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YAAY! School is out for the summer. I’m finished at Oasis, and my over-stimulated kids will be home from school in about 30 minutes to party! party! and leave crumbs everywhere. I spent the morning picking up their dossiers and sending homemade chocolate chip cookies on pretty plates as teacher’s gifts.
According to Ilsa, I’m “famous” at the school for my cookies. I have to say the French love chocolate chip cookies. Every time I have made them, people have raved. I imagine it being like when Americans first discovered pommes frites, aka French fries, or possibly pain perdu, aka French toast. My recipe is too simple to bother posting—it’s just the Betty Crocker version from the late 80s cookbook, plus 1 t. vanilla which that recipe inexplicably leaves out, plus I use real butter and European baking chocolate cut into chunks, since I can’t get chips. (Darn!) Elliot likes to make them too and give them to his teachers, and apparently we have become known at the school. When the kids bring them for snack, they are mobbed in the playground. Finally, my 15 minutes have arrived.
If you give one of my children a cookie, s/he’s going to leave crumbs, and those crumbs will attract bugs. But that’s okay; I can deal with bugs.

How long have you been in Africa? Take this easy quiz to find out.

You open a new bag of flour, and discover it is crawling with little bugs. Do you:
a. Shriek and run away, and make someone else dispose of it?
b. Wrap it up in a new plastic bag and take it to the OUTSIDE trash can?
c. Sift the bugs out and use it.

Note: this quiz does not test preparedness for Africa, or predisposition to living here. It only rates how long you have actually been here. (Gwen ( doesn’t count; she grew up in Indonesia) And while this may make sure that none of you visit me, none of you are visiting me anyway.
You’ve probably already guessed that this happened to me when I went to make the cookies.
Sometime during our first 6 months in Africa, I found bugs crawling through our rice, and I did a combination a. and b. And now, 6 years later? It was c, all the way. I just sifted it. Because I knew that bugs are gross but not harmful, and also that I had to make the cookies and the big shops were closed, and the small local shops would have even worse flour (mouse turds, anyone?). So I sifted away and we’re all fine.
The cookies are great, too.

My two favorite sentences so far:

“The deceased were sentenced to external paradise or hell, and they were excellent in writing novels.”

“It is a novel which burns with passion and tension, with a fire so strongly flamed that in every word and every sentence one can almost hear or smell the burning of the author’s own flesh.”

Yes, I’m barely treading water here in the deluge of thesis papers that have swamped my living room. 33 juries to go, and the department head called me yesterday and changed the dates from July 4-6 to July 1-4, just to keep it interesting. Oh yeah. Bring in on. And yes, they did want me to show up for juries at 8 a.m. on Sunday, and yes, I told them no way on a Sunday. They will suck your blood if you let them.

So I need to go read papers. Right now I’m online googling for plagiarism, which is this great new way to find out if they copied directly off the internet. You type the phrase, with quotes around it, into google search and see what turns up. So fun! We professor-types really know how to live it up. Later, we’re going to drink coffee late at night and argue about spelling. Don’t envy me because I know how to party.

In honor of my favorite plagiarist of all time, the student I nicknamed “Romeo”, I’m rerunning a post I wrote last spring (in April 2006).

I am rereading Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi. I enjoy this book, which is an odd mixture of memoir and literary criticism, among other reasons because it reminds me a little of my own life. Don’t get me wrong. Life in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is very different to life in the Islamic Republic of Iran. We enjoy much more freedom here; for example, it is not the law for women to veil, although all Mauritanians do because it is their culture. Mauritanian women don’t fit many Western stereotypes of Muslim women—they drive cars, own businesses, work in the government. But I see many similarities in our students.

Unlike Nafisi, I don’t teach literature. I taught Writing to the 4th-year English students at the University of Nouakchott for 3 years, but this year I’m only supervising 15 thesis students. To better understand the quality of Mauritania’s only university, instead of “thesis” you should think of it as a 40-pg research paper that has to be defended orally. And even though I don’t teach literature (it’s not that they haven’t asked me), because of my background in lit most of my students are doing literary topics.

