I wrote in another post about girls’ empowerment. I want to zoom in on a part of that post where I said, “in my experience, the core of empowerment lies in being vulnerable and building a community. And sometimes, all it takes to empower someone else is asking her the right questions and trying to understand her answer.”
Everyone has their baggage, and it’s definitely not easy to serve or work overseas. But having your own problems and weaknesses doesn’t prevent you from helping other people. In fact, it might even enable you to help more people. I couldn’t really identify the power of question asking until I was lucky enough to be coached by my friend Alanna Sousa, an Atlas Corps Fellow from Brazil.
Goals Are Just a Coping Mechanism
Alanna helped me break down my career anxieties and identify goals for myself. Around the same time, another Atlas Corps Fellow named Deepa wrote a blogpost entitled “Every wondered? Why is it so important to have something to look forward to?” As Deepa alluded to in her blogpost, identifying my goals and receiving feedback gave me a sense of security, hope, and peace. It made me feel empowered, even if my goals have changed and will continue to change countless times.
Along with this concept of measuring value not by productivity but by relationships, it seems to me that while goals and dreams are elusive, they are a coping mechanism to keep us moving forward. Along the way forward, we affect and are affected by different people—and that’s where a lot of our real value lies.
Psychologists need Psychologists; Coaches need Coaches
I have a friend here in Morocco who I have been informally coaching, just as Alanna did with me. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I have plenty of anxieties and unknowns, but it doesn’t prevent me from asking this friend questions about her future. As an outsider, I can offer a different perspective on life choices, opportunities, and relationships. I can ask my friend questions—such as “What are your obstacles? What opportunities do you have? What are you afraid of?”—that a lifelong friend wouldn’t normally ask so point-blank.
Talking to this friend about her future helps her feel empowered. We discuss plans for university, what makes her feel excited, and how things inside her head and within her environment might be affecting her. Our friendship is one of equality, and I would feel lonely and less supported in Morocco without her. In addition, my experience in Morocco will offer more growth for me than it will for anyone I meet here.
Yet the “coaching” aspect of our relationship epitomizes for me an important benefit of international exchange. New questions from people outside our communities are the fuel we need to see ourselves beyond our everyday contexts like traditions, gender roles, religion, family expectations, or self-perception.
Exchanges Don’t Grow On Trees
You might be thinking “wow, I’m starting to understand why Julie’s so obsessed with international exchange! I wish I could help build capacity of people on exchange programs right now.” Well lucky for you readers that are real people and make money, you have the opportunity to directly fund the rest of Alanna’s fellowship.
For Alanna to continue her fellowship, she needs to raise $15,000. She already has an anonymous donor who will be matching contributions dollar-to-dollar in this campaign. As an Atlas Corps Fellow, Alanna is serving at Liter of Light USA, which is a charitable organization dedicated to telling the story of more than one billion people around the world who suffer from the debilitating effects of energy poverty.
As one of the founders of Liter of Light in Brazil, Alanna has unique perspective and know-how for building sustainable strategic and educational programs for Liter of Light USA. As you can see from this video, Liter of Light's work makes a direct difference in people's lives around the world. On an even more micro level, though, you would be supporting Alanna, and the impact she has via not just her work, but also her relationships with people like me.
Unfortunately, we can’t solve global, cross cutting issues with a credit card. But we can impact each other’s stories by asking the right questions. Can you be a part of this story?
I think I might be more focused on age and maturity than the average person. That’s because, ever since I was little, I’ve felt younger, or “less mature,” than my age. While I am by definition an adult, people mistake me all the time for being a teenager. It doesn’t help that my voice is very high pitched and my personality is most often described as quirky and energetic.
I wish people’s opinions didn’t affect my self-image, but then again, I’m human. So having had people tell me I look and seem younger than my age my whole life, makes it difficult to feel like the adult I’ve become. Through the lens of this insecurity, it’s hard to avoid pegging my maturity to constructed career and relationship benchmarks for my age.
Are Careers Longitudinal?
For example, once I began working, I was convinced that joining Peace Corps at the ripe old age of 25 would set me behind in the giant race that is life. Some people think Peace Corps is only for young, wanderlust post-grads who don’t know which career to choose.
