Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Aid Al Kabir

In preparation for Aid, I did henna for some of the neighborhood girls.

All dressed up in new clothes. My kaftan, borrowed from my host family, wasn't new. It was a few sizes too big.

Last week, or sorry, two weeks ago (time constantly slips away) Aid Al Kabir took place. A major Islamic celebration, Aid Al Kabir (translation: big holiday) represents the time when Allah (God) asked Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son Isaac to test his loyalty. Ibrahim showed his loyalty to Allah by offering Isaac at the alter but before he could slay his son, Allah sent a sheep to be slaughtered instead. From that day on, the followers of Islam have slaughtered a sheep on the day of Aid Al Kabir to represent their loyalty and dedication to Allah. The story is the same in both the Koran (Islamic holy book) and the Bible but I don't recall there being a big Christian celebration in which sheep are slaughtered. I guess Thanksgiving comes the closest, but then again, that's a pagan holiday.

Preparations for the holiday begin days and even weeks in advance. Women spend endless hours making cookies and cakes, shopping for new kaftans (traditional celebration garb) and getting henna dyed on their hands and feet. Men also buy new jalabas (their traditional garb) and go to the souq and bargain for a sheep. When the day finally arrives, everyone is dressed in their finest and is really excited. Everyone, that is, except for the sheep.

The sheep. The poor sheep. I almost felt sorry for them but then I recalled the night before the Aid where they kept me up all night with all their baa baa's. Because there are very few places to stow a sheep if you were not a shepherd, my neighbors and my host family alike kept their future meal in the front yard, on the roof, in the kitchen, wherever they had a place for it. Being as how adobe style houses usually connect to other houses, I had an entire medley of sheep singing to me that night. I do have to admit that visions of lamb chops pranced in my head as I tried to fall asleep.

Anyhow, it finally came time for the slaughtering and I was ready, front and center. First, a man with a very big knife, placed the sheep on the threshold of the house. With my host family's house, it was the dirt alleyway outside the wooden door. From there, either the man spoke sweet, gentle nothings into the ear of the sheep or a quick prayer was said. I prefer to be a romantic and believe the first. With the words said, the wool was pushed aside at the neck and a long, swift slice was made. The man with the big knife then stood back and let the sheep squirt its blood until it's last breath was exhausted. This sometimes took a while and the sheep would kick and move with it's head half severed. While this was an amusing site, it left blood splattered everywhere.

The slaughtering begins. I think I saw a total of 5 sheep being slaughtered that day. I'd say that's enough for a lifetime.

The river of blood draining from the sheep.

As soon as it was evident that the sheep was dead, the head was completely cut off. What happened next kind of disgusted me. The men working on the sheep made little incisions on the legs and began to blow into them. Quickly, the sheep expanded and began to look like a pinata. As if the imagery wasn't enough, one of the men had a big stick and began to beat the sheep as it WAS a pinata. Everything expanded, and I mean EVERYTHING (please use your imagination.) I gathered that the blowing of air and the beating of the sheep was to separate the meat from the skin. I think it worked. The men then started to slice away the sheep skin. Eventually the sheep was hung so that the rest of the skin could be separated. I was amused at the fact that the men left a little ball of wool at the tip of the tail. Decoration, I presumed. After that, the innards, guts, stomach, and whatever the sheep had for eaten and not yet digested were all taken out and saved for later.

Sheep being blown up to allow air to separate the
skin from the meat. Host relative beating the sheep with a stick as if it were a pinata. Unfortunately, no candy or prizes fell out.

With all the sheep slaughtered, there was nothing to do but start eating. Boy did we eat. It was meat day in and day out. Meat for breakfast, meat for lunch, meat for dinner. I got so sick of just eating meat. At one point I snuck in an orange and I swear it tasted like meat. It wasn't bad at the beginning because we ate the "good" meat. For the first few nights, we had a lot of brochettes (kabobs if you will.) Those were pretty tasty. After the "good" meat was all gone, however, my host family began to prepare the not so good parts of the animal. This mainly consisted of the stomach, intestines and just plain old sheep fat. Folks, I've eaten a lot of strange things since I've been here (camel, sheep brains, eyeballs, stomach, bull heart, chicken liver, cinnamon ... you name it, I've probably eaten it) but I just wasn't up for anymore body parts. I finally drew the line when my host family served me sheep testicles for lunch. There was just no way those things were going in my mouth. I just smiled and respectfully declined. It's now been, umm, let me count... 13 days since my host family slaughtered the sheep and we're still eating from it. Here's a thought for you to ponder: my host family doesn't have a refrigerator. The first few days, the sheep was hanging outside next to the bathroom (more like an outhouse) and after that, they brought it inside and kept it in the room where we all eat, hang out and where the entire family goes to sleep. I had no clue where they had been keeping it since then until I went into a small, vacant room the other day and found meat curing from the ceiling.