Papers are due April 30, which is soon. (In fact, I’m not really blogging right now—I’m correcting papers) In the time-honored tradition of students around the world, the procrastinators are only now getting serious. One of my students chose Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; perhaps the most famous love story in English history. About a week ago, he flung the beginning to his introduction on my desk one evening, and left. Reading his work later, I was startled to learn that the fault of the whole tragedy lies in the person of Juliet, instead of in circumstance, chance, and the pointless feud between the families Montague and Capulet. No, according to my student, Juliet was a corrupt woman who had no business marrying someone of whom her family didn’t approve. She should have recognized that, as a member of the weaker sex, she couldn’t possibly go against her father and expect to succeed. As a result, she basically killed Romeo.

Now before you spew your coffee all over your keyboard (ick!), let me explain a little about marriage in this country. First of all, Juliet’s age (14) wouldn’t be a problem. That’s a good age for a woman’s first marriage. This is changing, of course, but in the villages and certain areas of the city, it’s still the norm. Her husband, however, would typically be about 35—it takes a lot of money to get married. Secondly, although women are given the right to refuse a marriage to a specific person, they can’t just go out and marry anyone they choose. Marriages take place within families, extended families, tribes—but not beyond that. Muslim men can marry Western women, but Muslim women can’t marry Western men. Their families simply would not allow that.

But, I argued with my student, if you are going to say this about Juliet, wasn’t it equally Romeo’s fault? No, he said. Juliet was a corrupt woman. Romeo was good, he killed Juliet’s cousin in the feud, he was swayed by this evil woman. He was innocent.

I explained that from Shakespeare’s point of view, the family feud wasn’t a good thing that must be upheld. Instead, love, forgiveness, unity, peace were ideals. The tragedy lies in the fact that through their marriage and happiness, the feud could have been ended, once and for all, and this pointless killing stopped. Oh! he said. This was obviously a new idea. In the second (typed!) version of his paper, he has changed to my point of view. I don’t know if he’s convinced, or just wanting to make me happy.

When you plan to move overseas you take courses and seminars on learning to deal with another culture, and they talk to you about “worldview.” This has to do with the unspoken assumptions that we all make, based on our culture and family background and beliefs, when we view the world—the grid that we filter our experiences through. So that one could read a great love story and blame the woman, or read The Scarlet Letter and miss Hawthorne’s scathing indictment of the townspeople’s self-righteousness and hypocrisy, and see only a woman’s adultery. And yet, what does literature do if not provide us with a mirror to see our world, to see ourselves? The challenge is to help them see it, instead of leaving unchanged, their lives unexamined, looking only at fictional characters and not at themselves.

(The reason I said typed! was because first versions are usually written by hand on unlined paper, which tells you something else about resources available to most students.)

We have a friend who decided to buy a car for his business, which involves helping foreign businessmen learn to navigate the city. His grandfather took him aside to counsel him. “Put your money into camels,” he told him. “If you buy two camels, soon you will have three camels. If you are ever lost in the desert, the camel will give you milk and meat. It will keep you alive. But a car will just break down and rust.”

The logic of this is irrefutable. The only problem is that I can’t see someone, newly arrived from Melbourne, Seoul, or Paris in a dark suit and carrying a laptop, being comfortable riding atop a huge swaying beast round town to view apartments, shops, hotels.

I have written before of the whiplash-inducing speed at which my adopted culture is changing, as it has changed more in the past 20 years than in the previous 1000. But there are some holdovers, even among the young, where certain beliefs are unshakable. One of these is that sitting in a breeze, from a fan, for example, will make you sick.

Donn works out at the gym too, (see previous post; my connection won’t let me link) during men’s hours. He shows up in the afternoon heat only to find all the windows closed, air-conditioning off, fans silent. One time he opened a window only to be chided by another man. “That’s dangerous!” the man told him.

He asked the manager to turn on the AC. The man complied, but spent the next several minutes explaining to Donn how sweating in a breeze causes rheumatism.

