The title of the first post on this blog, “When comfort exceeds discovery, it’s time to move on” was aptly titled for leaving home. By the time I left Ireland in October, I also had just reached that point of comfort. However, in Morocco, it’s been harder for me to tell what “comfort” really is. I was never completely comfortable, but I do feel like I could have stayed longer and I would have been quite content. Ultimately, despite the language, culture, and religion differences, I’ve met incredible people in Morocco – in and out of Amal – who made this place start to feel like a home. Alas, maybe this is comfort and that’s my sign to move on.
Now, Amal. Amal Women’s Training Center where I spent the majority of my time in Morocco. What an inspiring place. My arrival was serendipitous for both Amal and me. Originally, I was to manage the NGO’s environmental initiatives, but when an unexpected vacancy in staff occurred, I ended up stepping into one of the most crucial positions in the organization – the Communications Manager. Though I had more responsibilities than I anticipated, “working” as the temporary Communications Manager allowed me to have a greater impact on the organization and to develop deeper relationships with the women who work and train there.
For a Moroccan in this position, the hardest part about the job is “communicating” with the public (social media, responding to emails, talking to agencies, etc.), but for me, it was communicating with my own team at Amal. I ran daily Moroccan cooking classes with our chef and trainees who spoke limited English, and it therefore forced me to figure out ways to communicate with women with whom we shared no common language other than food.
La Fatiha was our incredible Moroccan chef who knew the recipes inside and out and could direct the trainees or tell the cooking class guests (mostly foreigners) what to do. She was also one of the original inspirations for starting Amal in 2013. Her story is one of the few I know. But outside of questions about the ingredients, we were left to hand gestures and charades for communicating. When interacting with the guests, I always was aware that I am not Moroccan, nor am I an expert in Moroccan cuisine, so it was a fine line I had to walk between being knowledgable about the dishes, Amal, and Morocco, and making it seem like I’m just a foreigner imposing on a culture that’s not mine. Each class it was one of my goals to make La Fatiha and the trainees the star of the show and to be there to merely communicate additional information and answer questions in as diplomatic a way as possible. If I didn’t know the answer, I found someone who did. As I led more classes and guests asked more questions, I, too, learned a lot about Morocco and Moroccan culture.
One of the most rewarding aspects of being at Amal was getting to know the women at the center despite the language barrier. Yes, by the end I could communicate with basic Arabic and hand gestures (and now emojis via messenger), but the really fun part was observing their interactions with each other, watching their facial expressions or listening to their tone of voice, and trying to piece together their personalities. It also did not require full conversations to lend a hand where help was needed. Whether that was jumping in to clear tables, set up chairs, clean up the cooking class room, or refill spices, I found that gratitude needs no words to be understood. Additionally, La Fatiha and I shared some intrinsic connection where we could just look at each other and know what the other was thinking.
Need more chicken?
This is beef, not lamb.
That was a good class!!!
That was a crazy class…
Where did that little kid go now???
Stay calm. Stay calm.
The trainees at Amal came from unimaginably difficult backgrounds (single moms, divorced, widowed, orphaned), but when I was at Amal, all I saw were 20 young women working hard, laughing, smiling, enjoying every opportunity. It was never until I got home at night when I thought, “gosh, what are their stories? Where did they come from? What have they experienced?” Many of them were single moms, some had more than one child, many were abused, raped, left alone, but it was rare that I saw this side of them. One day one of the trainee’s brought her baby to Amal and I was reminded that these “girls” (between 18 and 35 years old, most under 25) have experienced far more than I ever can imagine.
Amal is not just about teaching the women how to cook, it is not even just about giving them the skills to enter the workforce. At Amal, food is the mechanism by which it empowers women to be strong, independent, and self-sufficient. Yes, they learn how to make delicious food, but over the 3 months I was with them, I saw them learn how to accept and love themselves, to have the confidence to interact with foreign guests, to direct each other in the kitchen, and to ask for more responsibilities.
Working at Amal posed challenges in one aspect, but I still had the safety net of being at the center. Once I left to go home at the end of each day, I faced challenges that tested my own strength. Let’s start with the obvious: language. Not speaking French or Arabic was and still is very challenging. If someone stopped me in the streets I didn’t know if they were trying to ask me a question, trying to help me, trying to get something from me, or if they were harassing me. Taking taxis was always stressful trying to communicate where exactly I was going and making sure they didn’t over charge me. Same with shopping for food and clothes. Now, 3 months later, I am not fluent in either of these languages, and interactions still make me nervous, but I’ve picked up enough Arabic/French to at least ask about prices, give directions, have a basic greeting with people, and fool some of the ladies at the gym into thinking I’m Moroccan (until they ask me a question and I have to say in French that I don’t understand).