Hopefully, the meat supply will be depleted soon. If not, I'm happy to say that I will be moving into my house in a few days and have no intention of cooking meat, at least not for the first few months anyway.

I decided that the day just wouldn't be complete unless I picked up the sheep head. Not very pretty. I got blood all over my hands.

The sheep cadaver that was hanging outside bathroom.

Friday, January 06, 2006

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Tinghir

How many Moroccan men does it take to change a flat tire?

Sarah and Mamma Fatima. Nobody was injured in the making of this photograph.

I would like to take a little time and explain the transportation system in Morocco. There are several ways in which a Peace Corps volunteer, not permitted to drive a car, can get around in this country: taxi, bus, transit, bicycle (with a helmet) or, in rare cases, donkey or camel. I have yet to travel via donkey or camel but I'm sure my day will come. Larger cities have petite taxis, small taxis that can carry up to three people, and can take you to your destination within that city. Grand taxis, taxis carrying 6 people, travel from city to city. How can one taxi carry 6 people, not including the driver? That's simple. They shove 4 people in the back seat of the taxi and 2 people in the front seat. It is the most uncomfortable traveling experience and to my astonishment, not illegal. I think the only person that is comfortable during the ride is the taxi driver because he gets his own seat. Buses aren't that bad to travel in, though it might take forever to get anywhere because of the constant stops. If you're lucky enough to travel in a nice bus, the trip can be rather enjoyable. However, if you aren't so fortunate and must travel in a souq bus, well, now that's a different story. Traveling on a souq bus is like being on Ol' McDonald's Farm. You could quite possibly be sitting next to a sheep or a chicken for the duration of the trip. Transits, small vans, are used to transport people to and from villages. Generally, transits are built to carry 12-15 people. The most people in one transit I've counted so far is 24. Although not my chosen mode of transportation, this is what I have to use on a regular basis.
Two days a week, I catch a transit out of my site to take me to Tinghir. Tinghir, population 36,000, is where I do all my shopping, use the internet and where I spend 7 dirhams to take a really long, hot shower at the public "douche". My ride to Tinghir takes approximately 30-45 minutes, depending on how many times the driver stops and picks up other passengers. I say approximately because I never really know what's going to happen. In fact, just last week, not on one of the days but on BOTH of the days I was coming into Tinghir, my transits got flat tires. I couldn't believe it. The first time it happened, all the passengers got out of the transit and waited patiently until the men changed the tire. I, also patiently waiting, sat on the side of the road and read my book. The second time it happened, just two days after the first incident, I got out of the transit and could do nothing but shake my head and start laughing. Those around me couldn't quite pinpoint what was so funny but I knew this was going to be one of many transportation incidents during my stay in Morocco. I mean, what else could I do but laugh?
As far as bicycles go, each Peace Corps volunteer is issued one upon swearing in. Well, it's actually not that simple. We don't hold up our right hand, swear to uphold all the Peace Corps stuff that we have to uphold and then they say "here's your bike." After swearing in, we go to our final site and then at some point within the next few months, Peace Corps stops by and gives you your bike. Sarah, a volunteer near my site, and I were fortunate enough to get our bikes a couple of weeks ago. The first day I had my bike, I decided to ride to the post office and check my mail. My site has no paved roads and it had been raining all week so my bike was covered in mud by the time I returned to my host family. Upon returning, I set my bicycle inside of the house and went across the street to have dinner at the neighbors house. When I came back to my host family's house, I found my host Grandmother standing in the doorway with mud all over her face and hands. I was taken aback because I didn't know why she was covered in mud. I thought that because my host Grandmother is religious woman, that it had something to do with a Muslim ritual I was unaware of. Not questioning it, I, along with my host cousin, continued talking to my host Grandmother. That is, until curiosity got to me and I just had to ask why she had mud all over her. Well, come to realize, my host Grandmother, who I must mention is also almost completely blind, was rummaging around the house and came to an unidentifiable object. At that point, she felt around the object to try and identify it. She pressed her hands and, yes, her face to this object and finally realized that someone had left a bicycle in the house. The mud on her hands and face was a result of me leaving my newly issued Peace Corps bicycle in the house and not telling her that I had put it there. No harm done though. She got a kick out of the whole thing but still asks me everyday where I left my bicycle.
Sarah's host mom also had a run in with her newly issued Peace Corps bicycle. I was with Sarah when she got her bike. We had the bike propped up on its kickstand while we were trying to figure out how the safety lock worked and while Sarah was trying on her new helmet. Next thing we know, we turn around and Sarah's host mom is climbing on the bike. We don't know whether it was the anticipation or the sheer excitement of getting on a new bike but Sarah's host mom just started laughing. She laughed so hard that she and the bike both fell to the ground. At first, Sarah and I were worried that she was hurt but after seeing that she was still laughing, we started laughing too. Once again, what else can you do but laugh.
As for the donkey and the camel ... Inshalla, yan wes ... God willing, one day.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Happy New Year!

