Sunday, July 4, 2010

Nice Guys Looking for Wives

I loaned my camera to some of my host cousins for a couple of days, and when it was returned to me, I found it full of pictures they'd taken of themselves with the express purpose of my showing these pictures to my friends in America who would surely see the pictures and immediately want to marry them. I tried to explain that that's not really how we get married in America, but they were so sure that this tactic would work that I said I'd give it a try. So here are my cousins who are hoping to get married next summer, and are therefore on the hunt for wives. Let me know if you're interested.

Wedding Season Again, and this time I'm Ready for it

Last year I spent who knows how many hundreds of boring hours in hot, stuff, cramped rooms full of women waiting to be served a meal that would almost certainly make me sick the next morning. This year I've decided that wedding season is too short to spend attending the boring parts of weddings, and this year I'm refusing to go anywhere near rooms full of women, and also refusing to eat dinners. The plan is to sleep until about 2 or 3 am, then go to the wedding, hopefully missing the boring parts and showing up just in time for the dancing. We'll see how that strategy works.

Some random wedding reflections I've had this second time around:
Weddings last all night, not because there's anything all that fun happening, just because they're for some reason supposed to. There are often several empty hours in the evening when it feels like people are just waiting for it to get late enough for the wedding to start. The day after a wedding, it's entirely acceptable for an entire village to sleep and lounge around doing nothing literally all day. Sometimes I think maybe just having the excuse to be lazy the next day is the real reason for holding an all-night wedding.
One of my new favorite wedding traditions, which I'd never witnessed until this past weekend, is the public mocking of all the groom's wedding presents to the bride and her family. A representative of the groom's family opens the suitcase full of clothes and gifts, and presents them one by one to the crowd, all the time saying how beautiful each one is, and how lucky the bride is to have such a generous husband. Meanwhile, the men of the bride's family ridicule every article of clothing and the audience dies laughing, except me, since I still don't really understand Moroccan humor.
If you're putting on a wedding, it is extremely important to fairly distribute the wedding cookies. The biggest faux pas in a wedding seems to be accidentally giving one of the guests more or fewer cookies than the other guests. At the wedding my family held for my host brother, we counted and recounted every little dessert plate of cookies to make absolutely sure that everyone received exactly nine cookies, one of each of the nine varieties. At a wedding in Rabat I helped at, the women spent hours the night before arguing about how to arrange the 30 varieties of cookies on trays for each table, so that every guest would eat not only the same number of cookies, but the same number of "fancy" cookies (ones made with almonds). At some point around 3am in the middle of the cookie arranging, I was like, "seriously, guys, are people actually going to get upset about the number of cookies they do or don't get?" The answer was yes.
After a wedding, no matter how nice or fancy or expensive or fun it was, everyone spends the next few days talking about how it was nothing compared to their wedding, or the wedding they just held for their son/daughter/sister/brother, etc. When I got back from this wedding in Rabat, which to this point was the nicest, fanciest and most expensive wedding I'd been to, everyone in the village saw the need to bring out pictures and videos from previous weddings, and to point out all the flaws of the Rabat wedding.
Weddings are supposedly the best place to meet a future husband/wife, and girls get really excited about the possibility of getting noticed by some guy at a wedding. And yet there is zero interaction between young men and young women at weddings. The women and girls sit on one side, and only dance with each other, and the men and boys hover around the edges and also only dance with each other.
I have a Moroccan "kaftan" that I wear to every wedding. When I wear this kaftan in the village, I'm among the best-dressed women there. I wore this same kaftan to the wedding in Rabat a few weeks ago, and felt like a big country bumpkin next to the super fancy, sparkly dresses the women were wearing. I found out later that most people when they go to a fancy wedding rent a really fancy dress just for the night, and they're only like $10-15 to rent. The bride also usually rents her outfits, and throughout the night will change clothes several times, but all the dresses are brought by the wedding planner and returned in the morning. Pretty good system, actually.

Cutest Pastime Ever

Every spring, souk is full of baby chicks for sale. And everyone thinks the same thing: "this 6 dirham chick will grow up to be a 50 dirham chicken, let's buy a bunch". I decided to do a chicken-rearing experiment, and bought 50 chicks. Within the first two days, 41 of them had died inexplicably. Within the next week, another two got eaten by one of the neighborhood cats. I admit I've become a little obsessed with making sure nothing happens to the seven that remain. Which means several hours a day of babysitting chicks, protecting them from cats. Not as boring as it sounds, actually. My seven hang out with the 12 chicks that my neighbors are raising (all that remain from an initial 37) and each of the 19 has its own personality (one really likes to hunt ants, one really likes to go exploring in my house, one likes to sit in the corner by itself and stare at the wall, some sleep standing up and some sleep like ducks with their heads under their wings, one likes to stretch its legs a lot, a couple like to run sprints back and forth across the courtyard, and they all have their own best friends that they hang out with.)

My favorite little quirk: A few of them think they're turkeys, since one of our turkeys accidentally sat on some chicken eggs until they hatched; neither the turkey nor the chicks have noticed yet that they're not actually related.

What Might Have Been

I went back to the states for two weeks with the express purpose of not thinking about couscous or associations for two whole weeks. My plans were foiled by an email that arrived the minute I arrived at my brother's house: Williams and Sonoma was in the market for a hand-rolled couscous to sell in their 260 stores across the states, and had found our association through a Google search on hand-rolled couscous. To make a long story short, we didn't end up getting the contract, but for about a week, all I could think about was how I could deliver 1000 pounds of couscous per month (about the same quantity that we made in all of 2009) to the US. Daunting, yes, but I think I could have pulled it off. This is how:

Williams and Sonoma would pay us about $2.50 per pound of couscous (more than double what we normally sell it for in Morocco), packaged and labeled to their standards and delivered to the port in Casablanca. They would then ship it to the states and to their stores, where it would sell for about $10 a pound. In order to crank out a thousand pounds a month, we'd set up at least two satellite rolling-centers, in two of the other villages (the Izzies and the Tabbies), and each group would make 300-400 pounds, or as much as they could. With a group of 4-5 women able to roll about 40 pounds of couscous in an afternoon, they'd have to work rolling 2-3 times a week, for 5-6 hours a day. I'd come gather the couscous weekly on a donkey, put it in huge sacs, and then when we'd finished the 1000 pounds, hire one of the sheep vans to drive it to Casablanca. A handful of my brothers and other guys from the village and I would go to this glass company that makes glass jars, go to the lid company to buy lids for those jars, then probably rent a hotel room and spend a couple of days jarring and weighing and sealing the jars, labeling them, then delivering them to a waiting container at the port headed for America. Since as a Peace Corps volunteer, I wouldn't be able to take any of that money for myself, here's the impact an extra influx of $1200 per month (after you subtract from the $2500 the price of ingredients, jars, labels and gasoline to transport them to Casablanca) would have on this tiny village:

15-20 currently unemployed women would have an income of 400-500 dirhams per month each (more than what my host family of 8 spends per month on food, or enough to pay the room and board and tuition to send two children to middle or high school).

My brother who currently sells dishes in souq would make as much in a weekend of transporting couscous to Casablanca as he makes in several weeks now

A handful of young men who currently do nothing but hang out on the street corner would have a week's worth of work per month

The association would still have some money left over to invest in community improvements or activities every month

And the giant "Couscous" sign we installed at the dirt road turnoff into the village wouldn't be quite so ironic