You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2006.

I’ve been collecting some of the strange ways people have found my blog for a couple of months now. Here are some of my favorites.

fast thanksgiving desert (why spelling is impotent)

slurpee sand spike groundwater (yummm—EE)

idioms using decapitate (cuz you never know when you’ll need one)

women formal ready made evening dresses (Mauritania is all about formal)

ducks in the wind idioms (all we are is ducks in the wind)

describe what elizabeth 1st looked like (like a nomad, of course)

dryer buzzer won’t stop (???This has to do with my desert life how? I don’t even OWN a dryer.)

styrofoam eaten by my dog (My styrofoam was eaten by goats. And it was actually cardboard.)

redo africa song bad (Not to mention grammar bad)

how do I pronouce the work Ibuprofen (“thuh werk I-boo-pro-fen”)

how dolphins came from another planet (I can see how the web would be the place to find this information…)

“is just a handshake” (I feel sorry for whoever’s been getting this pick-up line)

When you live overseas, especially overseas as in Africa, celebrating major holidays can be a little unusual. That is, we do all the same things, but they might look a little different.
I was thinking about this as we went to buy the meat for Christmas dinner. It was Christmas Eve, a hot sunny afternoon. We stopped by Fawaz to see if they had petit pois
surgelés, but they didn’t. Nobody this year had frozen peas, or broccoli, or any of the veggies I wanted that can sometimes be found here at Christmas-time. That’s ok—we had glazed carrots and fresh green beans instead, and it was good.

Afterwards Donn swings over to the meat market. We turn into a narrow, winding alley, choked with trash, live goats and sheep wandering round, lined with wooden tables piled high with slabs of meat. Flies buzz determinedly. From hooks above the tables hang sheep legs with the tail attached. (Note: this is nothing. Someday I’ll tell you about the camel market, where you can buy legs with the hoof attached) The dusty air is filled with the stench of blood.

Donn steps out and is instantly swarmed by young men brandishing hunks of sheep. They push it into his face, all talking at once about how theirs is the best, the freshest, the meatiest, the tenderest. I sit in the car, windows rolled up against the smell and the flies, and wish I had a camera with me.

He buys lots of meat. We have invited two Mauritanian men to eat dinner with us, and Mauritanians love meat and eat lots of it. This will be a new experience for them, as I will roast it with a crusty herb topping and serve it on china with gravy and mint sauce and roast potatoes, instead of boiling it without salt and serving it on a large platter. I am also passing on the intestines and organs too; even after 5 years in the desert, I just can’t stomach them, and we are inviting them to experience a Western-style Christmas.

We are still Christmas shopping. We stop by one last store, trying to find something to give Elliot. They have a French version of Pictionary for $80. We can’t do it—we decide to let him order something online. He might get it in April. But he’s got plenty of other things to open on Christmas morning. This year we got TWO parcels of gifts from friends!!

Christmas morning we spend as a family. We have baked French toast and bacon and Starbucks coffee that came in one of the parcels. We open presents, read the story. Another American family joins us for dinner, plus the 2 Mauritanian men. One brings another American friend whom we don’t know. The poor man feels very awkward, crashing a Christmas dinner, and follows me into the kitchen to apologize. But we don’t mind–after all, it is very Mauritanian to bring along extra people unannounced. We just get out another plate and there’s plenty of food.

Afterwards I make coffee and one of the men makes Mauritanian tea, very strong and minty, 3 rounds drunk in little glasses. We have pumpkin pie and fudge and mince pies and chocolate covered ginger, which I made myself this year. Some guests linger; I make more coffee, we talk with friends while carols play in the background. Some things are the same around the world.

Edited to Add: Donn wanted to make sure we were getting sheep meat instead of goat. Everytime he said, “Kebsh?” the vendors would thrust the sheep tail into his face! That’s the point of leaving the tail–to show what kind of meat it is.

I also forgot to mention that we opened presents to the thumps and bumps of construction work which is going on next door, where our neighbours are adding a couple of rooms to their house. No one around us was celebrating, but that was ok–we were.

We had our Oasis Christmas Party on Thursday night. Debbie invited all the students, teachers, and teachers’ spouses over to her house. The staff brought goodies, and about 50 or 60 people with varying levels of English crowded into one small room and chatted away.

It’s not unusual for students to give gifts to their teachers. I’ve been given a Mauritanian drum, a bright yellow purse shaped sort of like a banana but with metallic accents, white shoes with 4-inch heels, and a framed olive-tree-like piece of art. Sometimes, students buy gifts for my children.

Tom, who’s about 50, taught a beginner’s class this term. As one of his students was leaving, she handed him a wrapped parcel. “Part of it is for you and part of it is for your wife,” she explained. The student had never met or even seen Tom’s wife, but it was nice of her to think of both of them.