In class at Oasis, I sneeze. My students immediately offer to turn off the ceiling fan. I refuse this offer, point out that the source of my sneeze is much more likely to be the chalk dust billowing out from the board and turning my black shirt into a muted grey, or possibly the sand-filled air just beyond the closed window. They smile knowingly, unconvinced.

I have spent hours of my life trying to figure out where this could have come from. The desert is a windy place, after all. In fact, the name Nouakchott means “Place of Winds,” and it’s aptly-named. Even in the middle of the Sahara, most days there’s some kind of breeze, albeit a hot one, stirring the sands. My best theory so far? If you are out in one of these sand-filled winds for very long, you can easily end up with this weird kind of sinus infection, that gives you nasty headaches but very little drainage. I am prone to this myself, but at least medical care is simple here; you just go to a pharmacy and buy your antibiotics. A generic brand will run you about $6-8 for a full course. I will miss this when we leave.

Mauritanians believe that eating ice-cream on a hot day will give you a cold. Once, soon after our arrival, Donn used our language-learning time to run errands with our tutor. It was a hot day. (Duh. It’s always a hot day) Donn bought an ice-cream bar for himself and one for his friend. The friend held it thoughtfully for a moment, then tucked it into the pocket of his blue boubou (robe). “It’s too cold; I’ll eat it later,” he said.

When we first came to Nouakchott, we watched in amazement as the city emptied out at the end of June. Westerners went home for the summer, and the Mauritanians all went back to their little villages and towns out in the desert where they would sit under tents and drink fresh milk from large wooden bowls every day. “It’s so relaxing, so peaceful,” they assured me, as if Nouakchott were a bustling metropolis instead of a city with goats meandering down the main streets and all the shops closing at 10 a.m. on Friday on the excuse of afternoon prayers. I tried it one year, and found triple-digit heat and blasting sandstorms less than relaxing, but then I’m not a huge fan of camel’s milk as the antidote to all life’s ills.
Last night, a young Mauritanian guest told me she would stay the summer in the city. “It’s too hot in the countryside this time of year,” she told me. I agreed with her, but I noted the passing of an era. She’s used to fans, AC, electricity, and the simple life of the village has lost its charms.

…the end of jet lag, that is. We got back last Thursday at about 3:30 a.m. We woke up the kids and had a joyous reunion. One of my friends, going BEYOND the call of ordinary friendship, not only kept 2 of my 3 children for 3 weeks while we were gone, but also brought them back to the house and stayed up till we got home, so that we could see them right away.

Of course we woke them up at 4 a.m. Wouldn’t you? I ran into their room and yelled “I’m home!” and they all tumbled out of bed, bleary-eyed and barely able to stand, and staggered over to hug me. I never ever want to leave them again for so long and it’s mutual—they don’t want me to leave again either. I honestly don’t think I’m going to be able to manage college—I’m going to have to follow them, get a room in the dorm, decorate with some fantastically outmoded posters, and give them a kiss goodnight every night. It won’t embarrass them—they love me.

Jet lag has lingered because we didn’t really get to rest. After hugs and some unpacking and gift-giving, we went to bed round 4:30 a.m., and I had to teach a class at 10 that morning. I did absolutely no prep, just opened up the book in front of the class and started teaching what it said. The truly frightening thing is how well it went. I don’t think it’s good for me to know I can teach just fine with no prep at all. Good thing there are only 2 weeks left of the term.

International communities are transient, and our little one here in Nouakchott is no exception. Many people are leaving for the summer, but we’re leaving permanently in August which is before they get back, so we need to say our good-byes now. Good-byes usually involve a meal and several hours of hanging out. So we stayed up till midnight that first night, and again the second night, and again the 3rd night. Our lives are a social whirl, and we are surviving on the occasional snatched nap and the  2 pounds of Starbucks Sumatran we brought back with us.

Soon, we start thesis juries. Can’t wait. In the meantime, we have approximately a million things to do that involve an international move, which are of course the best kind if you thrive on stress, which we seem to.