For me, the most challenging part of this quarter has been being a young, foreign woman in a Muslim culture. I wanted to blend in as much as possible, so I dressed very conservatively, often avoided making eye contact with people, and was cautious walking around alone at night, but sometimes that just isolated me even further. I didn’t realize how restrained I felt in Morocco until I arrived in London for my layover yesterday. Sitting on the Underground, looking around, and realizing from that action alone, that I could lookaround without other people looking or staring at me, was liberating. Running outside, too, was liberating.
But no matter how uncomfortable I felt, or no matter how bad of a day I was having – I could have been ripped off by a driver, cat called from down the street, sleep-deprived from noisy neighbors, sick as a dog – I knew I could go to my friends to instantly feel better. I cannot express how lucky and grateful I feel that I worked in the office with a group of young women who I not only respected professionally, but also could be myself around outside of work. They always made their home my home. They showed me their favorite places in Marrakech. They shared their Berber culture with me. They shared their lives with me and I felt I could share mine with them too. They were open-minded, curious, understanding, generous, and downright hilarious. I started to realize that once your basic needs are met, you really can’t stress about much.
I may have been the one volunteering at Amal, but I feel that Amal and the people I met along the way gave me so much more than I ever could give them in 3 months. I am going to miss every one of them deeply, but I know there are big things on the horizon for these incredible women. Chokran Amal. Chokran Morocco. Chockran everyone. Inchallah we will meet again.
Rounding out this quarter, it is of course, hard to believe I am halfway through this Wild Watson Wanderjahr. Next up is New Zealand where I will be for February and March working as a cook at Hiakai restaurant in Wellington. It will be by far the nicest restaurant I have ever worked in and I am nervous but also very excited to work with such an up-and-coming female chef, Monique Fiso (you can see her on Netflix’s latest culinary competition show, The Final Table). After that, I’ll be off to Peru to finish out my year doing research with Mater Iniciativa, the research wing of the world-renowned restaurant, Central in Lima.
Halfway…unbelievable…the loneliness was really real during the holidays (my brother did pop by for a short visit :), but all-in-all I am doing very well and am in high spirits.
Until we talk again!
Other funny thoughts/eventful happenings in the past 3 months:
– I really didn’t do much cooking on this leg and people didn’t realize that I actually know how to cook. One night I made dinner for my roommate (who was also my coworker at the time) and she said, “Wow, you’re actually a really good cook!” Thanks. I like to cook a bit. Just a bit.
– Ran a half marathon in Marrakech on my last day in Morocco (ironic that I ran a half marathon on the half-way point of my Watson year?). That was an experience that I could write a whole blog post about itself. In short, to run the streets of Marrakech, pass by my apartment, through my neighborhood, in the city which I had not run outside the entire length of my stay, with over 9,000 people was insane.
– If I wore sunglasses and hid my eyes, I could pass for being Moroccan as long as I kept conversations very very basic.
– Made some very interesting connections through the cooking classes. World renowned olive oil producer who connected me with olive oil people in NZ, Fulbright Fellows, Peace Corp Volunteers, Ivy League-affiliated groups, Female Triathlon Teams, future Watson Fellow applicants, and a woman who even offered me a job at her NGO in Connecticut.
– Never was brave enough to sit down at the local coffee shops and watch a soccer game with all the men. Literally only men. I just wanted to watch the game!!!!
– Got scrubbed down head-to-toe by another woman at my neighborhood hammam (public bath house).
– Discovered halfway (after stressing over taxis twice a day) that I lived nearby a coworker who drove to work most days. Challenge: She only speaks French and Arabic. Our drives were mostly silent or us spending the 10 minutes trying to get across one idea. She described the silence to one of our other coworkers as if “We are in a fight” haha
– Saw 7 films in 7 days at the Marrakech International Film Festival
– Went mountain biking in the Atlas Mountains. Hurt for days after.
– Went surfing in the Atlantic Ocean at Tamraght Beach. Hurt for days after. Still hurting.
– Can’t wait to throw a Moroccan dinner party when I get back to the States. It’ll be a blast. You’re all invited.