversations with folks. In Fes, people rush through the crowded streets, dodging donkey carts and artisan vendors. But they slow down to sip tea and flip pages in their books.

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Inshallah I will see you again soon, Fes.

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

Two Moments with Mama

Moment 1: Wednesday at Kaskrut

Hussein (an acquaintance of the family): Are you two fasting for Ramadan?

Robert and Julie: uhhhhhhh inshallah.

Mama Ryqqia: No, they’re not fasting! Leave them alone!

Hussein: YOU HAVE TO FAST. YOU. HAVE. TO. FAST.

Robert and Julie: uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh inshallah.

Hussein: Inshallah? YES, YOU ARE GOING TO FAST.

Mama Ryqqia: NO. Tell him you are NOT fasting. Tell him to mind his own business! Hussein, mind your own business. They’re not obligated to fast. They’re not Muslim. Their bodies aren’t used to fasting, so it’s not healthy. They’ll get sick.

Hussein: It’s very good to fast! It’s healthy!

Mama Ryqqia: STOP. ENOUGH. They are not fasting this year. Enough.

Hussein: But they didn’t say they aren’t fasting. *turns to us* ARE YOU GOING TO FAST?

Mama Ryqqia: Okay, I already said this. And I’m their mama, so I know. ENOUGH. If they do fast, it is between them and God. It’s none of your business. But they aren’t fasting. Now go away.


Moment 2: Friday, right before traditional couscous lunch

Robert: New volunteers will be coming to Morocco in September. And they’ll come here in December, inshallah.

Mama Ryqqia: Wili wili wili wili! Remember to tell Fatima [our Regional Manager] that I don’t want any more host children! You two are enough!

Julie: Why’s that? Because we’re bad children? *laughs*

Mama Ryqqia: *laughs* Yes, because you’re bad! Troublemakers!

Robert: Sorry, mama.

Mama Ryqqia: I’m just kidding, you know. *suddenly looks serious* No, listen to me. You are going to leave me. Maybe not soon, but next year, you will be gone. And I will be sick in the head about it. I will go crazy. I’ll cry so much. I will miss you and it will hurt me. When the other Americans come, they can come over for couscous, but they can’t be my children. I don’t want more children to leave me. Understand?


 

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

Being Tour Guides in Morocco

Anna and Tyler were our first visitors from home! We were so excited to welcome friends from our heart-home to our new-home. They even brought a bit of Seattle rain to cool the desert drought! Hamdullah.

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When they arrived in our city by train from the Casablanca airport, we lost every semblance of cool. That first evening, we played Moroccan Host Family and served them a traditional kaskrut (the third meal of the day in Morocco, between lunch and dinner) with offerings from our favorite bakery. At the last moment, we decided to make the tea mussus (direct translation “bland,” but in practice means “no or less sugar”) and put a third of the typical sugar blocks in the brew. When Tyler and Anna sipped from their crystal glasses, their first reaction: “Wow… this has a lot of sugar.” We laughed at this inadvertent, unexpected, unnoticed way we had become used to Moroccan habits.

We spent two days in our city, including a traditional couscous lunch at Mama Ryqqia’s house. Then we peaced to visit Marrakech for the weekend.

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It was a lovely time of souk-wandering, garden-traipsing, and palace-exploring. We bargained our hearts out for Anna and Tyler (with swagger in our voices at the rare chance to show off our language skills to Americans). We drank hot milk with louisa (vervaine) every night and slept soundly. We had affogatos at Cafe Clock, where my friend/project partner Bochra performed along with Hajj, her Storytelling Master. (Check out this cool Al Jazeera story/video of Hajj and some of his other apprentices!)

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And to my surprise, I liked Marrakech in the rain.

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Living a daytrip away from Marrakech and having a few friends there, we know the city quite well. But we were also newbies on the next leg of the adventure!

We left Tyler and Anna and went back home for a bit, but met back up with them to journey up North to Chefchaouen. From the Red City to the Blue City.

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We were unexpectedly swept away by Chefchaoen. Being so well-known and touristy, I wasn’t sure I’d like it all that much. But it utterly charmed us. Such a relaxing, happy, low-key place.

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In fact, Chefchaouen was so wonderful that Anna and Tyler decided to cancel their hotel reservation in Fes and stay and in Chefchaouen for their last two days.

And so many cats! We certainly made a lot of fuzzy new friends.

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We were very sad to say goodbye when the time came, but our amazing friends left us with a whole bunch of American treats to remember them by! It was very fitting that Tyler, who I first met in Italy when we were studying poetry there together, was the first to visit us in our far-flung home. He and his sister Anna are the sort of beautiful human beings who we hope to be friends with all our lives, no matter where in the world we are.