After working for a whole three years (such a long and illustrious career, I know), I didn’t want to fit into that constructed trope. I was also worried that I wouldn’t find anyone to connect with, since all the other volunteers would be naïve, party-hard 21- and 22- year olds that lack my refined wisdom and sensibility (please read that with sarcasm). Shocker: my age has not hindered or affected my experience here at all, and there is a wide age range among volunteers.
Same (Wedding) Song, Different Story
In addition to career benchmarks, the tendency to peg maturity to relationship benchmarks followed me into my 20s and into Morocco. Once I moved back to DC a year out of college, I found myself in a lot of conversations around dating and marriage.
“When’s the average age for people to get married?”
“It’s so weird to see my friends getting married.” “Wait ‘til your friends start having babies.’
“I don’t want to get married until I’m at least 30.”
“I can’t imagine being ready to settle down, like her. I’d rather see the world, I’m not done exploring.”
“I’m swearing off dating. I never want to get married.”
The people I’ve talked to in both the U.S. and Morocco are equally focused on marriage, regardless of whether you are on the marriage train or consciously avoiding the dating world. The norms and discourse surrounding marriage might be different, but it has still been a focal point of conversation about and among women during my time in DC and my short time in Imouzzer.
In both Morocco and the U.S. (and in any country, for that matter), there are plenty of women who are past the average age of marriage, without a relationship. And I’m 100% sure that those women have had to explain their marital status or lack of significant other at least once. People constantly discussing marital status and motherhood might make unmarried women and not-mothers question their own maturity in the context of womanhood and age.
Are Mothers More Mature?
It’s made me question my own maturity, anyway. In the U.S., there are some people in my circle my own age who are married or getting married. In Morocco, I have two host sisters, one is my age and has two kids, and one is 21 years old and has a toddler. I feel like I connect more with my 18-year-old host sister. Because of my age insecurity, my engaged and married friends back home and my host sisters with children here make me wonder if my own maturity level is where it should be.
Does getting married or having a child make you more mature? After posing this question to my CBT group, there was a consensus that maturity cannot be gleaned from facts on paper. Being married or having children raises expectations and responsibilities, but the presence of those responsibilities does not automatically make someone mature.
Maturity is Invisible
If I got married or had babies right now, I’d probably rise to the occasion, depending on my circumstances. But I can still be mature even if I’m childless, single, and constantly goofing off. A 50-year-old that doesn’t know their next career move, or a 25-, 35-, or 77- year-old Peace Corps Volunteer, can be just as mature or immature as anyone else. Likewise, a married 20-year-old is not automatically oppressed or disadvantaged (slight digression).
I’m not going to sit here and try to define maturity, but one thing I can say with some definiteness is that I need to stop trying to measure my maturity by the way I look, what I’m doing, and who I connect with.
In an op-ed, pundit David Brooks observes that “our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.” Indeed, to prepare my resume, I’ve always been told to quantify my achievements and use specificity to set myself apart from the crowd. I’m clear on the career- and relationship-based expectations and assumptions for where I “should” be for my age. But maturity is independent of these benchmarks.
Recognizing that relationship- and career-related maturity indicators are constructed helps me understand where my insecurities about my own maturity come from. And having made the decision to join Peace Corps despite these insecurities helped me liberate myself from them.
I have gotten requests from some people to just write a normal blog post about what I do every day, rather than my usual self-righteous/self-deprecating introspections. I’ll try, but please just humor me if I editorialize or go off into space every now and then.
Every morning I wake up with about 30 minutes to spare until my Darija class starts. I eat a quick breakfast at home or on-the-go (coffee and some bread/cheese) and go to class. I have Darija class from 9:00 AM until 1:00 PM with the other Americans in my Community-Based Training site. Our Language & Culture Facilitator (LCF) teaches us in her home here. She is amazing :)
I have about two hours of break after class, where I go home to lots of children, and my host sisters. My host mom or one of my host sisters (who also is a mom herself) makes lunch. Usually lunch is tagine, salad and lots of bread. By this time there’s about 7-8 people in the host family’s living room, gathered around the tagine to eat. There is never a quiet moment in my house. Usually once my post-lunch food coma has been induced, I go to my room for 30 minutes or so for some quiet time. Then I’m off for my afternoon.
