Life in the House Without Doors

I present you with Leah, circa 2008, elaborately bedecked in the traditional dress of the far away land in which she resides, about to attend a wedding with her host family, while her host sisters wear stylish Western outfits (only one sister pictured).

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Here I display the traditional Tamil practice of never smiling in photographs.

Now I present you with Leah, circa 2013, elaborately bedecked in the traditional dress of the far away land in which she resides, about to attend a wedding with her host family, while her host sisters wear stylish Western outfits.

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It’s fascinating to me how the only cultural capital greater than wearing Western dress to a community event is to bring a foreigner with you who is wearing your country’s national costume – the very thing you are disdaining to wear because it’s just not that cool.

Or perhaps it’s just that everywhere I ago, my wardrobe is found abysmally wanting! My two host sisters, ages 16 and 22, are routinely disappointed by my lack of skinny jeans (“They are SOOO big!” said one sister of my jeans as she unpacked my belongings). Happily they have discovered that I’ll pretty much wear anything they put me in, so I’ve shown up to Darija class in a few interesting outfits: a Minnie Mouse shirt with incorrect French writing, a panther print tunic, and an asymmetrical striped thing that was a tad tight for my taste. As always, I am zwiiina bizef! 

I have had some less than stellar host family experiences in the past, so I approached the host family element of Peace Corps’ Community-Based Training (CBT) with some apprehension. Of course I’d heard of the famed Moroccan generosity and hospitality, but I also firmly believe that people are people are people and there are all kinds to be found – even in Morocco.

Imagine then my ongoing delight at having landed an extraordinary family that I feel genuinely emotionally attached to. Yes, there are still the awkward moments – I left my slippers outside of my room again, OOPS – but these are absolutely eclipsed by the general environment of merriment and fun. My two host sisters are over the moon to have me around, and my 12-year-old host brother loves to trounce me at UNO (guess how Leah learned her colors and numbers). My host sister-in-law and her daughter, 2 1/2, also live with us. The little one is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen and I want to devour her on a daily basis. Moroccans don’t seem to have compunctions about feeding their kids lots of candy – even before breakfast – so most of my camera’s memory card has been taken up with documenting my host niece’s absolute zaniness while she’s on a sugar high, which is pretty much all the time.

My host mother told me that the moment she saw me at the Youth Center in our town she knew I was her daughter, even before I was introduced. When I heard that I thought, lucky I turned out to be the one, otherwise she would have been very disappointed! But as the days pass I’m tempted to regard it, as I believe they do, as fate. I especially love how expansively Moroccans use their family terminology; I believe they would be truly saddened by the number of times I’ve used “host” in this post. They constantly say, “My beautiful sister” or “Now we have three daughters” or something along those lines. My host father said the other day, “You have a black father! How strange!” (Speaking of which, no one has spoken to me about race in Morocco, but if my parents were in America they would qualify as an interracial couple. I want to know more about the politics – or lack there of – of race in Morocco!)

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Ironically I look more like my host mother than either of her daughters, something everyone LOVES to point out.

I still enjoy a privileged position in the house – not only do I get fed the choicest pieces of meat at mealtimes, I sleep in my own room (Peace Corps encourages host families to provide their resident Trainee with a semi-private space). And like all the rooms in the house (including the bathroom), it has no doors! Curtains are hung in all of the doorways in the house and pulled away from the thresholds during the day. The effect is rather romantic, and it also facilitates the close family intimacy and lack of individual space that life here entails. It’s certainly been an adjustment to a life with hardly any privacy, but it’s been more enjoyable than I expected it would be given how much I take pleasure in spending time with the family. Even when I have been ill, it’s been unthinkable that I would want to rest alone. After all, why would I want to subject myself to the loneliness of being away from the chatting and dancing and TV soap operas that is evening life in the salon, on top of being sick?

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A demonstration of the curtains-as-doors philosophy of interior decorating. Bonus points if you can spot the Northampton, MA mug and the Tide pen, both gifts from the states!

Like nearly all buildings in Morocco, our house doesn’t have central heating, so our breath is visible inside (an odd sensation at first!). I wear multiple layers, sleep with a hot water bottle, and only bathe once a week in the hammam. In the evenings when everyone watches TV or does their homework, we cuddle on the couches under blankets, and I frequently receive admonitions to put a scarf or a hat on my head. I actually haven’t found the cold to be that bad, and we certainly have it better than those in the mountains. I haven’t started exhibiting any adverse reactions to the cold yet – we have a few cases of chillblains among my fellow Trainees, but so far I remain unfrostbitten, alhamdulillah!  

In short, I am happy. I frequently dwell on the reality that many cross-cultural experiences that are bizarre or befuddling to me actually provide endless amounts of hilarity and diversion for host country nationals. Count preparing for the wedding we attended high on that list! In this case, my makeup was done in the current Arab style (read: HEAVY on the blue eye shadow, big emphasis on the eyebrows), my hair was unsuccessfully wrangled out of its stubborn Western predisposition to curl, and I was strapped into a caftan five inches too long by four women speaking rapid Darija. My absolute inability to walk in high heels or perform any of these tasks by myself (to satisfaction) meant that the preparations evolved into a comedy routine for all observers. In the end, however, my family nearly peed themselves from the overwhelming BEAUTY of the end result, and that night the novelty factor of a foreigner in a caftan meant that I was a gigantic visual hit.

My take? I personally felt I resembled a middle-aged lady of the night. But hey – a lot of people laughed on my account, so I must be doing something right in the world!

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One Response to Life in the House Without Doors

  1. Elena says:

    Leah, this is absolutely fabulous! I love reading about your host family and your writing is (as always) such a pleasure to read. I laughed out loud more than once. Also, I would like to note that, although I had to enlarge the photo to find them, I DID spot the Noho mug and the Tide pen (after much searching for the latter – I love the placement!)

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