Yours Truly, 

Robert & Julie

 

Why I Am Insistent On My Americanness: One Perspective from an Asian American PCV in Morocco

“Ana mirikaniya.” I am American.

Hundreds of Peace Corps Volunteers in Morocco have said this countless times. But for me, it is more than descriptive. As an Asian American living in North Africa, I am both hyper-visible and completely unseen.

Many of these things are not new. As a woman of color, the harassment and microagressions I get are often the same as back home. My reactions to the harassment and microagressions are the same as well. Embarrassed, frustrated, sad, irritated, enraged. Sometimes I ignore it because I don’t have the energy to insist on people treating me like a human being. Sometimes I ignore it because I’m too busy—on my way to teach my brilliant class or meet with amazing community members—and I don’t have time to engage with garbage people. Sometimes I shout back, with varying degrees of fire and wrath.

But what has changed is this sentence. How often it trips off my tongue. How it has embedded in my throat. “I am American.” I never used this sentence in America. I insist on it with alarming frequency in Morocco.

I am insistent on my Americanness because I am insistent on my authenticity.

“Ana mirikaniya,” I say, because I know the next utterance will be an incredulous “bssaaaaaa…?”

Really? How could that be true?

“Ana kbrt f mirikan. L’3ila diali kay-sknu f mirikan. Jinsiya diali mirikaniya. 3ndi paspor mirikan. Taqafa diali mirikaniya…iwa, 3lash mashi hqiqa?”

I grew up in America. My family lives in America. My nationality is American. I have an American passport. My culture is American… so, why is this not true?

I have never felt more American than I do now. Growing up in Washington State, I was always very insistent on my Taiwaneseness. I clung to my roots. But when I moved abroad, I began to realize how very American my cultural codes were. As proud as I am of my roots, as much as my heritage defines me—I started to understand how steeped in American culture I am.

The Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi, whom I quote on most occasions, said, “Travel helps you figure out who you are and how your own culture controls you.”

Moving to Morocco has made me acutely aware of how American so many of my thoughts and actions are. It would be dishonest to say I am not American. Americanness is woven into the fabric of who I am.

I am insistent on my Americanness because I am insistent on my complexity.

“Ana mirikaniya,” I say, because I know the next sentence will be, “wilakin, wjj3k…?”

But, your face…? Your face tells one story. Your voice tells another.

I am defined by both. And I refuse to let anyone see only the surface.

I contain multitudes. I am Taiwanese. I am Han Chinese. I am Asian. I am a Seattleite. I am a Washingtonian. I am American. None of these identities contradicts one another. They all exist within me. I refuse to let anyone simplify who I am.

If you’re insistent on a binary, on an either/or, then I’m sorry for the shallowness of your mind.

“Where are you from?” “But where are you really from?” “I mean, where are your parents from?” “But what are your origins?”

This is nothing new. I’ve heard it my entire life.

Although my phenotype makes me far more visible in Morocco, almost nothing anyone says to me here is new. People shout country names at me like we’re on a geography quiz show. People feel that perverse urge to play the ethnic guessing game—and look so self-satisfied when they “get it right.” People want to know my nationality before they want to know my personality. People presume. People have an immediate need to pinpoint my genetic code.
And of course, when called out on it, people are shocked that I would be offended by their intrusion. But listen. Most of the time, we’re not having an equal conversation about identity and race and heritage. Most of the time, we’re just satisfying your curiosity and disregarding my discomfort. Some of is well intentioned. Most of it is not. And, in this case, intention does not matter. The impact is the same. So whether it’s a sleazebag harassing me on the street or a well-meaning acquaintance interrogating me, I end up feeling the same way: otherized and unseen.

I am insistent on my Americanness because I am insistent on my representation.

“Ana mirkaniya,” I say, and what I mean is “Hna mirikaniyin.”

We are American. But who is we?

People don’t believe I’m American because of dominant hegemonic power structures in the world. People don’t believe I’m American because my story isn’t the one amplified on the world stage.

Listen. Most of the racial harassment I get in Morocco is clearly derived from Western media. Not to take the blame off the asshole individuals who harass me, but it is extra galling that their main source material is whitewashed Hollywood.

I don’t just insist on my Americanness for me. I insist on it because I bear the burden of representing Asian Americans abroad. I am often the first Asian American person someone in my community has ever met.

I don’t insist on my Americanness because I am ashamed of my roots—quite the opposite.