My LCF and the five other people in my training site meet at the youth association near my house. We work on our computers to prepare for our volunteer work here in Imouzzer. We have met with the leader of the association to discuss how we can be helpful here. To start, we are going to be holding free English classes at the women’s center, youth association, and girls’ dormitory (this is where girls from the countryside sleep during the week so they can attend secondary school here).
Basically, our service here is just training for our service at our main sites, which we’ll go to in December. We are learning about how to implement tools from Participatory Analysis for Community Development (PACA), which is a methodology designed to communicate information, identify needs, and lay the groundwork for community action to solve problems. A big part of PACA relies on the development agent (me) eliciting a partnership with representative segments of the local community to analyze, identify projects, determine indicators, monitor, and evaluate.
In Imouzzer, my CBT group is learning how to do that by the example of our Language and Cultural Facilitator as both leader and translator. With the LCF’s coordination, we have visited and met with representatives from the youth association, women’s center, girls’ dormitory, and local high school. The most direct practice we’ve had so far was a “community mapping” activity we did with about 70 girls in the dormitory, aged 13-19.
We asked the girls to group up and map how they saw their community, the areas where they had access, and what they hope to see in their community in the future. They also wrote down the types of things they did over the weekend. Activities like these showed us how effective ideas are not created in a vacuum, and the role of the volunteer is more of a facilitator, or orchestrator, then a spearhead of any initiative.
There is usually “kaskrut” (snack) around 7 pm, which consists of delicious bread that is basically just butter, and then some more butter, and some tea. Pictures of carboload below, which is why I might need to buy all new pants. From kaskrut until bedtime it’s very relaxed. My host siblings play or do homework, and a lot of times we dance to youtube videos. Obviously my host sisters are way better dancers than me, but no stopping me, unfortunately. Sometimes I eat dinner, and sometimes I insist that I’m still full from kaskrut.
It’s usually around this time, when I’m just contemplatively sitting in my family’s living room, that I realize I’m in Morocco as a Peace Corps Trainee. It seems like I overanalyzed this decision for so many years, and now that I’m here, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. It seems like I took my decisions and myself a bit too seriously from DC. The hardest part of my Peace Corps service has nothing to do with Peace Corps being hard—the hardest part (so far) is just being away from home. It’s not hard to sit around eating bread with friendly and hospitable people. It’s hard when I think that I’m not going to live at home for the next two years. Okay, actually, it’s also hard feeling like an idiot in Darija, but that’s a reality of any international experience where you don't know the language.
Besides, as a close friend reminded me via an insightful webcomic, we don’t make choices to be happy, but rather, because we’re interested. And as another close friend’s favorite author said, life has less to do with passion than with choosing curiosity over fear. I think I’m lucky that my friends are full of wisdom and motivation. Every day before I go to sleep, I read a page from a book of notes from Atlas Corps Fellows, and it reminds me that every up, down, and feeling of uncertainty is okay. Curiosity usually doesn’t lead us to idealistic, easy, or even resolvable situations, but that doesn’t mean I should regret following it.
I think curiosity is our friend that teaches us how to become ourselves. And it's a very gentle friend, and a very forgiving friend, and a very constant one. Passion is not so constant, not so gentle, not so forgiving, and sometimes not so available. And so when we live in a world that has come to fetishize passion above all, there's a great deal of pressure around that.
Around 11:30 pm or midnight I try to go to sleep, but it’s really hard because I get nervous that I won’t be able to sleep. That’s because every time I start trying to go to sleep, I totally forget to think about my life in the context of one day. The distractions of daily life are not there to remind me that I’m just one human out of 7 billion, and tonight is just one night out of hopefully many. I had the same problems back home, and they have nothing to do with location. All of these big questions decide to creep into my brain such as:
What will the next two years look like? What will happen if I never fall asleep? What if coming to Morocco was the wrong decision? What if I never matter to anyone? What if I don’t have strengths? What if I hurt people during the day? What if I was rude or selfish? What if I’m tired tomorrow and can’t take full advantage of the day? What if I'm wasting taxpayer dollars by being here? Why do I feel so stressed out when my life is so easy? What if I spend my whole life wrapped up in invisible problems that I created in my own mind?