He opened it after all the students had gone. It contained a satchel for him and, for his wife, a pink lacy bra-and-panties set!

“Do you like jazz?” Amina asks me one day during women’s hours at the gym. I know Amina because she’s in my Advanced Conversation class at Oasis. She is kind and easy to talk to; once when our car was in the shop she gave me a ride home after class. Her car was one of the nicest I’d ever been in.

I do like jazz, I tell her. “There’s a jazz concert tonight at the CCF,” she tells me. “Would you like to go? I can pick you up at a little before 9.”

The Centre Culturel Français—the French Cultural Center—is located on the grounds of the French Embassy. Here your children can take ballet or karate classes, watch French movies, borrow French books. There are concerts and theater shows, and a small art gallery.

We go to the concert and we both enjoy it. The jazz quartet is lively and obviously enjoy themselves. It’s the drummer’s first concert in Africa, the saxophonist tells the audience. Amina has brought a camera, and afterwards has her picture taken with 2 of the band members, for a good memory. Quelle gloire!” jokes one. (What glory!)

Afterwards, we sit in the small garden café and sip cokes and talk. I find out that she was married at 18 to her cousin, a man she did not know beforehand. “It is forbidden in our religion—a girl is supposed to be able to say no,” she says. “But in our culture they say, ‘What does she know?’ We do not marry for love.” She blinks, hard. “We have many problems, my husband and me,” she tells me. She is hungry to hear of how Donn and I met, how we fell in love.

She and her husband have a small daughter. They live in a desert town once considered part of Western Sahara but now considered part of Morocco. “I have no friends there,” she tells me. “My…how do you say it? Husband’s sister?…is jealous of me. If I go to the dentist she tells everyone I am pregnant. Why would she do that?” Surrounded by petty gossip and jealousies, unable to really talk to a husband who is often traveling, she sits in the cool garden and mourns her fate. “I was only a teenager, so young, I knew nothing before we were married.” She has enjoyed her 3 months with her family in Nouakchott but her days are numbered—she must return just after Christmas. “Please, could you come visit me there?” she begs. The words spill out of her. I imagine that it is not easy to talk of her problems to her family; she is desperate for a confidante. Throughout the conversation, she blinks back tears.

It is nearly midnight; we leave our bottles on the table and walk back out to her beautiful new car. We drive home; she drops me off.

I return to my family; to my husband of 16 years whom I did marry for love and who still loves me, even more now than he did back in 1990 when we promised each other to be together forever. I return to my 3 sleeping children; Elliot with his wild curls and mischievous brown eyes, his love of medieval times and his sense of humour; Ilsa with long golden brown hair, artistic and creative, always with her nose in a book and a funny turn of phrase; Abel with his strawberry-blonde surfer’s shaggy hair, his tender deep blue eyes, his sweetness that always seeks to build others up, his bizarre sense of humour that keeps him acting out Looney Tunes and Calvin and Hobbes.

I feel so rich that I am almost embarrassed with it. Tears sting my eyes.

It’s easy at this time of year to feel discontent. I’ve been struggling with that myself; looking at pictures online of Christmas decorations in beautiful modern houses, snow outside. This year instead of our normal tiny sort-of-pine charlie-brown-style tree, I want a big one—not even fresh, just a big artificial one so we can hang all our ornaments. But that night I see clearly; trees and tinsel, snow and trimmings are so infinitesimal as to not even be worthy to be called the frosting on the cake.

I am so rich that all the world should envy me.

Hight School

Sweat Girl

Preety Girl (in sparkles)

Given that there’s not much to do here, there are actually quite a few things for kids to get involved in that will eat up their parents’ time and money. There are tennis and karate lessons, football clubs (in the whole world, only the US calls it soccer), ballet, piano lessons offered in her home by the Russian wife of a Mauritanian man. The French School offers some after-school activities; there is the French Cultural Center where they can join a library or learn karate or ballet; there are a few private clubs.

We usually allow each child to do 2 activities, subject to parental approval on price and amount of driving involved, since both Donn and I are congenitally allergic to playing chauffeur. (You know, I bet there’s no legal driving age limit here. Hmmmm. If only they were taller…) Most activities begin in the fall, and this year we had some spirited exchanges on what, how often, when, etc.

The boys announced there’s a new club, “Football Brasilian,” where the coach actually trains and teaches the boys. This is opposed to other local private clubs, where you pay for the privilege of letting your kid just play a game with some other kids and the coach yells at them when they do something wrong—sort of a negative reinforcement method of training. Both boys are part of the “Football Brasilian” and are really enjoying it. Friends who live near play too, so there’s opportunity for car pools. Ilsa is in the school choir again, in spite of a painful experience at last year’s school concert (but at least people remember her!).

