The shocking part about coming back to the United States after more than two years of life on the barely-habitable edge of the Sahara was just how smooth the transition was. One day I was crammed in the back of a forty-year-old Mercedes with three other men, chugging down a one-lane road without a tree in sight; a week later I was alone at the wheel of a 2000s-era Camry, cruising down a divided highway at 65 and watching the North Carolina greenery go by. I hit the ground running and hardly looked back, life in Morocco quickly fading towards the edges of my conscience, pushed aside by the demanding deluge of catching up with old friends, eating Mexican food and cheese-drenched pizza, using a “high-speed” Internet connection (though that’s debatable), and trying to figure out plans for the future, the proverbial next step. Since then the time has flown by, and oddly enough, I’ll be heading back to North Africa in just two days. Asking myself what I’ve actually been doing over the course of the last few months, I tried to come up with a makeshift list. Here’s what I’ve got:

Graduate School Logistics

My first big task upon arrival home was wrapping up graduate school applications and figuring out exactly how I wanted to articulate my research interests and proposed plan of study. I’d done a lot of the legwork while in Morocco, including writing out a general statement of purpose, lining up recommendations, and excerpting an appropriate writing sample, but I had yet to refine some elements and tailor them to the different programs. I wrapped everything up with time to spare, and had applications submitted by early December, and then got around to the most time-consuming aspect of the process: waiting patiently to hear back. At the beginning of March I was ecstatic to learn I’d been admitted to the Arabic Studies program at my top choice of UT-Austin, and offered a great fellowship for the privilege. So as of this fall I’ll officially be a Longhorn, working with some really amazing people while continuing to engage Arabic and Berber dialects in North Africa from a linguistic angle. My short visit to Austin last week was really outstanding, and I can’t wait to move down and settle in for the next few years.


I haven’t spent much time at my parents’ house in recent years, but whenever I do I end up playing the role of perpetual repairman. This time around I don’t feel as productive as I would have liked, but there are two less leaky bathtubs in the house and one less computer with viruses. My “big” project was to renovate my own room, an endeavor that seemed rather urgent prior to getting my fall plans together and knowing I wouldn’t be in NC indefinitely. I somehow managed to clear nearly two decades’ worth of junk out of the entire room, much of which went to the thrift store, and within 4 or 5 days had a completely new living space with repainted walls, a laminate floor, and a patched ceiling. The floor in particular was significant given I’d ripped the carpet out a few years ago in an allergic rage a few years ago, and had been walking around barefoot on the splintery baseboard ever since. I also managed not to cut off any digits despite my first tryst with a circular saw, and cut over 150 square feet of laminate without wasting a board. Above are before and after photos of one corner.


The Computer

I built my last computer at the beginning of high school, a monster Pentium IV with a 128 MB graphics card that could handle nearly any of the 3D challenges of the day. A decade later, on the other hand, I’d beat Half-Life enough times that I decided it was time to move on to better things. Everyone in Peace Corps called me cheap for managing to save half of my $200 salary each month, but they should now rest assured that all the meat I didn’t eat went into funding the mammoth computer I put together only a few weeks after touching down in DC. With a Core i7 running at 3.06Ghz, 6 GB of DDR3 overclocked to 1600 MHz, a Solid State Drive for the operating system and common programs, and two 1 GB video cards configured in SLI mode, I’m hoping that this desktop will remain relevant for at least a few years. I ordered all the parts and put them together almost effortlessly, only having to hacksaw one clip off an ATX connector that didn’t want to fit. The only real issue I had was a bad stick of RAM that wouldn’t work at cold boot, but after a couple of months of testing I identified it, sent it back to G.SKILL, and got a free replacement almost immediately. The computer’s now running flawlessly, and has been a boon to at least the following two “accomplishments” of mine.


What’s work without some fun on the side? On my second day home my buddy Adam showed up at my house with a gift: Starcraft 2, the holy grail of nerd-dom. While admittedly a computer game about the galactic battle between three warmongering civilizations, the graphics are gorgeous, the storyline fun and intriguing, and the strategies required for winning surprisingly demanding of brainpower and attentiveness. I’ve probably logged an average hour a day on this game (which isn’t bad given most Americans sit in front of the TV for four or five, right?). Adam and I climbed the ranks to the #1 team in our league, and now we’re stuck waiting for the magical ranking algorithm to move us into the next, more competitive league. Where we’ll probably get crushed by people who play SC2 around the clock.