It's very angsty stuff, I know. Like P!nk's 2002 hit "Don't Let Me Get Me." No matter how great my life is, these questions won’t go away. They’re not based in reality. I think my sleep issues are getting better as I try to get out of my own overanalytical, self-conscious head. I try to remember that, judging from the past, none of these self-centered “what if’s” actualizing will change this beautiful and terrible world.
If I can’t get out of my head, I wake up my host sister and she reminds me of the above, by being there and talking with me. At least my biggest personal problems (which aren’t very big)—like insomnia and over-analysis—are also what connect me with other people.
Fajr means dawn in Arabic and refers to the time when there’s the first call to prayer (adhan) of the day; usually around 4:30 or 5:00 am. Sometimes, if I wake up, I get to be reminded of God’s greatness during this time. When the adhan does wake me up, I briefly think about the people around the world who wake up to pray at this time. I wonder if they have an easier time realizing how small we all are. I still don’t know, and it’s hard to imagine having the faith and dedication to wake up that early and pray every day.
I think that unwavering faith is one of those things you can’t really understand unless you have it yourself. I wish I could see through both lenses and identify the better view. But for now I live without personal prayer, and most of the time, without Fajr. I guess the only thing I live with is uncertainty, which is okay with me.
It’s the week before I leave for Morocco and my mom and I are at Rio doing a last-minute search for Tevas. We pass by Justice, the girls’ clothing store that has supplanted Limited Too, my style inspiration from childhood (and adolescence—I was that kid). I point out to my mom how the pink rhinestone t-shirts that used to say “Girls Got Game, Boys Got Shame” and “Sweet Dreams,” now say things like “Make Your Own Path,” “Everyone Loves a Brave Girl,” “Smart Girls,” and “Girls Can Change the World.”
“Seems like an awful lot of pressure,” my mom remarked. I couldn’t help but agree. When I was a girl, I didn’t see myself as a morally upstanding global citizen out to change the world (granted, it was probably because I didn’t have a backpack that reminded me I could). I couldn’t help but wonder if the intentionally feminist messages on these shirts appealed more to millennial mothers asking, “can women have it all,” versus their 8-year-old daughters wearing them.
These thoughts about girls and millennial feminism resurfaced during Peace Corps orientation. Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative recently announced programming in Morocco. Let Girls Learn calls on organizations worldwide to make commitments aimed at “ensuring adolescent girls across the world attain a quality education that empowers them to reach their full potential.”
As part of this announcement, Morocco became Peace Corps’ 36th Let Girls Learn country, meaning that Peace Corps staff will train community leaders and us volunteers to “advance girls’ education and empowerment.” Peace Corps Volunteers will work with “local leaders to focus on building critical skills for leadership and employment.”
In line with this initiative, Peace Corps Volunteers have been facilitating “Girls Leading Our World (GLOW)” and “Boys Respecting Others (BRO)” camps, clubs, and events. In addition, current Peace Corps- Morocco Volunteers have worked with girls featured in the movie We Will Rise, which is premiering on CNN International on this year’s International Day of the Girl. The movie focuses on the girls’ “challenges and resiliency in the name of education.”
Education & Empowerment
As you can see from the Peace Corps- Let Girls Learn partnership, girls’ education and empowerment go hand-in-hand, and empowerment is often seen as an outcome of education. Girls around the world may be barred an education due to physical, cultural, and financial power structures. Some reasons include the cost of education, distance to school, unsafe schools, gender norms, poverty, lack of healthcare access, and early marriage/pregnancy. Yet “when [women] have higher levels of education,” a study by the International Center for Research on Women observes, they “are more likely to control their own destinies and effect change in their own communities.”
And while education is not a new term, the word “empowerment” has gotten increasingly popular. Goal 5 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” According to Rebecca Tiessen in “Everwhere/nowhere: Gender Mainstreaming in Development Agencies,” “the term ‘empowerment’ has gained increased popularity in the development literature and among NGOs, research institutions, and UN agencies alike. In fact, empowerment embodies a transition from top-down planning to participatory processes that enable individuals to be active agents of their own development.”