A year or two ago, a group of Americans here started a Boy Scout troop. The first year, we were the ONLY English-speaking family not involved. This was painful for our children. But who knew? Even the English and Portuguese kids were in. ONLY our children, of those in the right age group, were left behind. So last year, we knew we had to, even though I was initially informed that the Webelos group (for boys 9-11) was the short form of “We Be Loyal Scouts.” Although I had serious issues with allowing my children to join anything with such extreme grammatical problems, I did look into it and found out it is actually “We’ll be loyal scouts.” Still stupid, but at least not wrong.

This year, Elliot is a Boy Scout, Abel is a Webelos, and Ilsa is a Jr. Girl Scout. There are 4 girls in the troop, all 9, and I have to admit they are darn cute in their little green skirts. So far no cookies though, except the ones I make myself for snack. I mean, aren’t cookies the point?

I am not the ideal Scout mother. I lack energy and team spirit. I think the pseudo-military emphasis on the placement of belt buckles and shoulder loops is silly. I am far more likely to sleep in and make pancakes on a Sat morning than take my kid to the Scoutmaster’s by 6 a.m. for a 10-mile hike—and I believe in my heart of hearts that I am right about this. I tend to giggle when they salute and say, “A Scout is thrifty helpful brave cheerful friendly clean” etc., because my boys want expensive and useless toys and refuse to go upstairs with Ilsa when she’s scared of the dark and show signs of physical timidity and are often grumpy and whiny, not to mention that no one has seen the floor of their room for several months. But I’m really beginning to see the good points of scouting.

The other day at school, a kid got hit in the head and was bleeding. Elliot was right there with his 1st-Aid Scout training. He spoke calmly to the kid, ascertained where exactly he was bleeding, got blood on his own hands so rushed to wash it off, and was secretly REALLY disappointed when the kid’s parents showed up and he was unable to bandage or possibly cauterize the wound. (With Elliot, who knows what he would have done?)

So I was impressed, and more inclined to be patient with their weird faux-military insistence on the placing of each fiddly little badge or patch. I don’t sew, so I wait until he’s got about 5 things that need doing (and the level of whining has increased to fever pitch—“Mo-om! WHEN are you going to put my Arrow of Light on? It’s been MONTHS!”) and then I go to a local tailor, where for only about $1.50 I can make 7 trips to have him redo all the badges he’s put on upside-down, or on the wrong side, etc. while Elliot waits by jiggling with worry that he’s going to be late to the meeting and mess up the uniform inspection. So it’s lots of fun for the whole family.

But this year is different. Oh, so different. Here is some perspective for you; some thoughts on university that I wrote in 2005:

Fourth-year students are required to write what is called a thesis. In real life, this is a 40-page research paper, but papers are kept permanently in the English Department office, students have to defend it before a jury of 3 professors, and in general it is treated with utmost seriousness. It is the only research paper they’ve ever written. All year, every year, students explain to me that I shouldn’t give them homework because this year they have their thesis. The irony is that nearly all students do it all in the last month, in the time-honored tradition of procrastinating students world-wide.

Thesis students represent a huge learning curve for me. I am supposed to take only 9 or 10, but they argue and plead until I inevitably end up with 12 or 13. Everyone wants to have an American teacher as a supervisor; they always regret their decision when they begin to give me their work.

One student hands to me, the day before the deadline, 40 pages filled to the brim with spelling errors, misunderstandable syntax, and other horrors. Reading it is like trying to wade through half-set cement. I feel irresistible fatigue stealing over me after every paragraph, when I read things like: “The American revolution had done the born of the wrong hop that after the suppression of the treat, the slavery passed away by itself, for the sources of the traffic one time cut, the institution was intended to disappear naturally.”

I read sentences like this out to my husband, friends, children, whoever will listen to me; we try to figure them out. (Although by this point, my friends are beginning to avoid me. Tired of university stories himself, my husband develops the habit of walking rapidly from the room as soon as I begin “This student…”) One student wrote his paper on American slavery almost entirely in the present tense, as if this was something we were still facing.

I hand back pages dripping in the red ink of my corrections. He makes the corrections under protest­­—“after all, Teacher, no one is ever going to read it!”—and then gives me his new and improved version. He is shocked when I make more corrections, and calls to complain. He grumbles that the printer where he goes to have his work typed has doubled his prices—it used to be 200UM a page and now it is 300UM.

So I learn, quickly. When you accept a thesis student in October, explain to them their deadlines. Explain they have to do it at least twice, especially as their first versions are usually handwritten on unlined paper. And most important of all, get their phone numbers, as in spite of explanations, you will not see most of these people again until the last half of April.

Of course there are always exceptions. One student read a French translation of an American book and was so moved by it that he translated it back into English for the quotes in his thesis. This was one who met deadlines all the year. When I finally got him an English translation of the book, he was thrilled, and stood turning it over and over in his hands, his face split by a huge smile.

