Land of Olives

I don’t know much of anything these days. I’m only sure what is going on maybe a quarter of the time here.

I swore in as an official Peace Corps volunteer, and I’m at my final site where I’ll be living for two years in northern Morocco. A town named Ourtzagh, near the Rif Mountains and next to a massive reservoir, the first built in Morocco and the second in the African continent. The landscape is dotted with olive trees, the talk of the town right now. It’s peak olive season, and everyone wants fresh oil to fatten up for winter.

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Starting in January, I’ll be teaching English and physical activity in a dar taliba: a dormitory where girls from smaller surrounding villages can pay the equivalent of $5/week for food and housing so they can attend school without commuting through the mountains daily.

Until then, my job is to simply exist, which turns out to be much more complicated than it sounds. It’s tough to act like an adult (find a house, find a tutor, etc.) and integrate into a community with the social skills and vocabulary of a toddler.

Sometimes when I don’t know what to say to people, I’ll just ask “wash nti farhana?” (are you happy?) because I truly don’t know how to confidently say much. I’m cluelessly floating.

The other day I was rushed out of my family’s home by a neighbor after I had just finished applying lice treatment to my hair (currently battling lice!!). I followed her outside while wrapped in my host mom’s bathrobe, and she told me to get into a car with a policeman who would take me to meet the qaid (AKA ministry of interior, a big shot in small Moroccan communities). I asked her if I should change my clothes. “Meshi mushkeil” (no problem), she responded.

So there I was hanging out in the qaid’s fancy office, rockin a purple bathrobe and a greasy lice-medicated scalp. He welcomed me to the community and told me about being aware that not all Moroccans will have the same beliefs as me, so be careful what I say. But honestly, who really knows what he told me. Not me.

My cluelessness is uncomfortable, disheartening and hilarious all in one.

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Other people in my community may be just confused about me as I am. Maybe even more. Peace Corps has never existed in my site before, so saying I’m a Peace Corps volunteer doesn’t mean anything. Rumors have it I’m an orphan or escaping some great tragedy back home. Some think I’m lying when I say I have a family in the states. I’ve actually had to show photos of my family to prove myself. Others think I’m a spy. A lice-infested, incompetent spy.

My only hope is to embrace the vulnerability and how absolutely absurd this experience is. I’ve lived my whole life with plans and to-do lists, but here: I wake up in the morning, go for a run and let the day lead me wherever.

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Sometimes a toothless farmer lady whom I run by in the morning joins me for about 100 meters. She can’t understand my accent and I can’t understand hers, so we just laugh hysterically and hug goodbye at the end. Sometimes the chickens from the roof escape into the stairwell and I yell for my little brother to save me because I’m so scared of their spooky chicken feet.

I usually go to a kaskrut (tea time: a meal of desserts and various breads and sugary tea) at someone’s house in the afternoon. Sometimes there are five different cakes. Sometimes it turns into a dance party. Sometimes the hostess is a friend of a neighbor, someone I’ve never met before. Sometimes my neighbor won’t introduce me, but the hostess will insist on me eating multiple rounds of every single baked good for hours before even asking who the heck the random, confused American is in her house.

If it isn’t kaskrut, I almost always have some other enlightening foodie experience. I spent a morning washing barley and spreading it out to dry on the sunny roof. An afternoon smashing olives with a rock to make oil. An evening ripping fish heads off their bodies, gutting them and stuffing them back up with a spicy tomato and parsley paste. I’ve made melowee (a delicious bread with oil and butter spread between each flaky layer). I’ve learned to always say “bismallah” (in the name of God) before adding each new ingredient and how to chop an onion like Moroccan women. (They can mince an entire onion in 15 seconds! I’m getting there). I’ve eaten fry-stuffed sandwiches on top of a mountain (because all Moroccan sandwiches are stuffed with fries) and countless sunflower seeds while on post-lunchtime walks with the neighborhood ladies.

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Each day, I’m guaranteed to experience some random act of hospitality. People are constantly welcoming me to Morocco and into their homes “marhababik, marhababik, marhababik” (welcome, welcome, welcome). My neighbor and closest friend Radia calls every morning to make sure I’m not at home alone. “Aji, Jacline, aji” (come, Jacline, come). We usually hang out in her kitchen and prepare food, and she quizzes me about every single spice and different type of pot. She’ll tell me long elaborate stories and then ask “wash femtini?” (do you understand me?). If I have some sort of idea, I’ll say I understand, which is always followed by the dreaded, “wakha, gulli shnu fhmti.” (okay, tell me what you understand). I’m almost always wrong, but she continues to explain until I finally get it. I aspire to have patience and persistence like hers. The new neighborhood joke is that Radia talks unnaturally slow now because she’s spent way too much time chatting with me.

Every night ends with me telling my family, “sme7li, ana 3ammra b Darija” (I’m sorry, I’m full of Darija) because I’m stuffed to the brim with new words and phrases and sounds. By the end, I can’t comprehend anything. Nothing else fits.

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All I can hope is that each day I become a little less clueless about the world around me here in Ourtzagh. To embrace how vulnerable I am. To acknowledge what a special experience it is that people I’ve just met are supporting me through this vulnerability and awkwardness. To know that the loneliness and times of low self-esteem come in waves, and they always pass. To remember that each day is full of surprises. I’ve found myself saying “shukran 3la mughamra” (thank you for the adventure) a lot lately and although I can’t even pronounce “mughamra” with confidence, I know there’s beauty in the fact that I’m trying to say it at all.

Shukran 3la mughamra, Ourtazagh.

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3 Comments

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  1. My Wonderful Jackie;you fill me with awe.Your courage is astounding and your fortitude knows no bounds,what wonderful stories you have to tell, We miss you this Holiday Season and of course you are in my daily prayers. I love you more than I can say and am so very,very proud of you. Keep well. God Bless. Grandma

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thinking of you and missing you little Sunshine! Please take great care of yourself! I don’t know if you remember your snowman ornament you had made for me…it hangs proudly on one of my canoes on the wall! Merry Christmas little Sunshine! I love you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Jackie, this is Ria. I am John’s mom. I read your blog and I am in awe. I enjoy all your stories and I am very impressed with your desire to help people. What a rewarding experience. The sunshine in your pictures looks so inviting. We are getting a major snowstorm today. Stay safe and I wish you well. Ria

    Liked by 1 person

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