Yet empowerment is not something a teacher can impart on his or her students. As some development NGOs have recognized, education needs to be accompanied by efforts to develop self-esteem to help girls see past the inferiorizing power structures within their societies. It’s not enough to know calculus. It’s more important to know that you’re worth more than your ability to mother a child. In fact, there are people who lack extensive education yet are still empowered.
Are Some Girls Born Empowered?
According to the World Bank, empowerment means to “enhance the capacity of an individual or group to make purposive choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes.” As an op-ed in the New York Times critiques, empowerment has “turned into a theory that applied to the needy while describing a process more realistically applicable to the rich.”
If empowerment is a goal for marginalized girls, are girls with resources and access to education already empowered? Has my own privilege—my access to education and sense of freedom—made me automatically empowered? If the answer is yes, than empowerment as a goal is just as gendered as other language in top-down development planning.
But I’m a critical optimist. I believe that empowerment has good intentions, that, absent criticism, can become another way to inferiorize girls born into difficult circumstances. Instead of focusing on outside factors in society—such as patriarchal norms, lack of access to resources, or a poor education system—empowerment means realizing and believing in the power that lies within. Girls’ empowerment is a necessity everywhere, regardless of present challenges and hardships. And girls with privilege are born with no more inner strength than girls without.
Take my own empowerment, for instance. Empowerment helps people gain control over their lives, and there have been plenty of times this year where I felt like I didn’t have control of my life. But I leaned on friends and family who made me feel empowered again. Indeed, many loved ones in my life helped me see myself as a leader as opposed to a future mother. One positive influence in particular was B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, and specifically my chapter, Ahavah.
Leadership, Self-Esteem, Vulnerability
While being really into your Jewish youth group sounds cool, brace yourself--I’m about to make it sound even cooler. Ahavah was known as the chapter that didn’t hang out with boys. At dances we would sway awkwardly in our own circle. On Saturday nights we slept over in each other’s basements doing arts and crafts, talking about how we inspire one another, getting ridiculously into themes, and doing ceremonies with candles. Once a year there was Lifetimes, where the graduating high school seniors would talk for hours about their lives in Ahavah, to sappy music and burning candles that had been passed down for years.
We also had Good and Welfare in Ahavah, where, once everyone was in their sleeping bags, we would turn off the lights and take turns venting. The five categories we vented about were—school, friends, BBG, boys (most of us weren’t really at the point where we could identify heteronormativity), and family. During the “boys” section in Good and Welfare, I would make up five to eight boyfriends that I was dramatically juggling. My insecurities about not being popular or dateable became funny, not belittling. I think I learned to be vulnerable in Ahavah. I learned that even if I was the only one dressed up as Mimi from Rent, or even if I planned an event that fell flat on its face, I could still be valued, and a leader.
As Amy Schumer says in at the end of her book The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo “beautiful, ugly, funny, boring, smart or not, my vulnerability is my ultimate strength… I’m proud of this ability to laugh at myself—even if everyone can see my tears, just like they can see my dumb, senseless, wack, lame lower back tattoo.” I agree with Amy Schumer. Vulnerability lies at the core of the self-esteem that all girls need to think of themselves as leaders. Our societies will never be perfect, and we will never be fully empowered. But knowing our obstacles in society, and knowing ourselves, enables us to empower others in the meantime.
Towards Collaboration, Not Competition
Empowerment has been criticized as focusing on “entrepreneurship and individual self-reliance, rather than on co-operation to challenge power structures which subordinate women (or other marginalised groups).” But in my experience, the core of empowerment lies in being vulnerable and building a community. And sometimes, all it takes to empower someone else is asking her the right questions and trying to understand her answer.
Peace Corps, like my view of empowerment, is not competitive; there is no formal way to evaluate volunteers or measure their progress against one another. As I mentioned in my first blog post, Peace Corps Volunteers have learned to define their value more by their relationships, rather than their productivity.
Yes, Peace Corps Morocco has kept track of numbers for the White House fact sheet—“the Peace Corps Let Girls Learn fund has supported over 200 projects, with more than 200 in the pipeline.” At the same time, Peace Corps Volunteers are not being held to formal productivity standards. This makes the fluid mission of girls’ empowerment a more realistic aim for volunteers. A girl’s sense of empowerment can’t be measured, just like a Volunteer’s impact can’t be measured, just like our own levels of empowerment can’t be measured.