Students face a huge shortage of books. Our small bookstore, Oasis Books, is the only English bookstore and library in the entire country. There is a small library at the university, started during my 2nd year there by another American woman who has joined the faculty. Other than that, their sources are in French or Arabic, or downloaded from the internet. A major resource is previous thesis topics, which explains why every year people choose variations on the same topics. This is frustrating, though, as the quality of other undergraduate papers is iffy at best.

That was then; this is now:

I have somehow ended up with 16 thesis students. Since I’m not teaching at the University, this wouldn’t be so bad, except that I will be required to sit on 48 juries! I’m dreading this.

Most years there is one bright young man who gets me his introduction and first chapter before Christmas. But this year, a student calls me on the day of the Eid and tells me he’s ready to hand me in his first pages, asks where and when we can meet. This is the equivalent of calling your professor on Christmas Day to hand in your work early. Every week he’s finished something new. He makes my corrections with alacrity and eagerly hands in more work.

He’s not alone. I offer to give them a class on note-taking and am amazed at the number of serious young men who turn up, dressed in sharply-creased Western clothes or billowing white robes, who sit quietly and absorbed through my lecture. Every day, it seems, my phone rings with a request from one or a notice of more work finished from another. My folder of papers to grade is stuffed, and I no sooner hand things back then I’m handed more pages filled with cramped handwriting. It’s strange. Who are these serious students?

Part of it, of course, is that classes haven’t started yet. Technically the university starts in October, but this year Ramadan fell during October (since the Muslim calendar is lunar, the dates of the holidays change from year to year), so it didn’t seem worthwhile to open since life slows to a crawl during that month of daytime fasting. Then, there were the elections in November. Since if there are going to be riots, they will most likely start at the university, the powers-that-be opted to keep the campus closed and quell anything before it even started.

Finally, the day after elections, my friends showed up to teach their classes. They began well, but after about an hour were kicked out of their rooms. The students were on strike! The trouble-makers are not the English students, but storm over from the other faculties to close things down.

I’ve heard that there might be classes this week but I don’t know. Also, the December break is coming up—usually the last week of December and the 1st week of January, not necessarily to include Christmas Day except by coincidence. The campus will again be closed for presidential elections in March. My committed, intelligent and ambitious students have basically lost their entire senior year.

A friend who lives in one of the poorer sections of town told me a story this week. He was walking by a school and saw some little boys fighting. The two bigger ones grabbed the smallest and looked around for the worst place they could stuff his head. They found it in the mangeoir—the goats’ feeding trough, full of half-chewed odds and ends and goat spit and fleas—and gleefully threw him in. Kind of an interesting comment on what has been sanitized into a nice clean manger, isn’t it? We tend to imagine that 1st-century Palestine was as neat and tidy as a child’s Sunday School drawing, when in real life I’m sure it was much more like daily life in 21st-century Mauritania—full of animals walking by, insects scuttling by, diaperless babies crawling in the sand where the goats just were, and nary a bottle of Lysol in sight.

December in Nouakchott. By now, the nights are chilly. In the daytime, if you keep your cement-block house closed up, it stays cool all day, so that you can drink coffee in mid-afternoon and think of wearing slippers on the chill tile floors. Opening a window or stepping outside will break that spell, though, as temperatures get into the high 80s or low 90s most days. But it’s a dry, transitory heat, and can be fought by closing up the house by 10 a.m. and playing carols all day. Africans who can put faded parkas over their thin cotton trousers, and wrap their turbans tightly round their heads.

Some days the skies are clear, even blue, windswept clean except for fringes of combed clouds. Some days, the wind blows cool from the desert, filling air and lungs with fine dust, smearing the sun. Sand settles on everything, emphasizing minute crevices, crunching in bread and drifting in the red-brown clouds. Sand-days tend to last for about a week, then suddenly one day the sun is brighter, the full moon soars behind the minarets of the mosque and casts spiky shadows behind the palm trees in the garden, and we all breathe easier again.

This year, every night, someone is burning garbage near our house. The acrid smell drifts in through windows opened for the breeze, and stays in the back of our throats. We wake up every morning coughing and blowing our noses.

We have donkeys and camels, but no Nativity scenes. We have stores, but no sales or crowds. Life carries on as usual; pointless traffic jams, soccer games after school, teaching classes. At school, the kids make Christmas cards in art and play marbles in the dust at recess. The Lebanese-owned “supermarches” import cheeses, patés and terrines, and chemically-laden long-shelf-life bûche de Noel from France for Christmas. You can find sparkling juice on the shelves. Turkeys are $8/pound and they are from France, too. They import those chocolate Advent calendars and I buy one for each kid. The quality of the chocolate is marginal but the kids, surprise, love them. The markets are filled with piles and piles of tiny, tart, juicy tangerines from Morocco—only 40 cents a pound. We eat them all day long.

December 2006

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A Perfect Post – January 2007

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