Dear Mom and Dad,

How are you? I am fine. Can I sell my Gameboy to Matthew and Steven who want to buy it for Esther’s birthday for 1000UM? I miss you.

Love, Abel


Dear Mom and Dad,

We had mashed potatoes and cooked carrots, but I ate them with a good attitude.



(Aside: presumably the one who made the mashed potatoes is the one typing and sending this for him)


Dear Mom and Dad,

Ilsa is like a portable loudspeaker. I tell her to be quiet but she says whatever.




Dear Mom and Dad,

Hi, We went to a soccer match today,(me, Benjamin, Jordan and Mr. Helm). The Dimmoks and Mr. Legget and Hannah tried to get in but they didn’t make it because there was a big confusion and the police men threw teargas and they went home, they were coming in through a different gate. Stephen nearly got trampled and he hurt his knee but he told me this at school later. It was Egypt vs. Mauritania, they tied and I was going for Egypt. They scored in the first 5 min. The Mauritanians at the end of the match were acting like they had won the world cup. Are we aloud to go through the secret passage be cause that’s a lot thinner then the Helm’s front wall?




Dear Mom and Dad,

Please tell Elliot not to be so bossy. Also tell him you said I could go through the secret passage at Helm’s.



Tuesday we broke away from the conference grounds and made it to Starbucks. We went with a group of people also attending the conference, since I’ve always found that caffeine bonds people. It was a small café, so we crowded round a tiny table with every free chair in the place and had a great time. Best of all, we had decent coffee for the first time since Friday morning in the Casa airport, and we bought a little cafetiere (travel size) and some coffee, so we can make our own now. I ground the imitation coffee called Maxwell House beneath my heel in contempt! Ha! We’re still stuck with the styrofoam though. Then, as if that richness wasn’t enough, that evening we broke out again and went to a Barnes and Noble that is—be still my heart—going OUT OF BUSINESS and having a 20% off everythingintheentirestore sale. Wow. I was incredibly good; Donn was impressed. I only bought one book, to read on the plane, since we’ve going back to pack our house up anyway so it’s not really the time to be buying loads of books. (sadly) I also did very well at being suddenly confronted with millions of books for the first time since last summer—I did wander about in a daze, but I think I disguised it as simply browsing. (The book is called “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.” Anyone heard of it or read it? It looks good, but I’m saving it for traveling.)

Most of our days are filled with meetings. We are really enjoying the conference grounds though. It’s a really beautiful spot. I find myself sitting through seminars with my eyes fixed on the windows, watching a gentle rain, the trees tossing in the breeze, birds flying by. On our walks between buildings, over bridges that cross rain-swollen streams flowing from small placid lakes, we’ve seen turtles and huge frogs watching silently and suspiciously with bulging eyes. Snakes slither by (fortunately for the eardrums of my companions, I haven’t seen any myself) and of course there are lots of fluffy-tailed squirrels and chipmunks and butterflies and irises.


Yesterday evening, a group of us went to try a local specialty—water ice. That is not a typo, and no, they don’t mean ice-water. Water ice. This is obviously a name from before marketing really became a concept. What is it? Sort of like Hawaiian Shave Ice, but not nearly as good. The ice is more finely shaved; in fact, more like water ice, if those two words had meaning together. I had Bordeaux cherry, which had chunks of cherry in it, and that was the best. Then we went on to Starbucks, for a grande decaf cappuccino, dry, for here. Those are some words that, when strung together, simply sing. Last night a group of us played boules, or pétanque. This game is popular in France, and we sometimes play it in Mauritania on the beach. This time we played it on a baseball field, and it was like a totally different game. Those metal balls can get a bounce in them from a tiny hillock, for example, and on the packed dirt or whatever it was round the bases, they’d really roll. Once we got the hang of it, we had a lot of fun.So we’re enjoying ourselves, keeping busy, and counting the days till we see our kids again.