Sarah, Jonathan and I at restaurant in Marrakesh for New Years

Sarah getting coal placed on her eyes in preparation for s'sbae

At s'sbae with women. Incidentally, the baby I'm holding is not the baby that the s'sbae was being held for.

I hope that everyone is happy and excited about starting a new year. I certainly know that I am. Thanks to all that wrote or called to wish me happy holidays. I believe it was the first Christmas I've spent away from home so it was great to hear a few familiar voices. I had a quiet Christmas with a few other volunteers. We borrowed a friends apartment that doesn't live very far away from us and ended up just hanging out and making dinner. Since all of us are still living with host families, it was nice to be able to get in the kitchen and make our own food. New years was a different story and not so quiet. Some friends and I went to Marrakesh for the weekend. What an amazing place! We had reservations at a restaurant in town that served us a 30 course meal, or at least it seemed like it. We had everything from sushi, shrimp and pate to grilled fish and filet mignon. They even served sorbet to cleans the palette. All this was topped with desert and a champagne toast at midnight. Now, I don't know about you but I certainly have not been accustomed to this kind of service or food over the last 4 months. On any given day I am served a tagine of carrots, potatoes and maybe a little meat on top of it. Sometimes I have cous cous and I get really excited if I'm given a spoon to eat with. So, needless to say, I was in heaven. We topped the night off with a live band (drummer from Philly and guitar player from Seattle) and lots of dancing.
Aside from Christmas and new years, the past few weeks have been filled with much excitement. Sarah, a volunteer that lives near my site, invited me to a s'sbae at her host family's house. A s'sbae is a party or celebration for the birth of a new baby. Sarah's host sister had just had a baby boy. The s'sbae usually lasts for a week or so. Different people come on different nights. I, of coarse, went on the day that all the women were invited. I got to the house before all the guests arrived so that I could help the family with all the preparations. Right before the women showed up, Sarah's host family decided to dress me up in the usual Moroccan attire. They had me in a full on jalaba with hair wrap to match. I guess they didn't think that my jeans and sweater were sufficient. The next thing I know, there were 80 women in the house; They came in, greeted everyone and sat in the large living room all along the wall. From there, Sarah and I took over. We went around and served tea and cookies to all the guests. I thought my waitressing days would be over when I came to Morocco but I guess I was wrong. Every now and then, the women would break out into songs. I wasn't quite sure what they were singing about but it was upbeat. They wanted Sarah and I to dance for them but we respectfully declined. We had drawn enough attention for ourselves just by being the only Americans in the room. From there on, the celebration continued but I had to get on a transit and go back to my site.

I want to say a great big HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Jake Addy! I have no clue where you are in the world (are you still in Alaska?) but I hope you have an amazing 24. It is the 3rd, right? Not the 13th? Just kidding. Happy birthday.