I don’t insist on my Americanness because I think America is better than Taiwan. In actuality, I have a problem with over-romanticizing Taiwan. And in fact, I am often quite cynical and critical of the country I grew up in.

And I don’t insist on my Americanness simply to show host country nationals how diverse America is—although that is one aspect of my work. That answer is too simplistic.

As a self-identified global citizen, I insist on my Americanness because I want to tell the whole tale.

I am insistent on my Americanness because I am insistent on my true story.  

“Ana mirikaniya,” I start with, because if I start with “Ana Taiwaniya,” the conversation will end there. “Ana mirikaniya” invites further questioning. It allows me to clarify, to complicate myself, to fully explain who I am. “Ana Taiwaniya” satisfies those who want to pinpoint the features of my face and no more.

“Ana mirikaniya,” I say, because it allows me room to continue. It allows me to add a “but” or a “and also.”

“Ana mirikaniya,” I say, because that’s the answer to the question asked.

“Ana mirikaniya,” I say, because stories have to start with a hook.

I struggled for the past year trying to write this—still unfinished—story down. My authentic, complex, representative, true story. I don’t want to placate anyone with platitudes about “melting pots” and “immigrant nations.” (Both of these are colonialist myths anyways.) I can’t tell the whole story, because I’m just one person with one perspective and one set of experiences. And I can’t lie—the ignorant reactions to my racial phenotype are the HARDEST part of living here. It makes me tired and heartsick and angry.

I acknowledge those feelings, which are legitimate feelings. But I also refuse to let these challenges define my time in Morocco, let alone my entire existence.

In March, when we attended the English Teacher’s Conference in Errachidia, one of the teachers approached me after a presentation and asked me, “Where are you from?” After a brief hesitation, I said, “Seattle, Washington.” He then told me this:

“I grew up in a very, very, very small village in the Sahara. Can I tell you something? Growing up, I never realized how diverse and complicated the world was. When I was fifteen, my town got a Peace Corps Volunteer. She was like you. We all thought she was Chinese when she arrived. When I asked her where she was from and she said America, I didn’t believe her. I didn’t know anything! Now I do. I just wanted to thank you for what you are doing here. And to tell you, if you run into people—people who are like the way I was back then—that you really are making a difference. Maybe stupid kids like I was will be inspired to go to school, study more languages, become teachers, and they will teach others too.”

As down as I get some days, I’m also hopeful that perhaps my authentic, complex, representative true story does have value. And when I think about Morocco, I don’t think about some asshole shouting at me on the street. I think about all of the extraordinary people I’ve met here—and how I may be the first Asian person they’ve met, the first American person they’ve met, the first Asian American person they’ve met, or even in many cases, the first non-Moroccan person they’ve met. And how, despite that novelty, they do see me as a whole complex human being.

That’s all I’m insisting on—to be seen as I am.

Yours Truly,

Julie

 

Notes from the Errachidia International English Conference

Errachidia, in the south below the Atlas Mountains.

In March, we were honored to be asked to present at the 2016 Errachidia International English Conference, a gathering of Moroccan English teachers in the Errachidia region.

At the opening speeches, I saw a sea of faces nodding eagerly as the conference coordinator began referencing linguistics and morphology. I laughed and thought, oh man, these are MY PEOPLE. It was wonderful to spend a few days with a group of educators and language nerds.

 

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I presented on strategies to integrate real-world stakes in the classroom, which was basically just an excuse to advertise for journalism programming and the Write On Creative Writing Competition. The best part wasn’t my presentation, but being able to share resources for how to get students published in real literary magazines and media sources.

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While I am super passionate about education and language learning, I’m a slightly-less-than-mediocre public speaker. I don’t have stage fright, but I don’t have stage presence either. Robert, on the other hands, rocks at this stuff!

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He gave a fiery presentation on Girls Education, which ignited an intense discussion in the room. People were actually slamming their fists on their desks and shouting by the end of it! Gender equality in the classroom is relevant everywhere in the world, but it has a particular context in the Morocco, where girls’ literacy rates are significantly lower than boys’.

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And while there is pushback (evidenced by some reactions to Robert’s presentation), there is also hope and progress. There’s still a long way to go, but just in the past decade, gender equality in the Moroccan classroom has improved significantly—because of government reform, but also in huge part because of amazing individual teachers. There were many amazing moments during the presentation, but one of my favorites was when one of the teachers shared a funny story about a time when he used the term “househusband” in an English lesson. His students all started waving their hands in the air, shouting, “Teacher! Teacher! You wrote that sentence wrong on the board! It’s houseWIFE!” And he replied, “Hey, I’m the English teacher here, and I didn’t write anything wrong! Who here can say that househusbands don’t exist? Of course they exist!” In a country where only about 10% of women work for pay, this kind of story is revolutionary.

