Big Tomato

The other day my fellow Peace Corps friend Maddie asked me how to say “gift” in Darija. “Handiya” I replied. “Wait no, maybe that means prickly pear.”

‘Tis life. I’m calling gifts prickly pears and prickly pears gifts.

I also can’t figure out the difference in pronunciation between “elephant” and “verb” in Darija. My poor little sister doesn’t understand why I keep asking for help studying elephants.

My cluelessness has derailed my presence in the world. To accept this new toddler-identity of mine, I’m working on changing the way I process emotions, build relationships and find confidence.

As I wrote about before, my biggest struggle currently is my lack of independence. Especially as a woman living with a very protective (yet absolutely incredible) host family. Here in Morocco, females transition into women only when they get married. Otherwise, we are considered young girls, so my 7-year-old sister and I share the same social category.

At the hammam (public bath house), my mom scrubs me down exactly as she scrubs my lil sis. She’s rubbed more layers of skin off my totally naked body than I knew was possible. It’s an aggressive, awkward yet beautiful experience all in one.

But, also like my sis, I can’t manage the five minute walk to my friend’s house at 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon alone. A male friend has to escort me. Thank goodness, hamdullah, for Yorman.

I know it’s all out of love and there may be some validity to it all, but man it’s tough living on a leash.

I’ve found mini slices of freedom in other activities though, like dancing around my room in the dark before bed. Writing a lot. Controlling my attitude. Going on runs with friends through the foothills and joyously flailing my arms out because the momentum is so satisfying.

Once a week, I have 20 minutes at home alone. I unleash my elbows and pull my skirt up above my knees. It’s all about the little things.

That’s my internal motto lately. Embrace the little things.

Back at home, my friends would lay in my bed under twinkly lights late at night and talk about big things. That’s largely how we became so close.

Here, I mainly mash random nouns and adjectives together in hopes of telling a story. Not at all poetic like those twinkly light chats. My mom and I have somehow managed to talk about education systems, war and religion though. Plus we weirdly talk about whole grain bread daily.

The lack of language has forced me to love in new ways and soak up all types of love that I’ve never felt before.

If I mention that I love pomegranates, a bowl full of pomegranates magically appears the next morning. My little sister is addicted to throwing “surprise birthday parties” for me. I’ll walk out of the bathroom to a confetti explosion and Chaima screaming, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY JAAAACK!” My mom spends hours preparing lunch daily and will surprise Chaima and me with fruit parfaits or cake when we’re playing freeze dance nightly. My dad is so concerned about my health that once when my aunt served me cold water, he frantically added lukewarm water to my glass. “Brrt khuyb, Jack.” (Cold is bad, Jack).

One time after a run when my face was really red, I told Chaima, “Ana matesha kabira” (I’m a big tomato). Now she introduces me to her friends as “matesha kabira” and uses the name to make fun of me as often as she can. True love.

Without words, I’ve also had to love more deliberately. Mainly with personalized handshakes, high fives and hugs. A lot of listening and a lot of smiling. Baking cakes and cooking tajine with my mom. Or when she makes me sit on the counter and watch instead because of my inadequate onion cutting skills. Playing Uno 20 times in the same night with Chaima “OOOOH NOOOO 3afk, 3afk, 3afk” (Uno, please please please) she begs. Rallying up the neighborhood kids before my runs to race a tiny loop over and over and over. They giggle and cheer and yell “bzarba, bzarba, bzarba” (faster, faster, faster).

Expressing my personality without language hasn’t come as natural as expressing love though. Some hours, my confidence plummets. When I’m trying to balance teaching English to a dozen kids, thinking in Darija and still staying spunky, I feel like I’m on a roller coaster. Everything is overwhelming. Too fast. Too rickety. And my face is usually red. Forever a big tomato.

I find myself wishing for comfort, dreaming of a year from now when I feel confident and bold. When I can create friendships faster. For a time when my mini slices of freedom have expanded to full pies of independence.

But then I think about having to say bye to mama Hajiba, baba Kassimi, khti Chaima, the abundance of pomegranates and the undeserved surprise birthday parties. I think about all the times language has made my life more messy back in the states and how this clueless state of is also paradoxically liberating. I think about the phases of my life that I was somewhat absent from and how this can’t be one of them.

About a week ago, Maddie and I meditated post-yoga in her classic Moroccan blue and white tile-walled house. We practiced being totally present. I could smell bread baking downstairs while the call to prayer echoed from the nearby mosque.

Then I found myself thinking, maybe 27 months in this country isn’t going to be enough.

We’ll see. For now, I’m going to keep sponging up Moroccan love and squeezing it back out in anyway I can.

Ddinya hainya. Life is good.

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