Letter from Morocco

Serving in the Peace Corps, M Bruce learns — and lives — the meaning of the word “marhaba.”

By Mary Elizabeth Bruce (Interdisciplinary – Poverty Studies ’04)
Mary Bruce

Photo courtesy of M Bruce.

I heard thunder last night. For the first time since Ramadan, I think. Don’t get me wrong; it rains here. It just doesn’t usually thunder.

It thundered this past summer, in the early evenings. It was about 110 degrees outside and even hotter inside my concrete house. During a sharquee, the hot wind would blow across the country, winding its way from the Sahara Desert, through the Atlas Mountains, past the olive groves, and find its way into my small apartment. Its breezes provided no respite from the swelter. A few drops of rain would fall, cooling nothing off.

But eventually it did cool off, and it kept getting colder. Now we’ve passed through most of winter, where the temperatures fell below 20 inside my uninsulated, unheated home. I sat wearing thermal underwear and three layers of fleece, but the windows were open to let in the sunshine, to warm my icy fingers.

Living without climatization is difficult. It affects your mood. It affects how long vegetables stay fresh. It affects when and how you can do laundry.

But in the small Moroccan village where I’ve spent the last 15 months, it’s just part of life. “Wesh drrk l’berd?” they ask, in Moroccan Arabic. “Does the cold hurt you?”  “Imiq,” I reply, in Tamazeght, a Berber dialect of the Middle Atlas. “A little.”

When I joined the United States Peace Corps, just four months after graduating from the University of Virginia, I wasn’t quite sure what I was signing up for. I knew I wanted to see another part of the world and that Morocco, as a Muslim state in North Africa, would provide an invaluable opportunity to learn about Islam. I wanted to serve in a community in need, giving my time and energy in whatever manner the community needed most, but I knew I would probably learn more from them than I would be able to provide. After 17 months in-country (2.5 months of training are followed by 24 months of service in a community), I’m still learning.

I’ve learned that Morocco, as a country nestled among Africa, Europe and the Middle East, is an untidy amalgamation of cultures. Its citizens speak two different forms of Arabic, at least three different forms of Berber (the indigenous language), French, Spanish and English. It is predominantly Muslim, but churches and synagogues are still found in the cities, remnants of French colonization and a pre-Israeli Middle East. In a day, you can travel from the clean sands of the Sahara, through the snow-capped peaks of the Atlas Mountains and onto the bluffs and warm beaches at the Atlantic or Mediterranean coast.

I’ve learned that some Moroccans live as I did in America, shopping at large fluorescent-lit supermarkets, sitting in mixed-gender cafes reading the newspaper, living in air-conditioned and heated houses and dreaming their dreams. But most Moroccans don’t. In villages like the one where I live, people shop at the souk, a large outdoor, weekly market. Yogurt, cheese and jam, among other products, are considered high-priced, luxury food items. Women do not go into cafes, as the public domain is strictly dominated by men, whereas the domestic sphere is that of women. It’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer, no matter what you do. And the largest social problem is chronic, widespread unemployment. A university degree is no indicator of employability. Poor dental health, diabetes and malnutrition plague the people. Many homes do not have running water, electricity or indoor latrines.

So, I work with local associations on health, fitness and education initiatives. Students and I go to souk and hand out AIDS pamphlets. Neighborhood teachers and I go to women’s centers and talk about the importance of sanitation. University students and I tutor high school and middle school students in English and other subjects, hoping they will go to university, despite the high unemployment rate.

More than anything, in the past year and a half, I’ve learned that Moroccans, regardless of age or region, say, “marhaba,” “welcome.” And they mean it. This welcoming is sincere, and is meant to be extended to my entire family and all of my friends. My students’ families tell me “welcome,” and I go to their homes, drink sweet mint tea and eat chicken couscous. Neighbors tell me “welcome,” and I go to their homes, drink sweet mint tea and eat lamb stew. I’ve shared seats in taxis with women who tell me “welcome,” and I go to their homes, drink sweet mint tea and eat homemade pastries.

Now, when I meet others, I tell them “marhaba.” I invite them to my home in this small mountain village, where they can sit, drink mint tea and occasionally hear thunder.