Even after the presentation, many of the teachers wanted to continue the conversation with Robert and with each other.

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Besides working as presenters and discussion facilitators, we were also the waitstaff! The American PCVs at the conference all took on the job of serving and busing during meals and breaks. When you organize a conference, the hardest part will inevitably be the food and drink. The main Moroccan teacher counterpart who coordinated the conference said, “It doesn’t matter how great the actual conference is. If the food is bad, people will think the conference is bad.” Hahahaha… but true.

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We almost had a riot on our hands when we didn’t have enough teapots and had to serve tea from coffee carafes instead. Tea is serious business. 

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For most of the meals, we scavenged the leftovers in between serving the teachers. Although we didn’t mind at all, a few of the teachers insisted that we sit down with them to eat during the last meal, which was lovely!

Errachidia was our second Southern city, and although our sample size is low, our conclusion so far is that Southern cities are wonderful! Life at the edge of the Sahara seems so much slower and sweeter. We love our Northern city, but there is just something really special about the Moroccan South. As we wandered around Errachidia, buying date syrup from co-op stands and looking for avocado milkshakes, we felt a lovely sense of calm.

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Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

Opening the Door to the Sahara

The top three reasons I love my job: adventure, passion, and people. Our trip to Ouarzazate was comprised of all three. In January, we journeyed south to this beautiful city on the edge of the world’s vastest desert.

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With  a crew of four humans (Robert and Julie, and our friends Bochra and Souad) and two birds (nameless), we traveled through the Tichka, a gorgeous but nauseatingly winding mountain pass. We stopped for a quick meal of sandwiches and bissara (chickpea soup) at a little Amazigh town in the Atlas Mountains. It was such a relief when we finally got to Ouarzazate!

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The next day, while Bochra and Souad were in Darija Tutor trainings, Robert and I explored Ouarzazate. Despite it being the largest city in its region and the site of a major Hollywood studio, Ouarzazate felt like a small town. (Fun fact: Game of Thrones was filmed in Ouarzazate!) There wasn’t any bustling about. People were so friendly and low-key. (Another fun fact: Ouarzazate means “noiselessly,” and it’s also known as The City Without Sound. We could definitely see why!)

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The next day, after wandering around the date palms, we got coffee and coke and wifi at an outdoor cafe, where we got some work done.

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We also explored some shops where we bought some cool jackets. The shopkeepers laughed at our terrible Darija, and then forced us to wear these Saharan outfits.

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In the afternoon, we finally got to the reason for our Ouarzazate trip! Bochra and I are launching a storytelling project together, with the support of PC Morocco’s Language and Cultural Coordinator. We sat down to meet with Said, the LCC, and talk about our project. Souad, Bochra’s sister, also wanted in—which I’m super happy about. It was awesome! I can’t wait to share more details about this project with you all after this month (Bochra and I are attending a Project Development and Management Training at the end of April, where we’ll flesh out more details!)

Bochra is literally one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met, and I feel so lucky that I became friends with her! We are so much alike. We have all of the same passions: storytelling, culture, feminism, literature. When someone randomly sends me a Dropbox full of gender studies e-books for my Kindle, I know that we’re soul sisters! 😉 This is her blog.

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Khuti (my sister) Bochra and I on the Tichka

On the trip, we also met a group of wonderful Belgian tourists. We ended up hanging out with them quite a bit.

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The day we had to leave Ouarzazate, all the bus tickets in the entire city were sold out. Seriously. It was horrible. But luckily, our new Belgian friends suggested that we travel with them. And because Souad was leaving our group to go even more south to their hometown, we had the perfect number for a grand taxi! So that’s how three Belgians, two Americans, and one Moroccan squished themselves into the passenger seats of a beat up old Mercedes.

Travel tip! If you’re going through the Tichka and you can afford it, choose a grand taxi over a bus! We hated the bus with a burning passion, but the taxi was super fun. Plus, if you know Darija, you can ask the taxi driver to stop for a break along a gorgeous abandoned cliffside. We got a breather and several selfies, haha.

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It took us a year into living in Morocco for us to finally venture down into the Sahara, but we loved our trip and we will definitely be back.

It was a grand adventure trip to attend a work meeting about something I’m super passionate about with the best project partners I could ever imagine. So a complete success all around, and a beautiful reminder of why we’re here!

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie