I didn’t expect to be necessarily happy in the Peace Corps.
I thought my experiences would grant me a deeper sensation of happiness eventually, but I was prepared for struggle and loneliness on the day-to-day basis.
I do have bad days. I crave anonymity. Sometimes I feel like a zoo animal. I miss being goofy and carefree with my family and friends. I struggle to be taken seriously. The prominent sexualization is disheartening. And although there is relatively low harassment in my town, it still irks me.
A few weeks ago I was playing handshake games with my 5-year-old friend at the weekly market when a veggie vendor looked straight at me and said “fuck me” in English. He probably didn’t even know what it meant, but the fact that he would say that in front of an innocent, happy-go-lucky 5-year-old bothered me most of all. I told my neighbor about it while washing dishes at her house later that day, got weirdly emotional and almost started crying into the sink.
So there are bad days, just like there were in my life back in the U.S. But the rockiness is largely outweighed by an overwhelming sense of happiness.
Many sources fuel this joy: the simplicity of life, lack of stress and speed, the Moroccan mindset of living in the present, having time to take care of my mental and physical health, the constant sense of adventure, the natural beauty of my town, the unwavering support of family and friends back home. But one of the main sources, I believe, is living in a communal culture.
In a communal culture, by definition, people focus on the collective group to work towards common goals and to do what is best for that group (or society) rather than oneself. This drives incredible hospitality and a very high value on relationships here in Morocco. I’ve found it impossible to feel truly lonely.
My 45-year-old best friend Radia calls me at least four times a day. Sometimes just to chat, to ask how I slept or what I ate for breakfast, but mostly to tell me to come over. “Ana kansawwb shi tareka jdida” (I’m making a new recipe), she usually says, “Agi!” (Come!). I’ve also never received more flower-deliveries in my life. Right now the fields are exploding with wildflowers, and my students bring bouquets and flower crowns to class or deliver them (along with other random gifts, like chocolate milk powder) to my door. Definitely not lonely.
I take the mornings for myself, and I indulge in the sense of community throughout the days and evenings. Lately this has consisted of simply existing with my neighbors. With spring blooming, the green fields and massive blue reservoir, we’ve had a lot of picnics and play Uno or other card games on the shore. I found a place that sells real cheese in my town (!!) and celebrated by making pizza for our latest picnic.
When it’s rainy, we go on long walks, collect bags full of snails and cook them. When it’s sunny, we scramble up into the mountains and pick dill to use in breads or with steamed barley. Mealtimes present explicit examples of the communal culture: sharing one giant plate and one glass of water with as many as a dozen people. It doesn’t matter if someone is sick or a toddler can’t drink without backwashing. Everybody drinks out of the same cup and eats off the same plate.
We’re starting to prepare for Ramadan by sifting through massive quantities of sesame and anise (tastes like licorice) seeds. They’re used in sellou and chebakia, two sweet staples in “ftour” (which translates to breakfast, but also refers to the meal to break fast during Ramadan). All spices, nuts and dried foods are sold from exposed sacs at the market, so you have to sort out small rocks, sticks and other intruders before using them.
When I’m with with women whom I don’t know well yet, we mostly talk about food. With Radia and my other close mom-friend, we chat like girlfriends which sometimes turns into deep discussions about religion, altruism, women’s rights, etc. I don’t have a lot of conversations with men, except for with my Moroccan father figure. We go on Sunday morning jogs, and we usually talk about his dreams for his children.
When I’m with kids, they love teaching me Darija. I have a lot of play dates with my 5-year-old friend Nada. She creates a makeshift classroom, and I have to sit in the “khyb” (bad) corner if I answer something wrong. “Nti meshi mujtahida!” (you’re not the brightest!), she yells at me.
With teenagers, we talk about music, cultural differences and our love interests. They teach me how to play soccer, to dance like Moroccans and to use hip slang words. (“Slougie” is slang for liar). I teach them how to make friendship bracelets and help them with English. I tutor my 15-year-old friend / Moroccan brother / soccer coach / mentee / neighbor, and we have a tradition of sitting in his windowsill to spice up the studying.
The power of this communal culture hit me the other day when I met a couple from my town who have been living in Canada for the past 15 years. They’re visiting for five months because their twin toddlers are struggling with interpersonal skills, which they believe has to with the individualist, sometimes isolating, culture in North America.
In the U.S., we’re living such busy lives and are often stretched so thin that we don’t always have time for other people. We generally prioritize work over relationships. And when it comes to the pursuit of happiness, we often look intrinsically. I think the North American dialogue around happiness presents it as a personal journey: something that comes from within, from time spent reflecting alone… not necessarily from time with others.
Research says Americans eat more than half their meals alone. Moroccans eat four meals a day, always together. And it’s not even just meals. Moroccans pray together, sit and do absolutely nothing together, sleep together (I have yet to meet someone with their own room) and even bathe together.
Family is so built into Moroccan culture that it has invaded linguistics. Saying “lla yr7m lwaladin” (God bless your parents) is as normal as muttering “bye.” Kids call their mom’s friends “khelti” (their aunts) and I address random veggie sellers at the soq as “khuya” (my brothers).
I thank this family and people-centered culture for making me feel as if I belong here.
I’m an extrovert and have lived a very social life, but I think the difference here is that people are welcoming me into their families when they can’t even understand a quarter of the words I try to pronounce. They welcome me into their homes even if they’ve never met me. They greet me as “bnti” (their daughters) or “habibati” (my love). They have a secured a space for me in their community.
I wish so badly I could say that if that if someone from Ourtzagh went to live in a rural community in the states, we would do the same for them. But I can’t.
I don’t believe one culture is better than the other. Just different. I still consider myself an individualist, but this Moroccan hospitality and communal love continues to wow me. It’s taught me the importance of investing in each other, and that we’re not all that different at the end of the day.
After all, we—unexpected, cross-cultural friends with 20+ year age differences—continue finding ourselves sitting in big green fields, sharing tea, bread and sometimes pizzas, watching the sun twinkle over the lake and the moon rise above the mountains.
I can’t help but think to myself, this is bliss. Unexpected bliss. Who knew I could be so happy here?