Whether you’re a girl living in the U.S., who needs courage to express her true gender, a girl seeking to escape from domestic violence in Pakistan, or a girl seeking better education in Morocco, empowerment means having the agency to define your individual, community, and institutional value from within. It is something that has the potential to make domestic and international development goals more collaborative and less competitive.
It’s true—I have no idea what it’s like to face social, cultural, economic, and physical challenges to pursuing an education. But I know all too well what it’s like to be a girl with fluctuating self-esteem. And it has been support, not competition that pushes me forward.
I received feedback that my last blog post was too long and not in line with the human attention span of 2016. Fair enough. But over the past two weeks, there have been a lot of things I want to write about. So in future blogs, I’m going to write about what productive language learning means, religious identity, American exceptionalism, women’s empowerment, and age for women being a very weird thing, in every country. Please watch out for more, hopefully frequent posts, if you’re interested. No pressure.
I do want to say sorry to people that I haven’t been in close touch with. Even though I'll have a lot of free time once I’m at site, this pre-service training portion (with my host family and language classes) makes it so that I’m always around people. It was even difficult to find time to write this blog post. So I hope that you can forgive me for breaking the promise I made to be good about keeping in touch.
A brief update—I have moved from outside Rabat to a place near Ifrane for my community-based training (CBT). I’m living with a host family with six children (the oldest one lives in Fes) and the extended family also lives nearby and hangs out here a lot. I love them :) . One of my biggest fears going into a host family where I didn’t know the language was awkward silence. I can say that this is no longer a warranted fear, since there is never a moment of silence in the house. It’s just like my parent’s house, but with like, 10 times more small children.
My Uncomplicated Love for Turkey
Since I got to Morocco, part of my “about myself” that I tell people is about the time I spent in Turkey. A lot of the time people get excited about this and mention how they watch Turkish soap operas. Turkish cultural influence in the Arab world is big, especially when it comes to entertainment. You can see here a youtube video we watched of a little girl reciting verses from the Quran in Turkish with Arabic subtitles. My host siblings were in tears.
The way that I connect with Moroccans over Turkish cultural exports is different than the way I’m carrying out U.S. cultural diplomacy because of my nuanced view of my own national identity. There are a lot of great things about American culture, maybe even things I take for granted. But my enthusiasm about American culture is complicated by my own critiques of our political system and polarizing social issues within our country. I’m still a part of American soft power, but the point of people-to-people diplomacy is to paint a realistic picture of the U.S., not an idealistic one.
I can be more enthusiastic as a foreigner about my love for Turkish language and culture, just like many Moroccans. Turkey, like every country, definitely has its fair share of social and political issues. When scary things happen in Turkey, I share my sadness and fear with loved ones in Turkey. But since I’m not actually Turkish, I can pick and choose the parts of Turkey that I’m culturally exporting here as a foreigner. The Turkey I know and love is not weighed down by critiques of Turkish society, since, as a foreigner, I don’t feel ownership of these critiques.
White Privilege and Looking Turkish or Moroccan
Friends know that I have this habit of compulsively lying about where I’m from. If I’m in the U.S., I’ll tell curious Uber drivers, waiters, or random people that I meet that I’m Turkish. If I’m in Turkey, I’ll say I’m from Azerbaijan. Sometimes I do this because I get bored of saying my same story over and over again (although Potomac is a pretty interesting place to be from, right?). Sometimes I do this because (depending on where I am) I don’t need my Semitic looks to give away my religion. And sometimes I do it to blend in.
I love being able to fit in. But it’s not until we had our Diversity Session in our Peace Corps orientation that I realized just why this habit is problematic. My excitement, when someone says “you look exactly Turkish” or “you could be Moroccan” is a result of my white privilege in the U.S. My Americanness has never been called into question, and so I take it for granted. I’ve never felt “othered” and did not have to know or think about the concept of privilege until college, where I learned about it in a classroom. People without certain privileges, on the other hand, have to think about privilege starting from childhood.
On our day off, many volunteers, including me, took a day trip from our orientation site to Rabat. While me and two other friends were in the souk, we bumped into four other volunteers who are people of color. They had just been called “fake Americans” by a storekeeper. After our diversity session, I understood that these volunteers will have a more difficult service experience than me because of they way they look. They will have to field constant questions about where their families are from and assertions that they are not American.