We’ve spent the last 8 days doing a whirlwind tour of
Morocco. 4 cities in 8 days means that we get an entire day in each city, and we’ve become well-acquainted with
Morocco’s train system, which is rather good.
We started in
Casablanca, which is a bustling, modern city with traffic that is truly horrific. We gripped the edge of our seats as the taxis wove in and out amongst the trucks, scooters, cars, and pedestrians. The climate was cool and mild, and we responded well to the stands filled with fresh, local fruit and flowers, the streets lined with orange trees full of fruit, and the greenery in general. We passed a pleasant day, and then caught a train up to
Fez, an ancient town located on the lower slopes of the mid-Atlas mountains. The train wound through groves of olive trees, sometimes with a shepherd sitting underneath them watching his small herd, past fields and through villages. We made good time.

Fez is a fascinating city that can be neatly divided in two; ancient and modern meet and mingle in a series of paved roads connecting the two. There’s the ancient medina (old city) that dates from the medieval times; a rabbit warren of tiny twisting alleyways lined with shops selling leatherwork (you can smell when you are near the tanneries), brass and silver work, pottery, cheap Chinese imports, olives and orange-water and nougat and pastries and even camel’s head, all inexpensive and locally produced (except the Chinese imports). camels-head1.jpg Water sellers dressed in red, with cone-shaped hats covered in bobbles, attract tourists, and you must constantly move out of the way of horses and donkeys, who are the only way to transport heavy items in and out on the tiny streets. We love it. It’s picturesque and yet has a genuine feel to it that even the tourist tours can’t spoil. We have a great time wandering all over, coming up later to sample an incredible fruit salad that includes peaches and grapes and kiwi and strawberries and walnuts. It had an avocado-milk dressing on it, which I realize sounds vile but was actually delicious.


We next went to
Rabat, another coastal city with clear blue skies and a refreshing breeze wafted strands of brilliantly-coloured bougainvillea hanging over the walls of gardens full of lemon trees. We drove past the Roman ruins and toured an old fortress at the mouth of a river, now full of tiny, winding alleyways and houses all painted blue and white. At the end, we sat on a terrace and drank mint tea and looked out over the river and the sea.

Rabat is the capital city and is full of palaces for King Mohamed VI, but it seemed a peaceful and well-ordered city, with delightful sea breezes and a welcoming charm.
Marrakesh was the final stop on our whirlwind tour. We both had very mixed feelings about it. It’s a very attractive city, full of red-brown buildings with fantastic arches and openings, a city of palm trees with towering snow-capped peaks just behind. But we toured the medina and it felt very cynical. There were snake charmers and monkey sellers calling out to us, women offering to paint henna on my hands, men crouched behind skulls and horns and animal parts used to perform magic charms, stands piled picturesquely with colourful spices or fruit; all arranged to catch the tourist’s eye. People wandering in are immediately seized upon, and viewed as little more than cash machines. Everyone clamours for a photo and then demands payment. It’s a beautiful city, but I don’t think I’d want to live there. Also, it’s far enough south that it’s close to where the desert begins. I’m ready to be a little farther away from dust storms and oppressive summer heat. We did pay 3 dirhams (about 35 cents) for a large glass of freshly-squeezed, while you wait, orange juice that was heavenly. We bought figs and apricots and salted almonds, and some really pretty tea glasses.


One thing I liked about
Marrakesh was the women on scooters. The streets were full of them, zipping past in full covering, wearing white gloves and headscarves and sometimes even the full-length gowns, calm-faced amongst the larger vehicles.
Now we’re in
Philadelphia for a conference. We are amazed at the green; we feast our eyes on it. They’ve put us up at a conference grounds at a local university, which has a beautiful campus full of huge trees and lakes and streams. We eat in the cafeteria. Things have changed since my college days, and I’m amazed at the choices offered, but in one way we can definitely tell we’re not on the West Coast and I can best sum it up by saying Maxwell House coffee in styrofoam cups. I thought styrofoam was illegal! Other than that things are going well. I notice that my laptop is putting strange spacing into my posts again–sorry. I don’t seem to be able to fix it.

June 2007

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A Perfect Post – January 2007

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