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!