While the U.S. has the concept of political correctness, systemic racism and white privilege still affects how people fit into the American fabric. Most Moroccans don’t know this, and are not aware of the complicated and important fact that the U.S. emerged out of white domination of native Americans, was built from enslavement of Africans, and succeeded due to waves of immigration that will hopefully continue. If you’ve been othered at home, having your Americanness called into question is not a fun way to change up your story. It’s too real.
Diversity in Exchange
Experiences of Americans of color overseas reminds me of something that Professors Weaver and Bates have pointed out in the “cultural adaptation” session at Atlas Corps orientations. The U.S., being a country of immigrants and home to “the American Dream,” has a culture that puts value on the present. People in many other countries maintain collective, familial history that stretches back in time before the founding of their present-day nation-state. Thus, asking people about their origin is much more common and acceptable outside the U.S. In the U.S., on the other hand, even if you have a thick accent and foreign flag on your bag, it can be considered rude to ask where you’re from (although I’m sure people still ask).
From my limited vantage point, it seems that this focus on origin in other countries is at odds with the fact that being of a non-European origin in the U.S. so often means inequality. In many ways it is more difficult to be a PCV of color and to constantly carry this burden of explanation. But diversity in exchange programs is essential for educating people outside the U.S., that the U.S. is not only the Eurocentric standard of beauty that it has been exporting. The U.S. is a flawed, unequal place whose beauty and potential lies in its diverse population.
Peace Corps “Third Goal “
It’s important to remember that just like people don’t have the full picture of what “American” means, most Americans don’t have the full picture of what “Moroccan” means. This gets into the much talked-about “third goal” of Peace Corps, which is “to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.”
This third goal is why Peace Corps encourages its volunteers to blog about their experiences, to give a window to American friends and family into their day-to-day lives in their country of service. So if you’re reading this, Peace Corps thanks you for contributing to its mission!
Anyway, national identity is complicated for every country, not just the U.S. For example, being a Turkish citizen does not mean that you are ethnically Turkish—almost 20% of Turkish citizens are Kurdish and many of these people speak Kurdish as a native language.
Likewise, most American people think of Morocco as a predominantly Arab country. However, more people here are more ethnically Amazigh as opposed to Arab. According to government estimates, 40-45% of Moroccans speak one of the three Amazigh dialects, and other sources believe this number is even higher. The Amazigh were Morocco’s original inhabitants, and now Morocco is described overall as “Arab-Berber” because many people are of mixed descent (the term Berber is considered offensive because it comes from “Barbarian,” a term Romans used in their Empire to describe anyone not speaking Latin). Many people in Imouzzer, including my host family, speak Tashelhit, known as Shilha in Moroccan Arabic. My family is trying to teach me both languages at the same time, and I have to explain to them that I’m not as smart as Moroccan children!
With my limited Darija, I have tried to open the topic of Amazigh national identity and relations with the government. I have gleaned that while rural Amazigh communities lack some of the resources of communities with mixed descent, there is not necessarily violent tension with the government regarding Amazigh national identity or cultural autonomy. At the same time, Amazigh languages only became constitutionally recognized in 2011. Previously, giving children Amazigh names was not permitted, and Amazigh people that did not know Darija could not participate in political or economic aspects of Moroccan society. While there has been efforts to teach the language and have things in written in the language, these efforts have been more political and symbolic than anything else.
Because Kurdish and Amazigh peoples could both be considered stateless nations (and there are many stateless nations that exist), I had the naive instinct to compare them. But the histories and current situation of Kurdish peoples in Turkey and Amazigh peoples in Morocco are extremely different. I hope to read and learn more about Amazigh history while I’m here. In the mean time, I’m getting to appreciate some of the beauty of Amazigh culture. My host mother and sisters thought it would be fun to play dress-up with me and put me in traditional Amazigh clothes. You can see pictures below, along with additional pictures of Imouzzer, and also my Moroccan boyfriend. Thanks for reading if you made it this far!
My name is Julie, in Turkish it's Jülide. Right now I'm serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco, and I'll write my thoughts here!