Oh yeah, I established a web start-up. Nothing too serious, but sometime over the last year I had asked myself what would happen if there was a Twitter-like entity where, by community rules, you could post only in haiku format. Having now tested my hypothesis for over a month, I have come to the conclusion that I was correct: it would be a nerd Mecca of sorts. With over 1400 “haiku” (using a rather loose definition) and people other than my friends actually using it, the website has at least been a fun experiment so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with it. It’s free and you’re welcome to check it out and join by clicking on the screenshot to the right.

Music and Recording

Starting my sophomore year of high school, I dreamed of having a Les Paul guitar. Yes, they’re iconic and beautiful, but more so than that feel better to play than any other guitar I’ve ever laid my hands on. Heavy guitars with thin necks and tight action are my modus operandi, and when I play a Les Paul it’s like I’m not even putting any effort into fretting and playing — I just dabble around and it comes out sounding great. Yet again Adam hooked me up, selling me his Les Paul and kick-starting my renewed musical pursuits (as well as my red guitar collection, pictured). When friends James and Jerry came over to jam, we ended up putting together some pretty rocking recordings. It’s nice to know that, despite the fact we’ve all been living in different places for years, we can still meet up and make music that’s remarkably well-orchestrated. I’ll miss playing with these guys when in Texas, but am hoping that Austin will nonetheless live up to its status as the “live music capitol of the world.”


I’ve been up and down the east coast in the last few months, with repeat trips to DC, Delaware, and the North Carolina Piedmont, and I’ve had the opportunity to catch up with a lot of friends and family. But the travel is only beginning — in a couple of days I’ll be flying to Spain, soloing it in Andalusia for about a week, and then ferrying across the Straits back into Morocco. I’m trying to fortify my Arabic before starting graduate school, and with the Middle East experiencing dramatic changes it’s becoming harder and harder to resist the desire to be in a coffee shop feeling out the sentiments on the ground. I previously lived in southern Morocco, and this time I’ll be in the North, two days’ travel from that town, so while familiar I do expect the coming months to be a new experience in their own right. It’s been great to have some time off, but I am itching to get back into a daily routine of reading, writing, and speaking Arabic, and now feels like the right time to go. I only hope that the transition back to North Africa will be as seamless as was the transition from it. Not too worried though — I have reason to believe it will.

It’s the night before I leave Morocco, and I’m about to make my way back across the ocean to the United States.

I’m trying to pack. I sit cross-legged in the floor, surrounded by heaps of clothes and books and photos and trinkets — all littered throughout the room as if awaiting their fate, awaiting the verdict. Will they stay, or will they go? The suitcase is in front of me, open and apparently empty. It too eagerly awaits, ready to receive those fortunate objects deemed worthy enough, memorable enough, or perhaps simply light enough to warrant their inclusion in the thousand-plus mile journey to the other side of the world. I stand up and survey the room. Here in front of me are gathered the things that I must choose to either leave behind or carry onward. A monumental task in some ways, but at least I know what I have to work with, and at least the suitcase has plenty of room. I hunch over and grab its handle, intending to give it a lighthearted shake to drive the point home.

But the suitcase resists, and my feeble tug — which should have nonetheless hoisted its hollow shell a few inches into the air — does little more than arch the leather handle more steeply in my direction. There’s something weighting the suitcase down, something belying its apparent emptiness, something hidden within its interior that I can’t consciously recall having put there. I thought I’d emptied this suitcase out, a typical first step in the increasingly familiar ritual of moving oneself and one’s effects from place to place. It shouldn’t be this heavy. What did I miss?

I glance into the main compartment, a uniform grey nylon stretched lengthwise across the suitcase body. Nothing there. I check the upper front pocket, then the lower, and still can’t find anything. Finally I remember a small side pouch in the interior of the suitcase, the sort of pouch you typically use to cordon off dirty socks and other such forgettables. I reach in, and to my surprise my fingers meet something bulky and solid, a clanking noise ringing out as I extract a cloth bag from the forgotten pouch. I open the bag, glance in, and am surprised to learn that it’s filled to the brim with coins. Coins from different countries, of various values and ages and hues, all glinting anew in respective glows of the fluorescent light and my sense of rediscovery. As I scrape through the bag’s contents I recall where I found some of the coins; others seemed to have appeared more fortuitously, and even with great effort I cannot recollect their origins. Most are small, and all are light when held alone, but together in the bag the collective of coins is undeniably weighty. I already have a lot to fit into the suitcase, and taking all of these coins along as well would mean an added weight that I’d never expected to carry.

I’d like to dump the bag out onto the floor and sift through the hundreds of metal disks, systematically separating out all the collectibles and dimes and nickels and quarters that will retain value in America from the potentially valueless lesser coins of other countries and other cultures and other times. But the clock is fast approaching midnight, and I have to travel in the morning, and sorting hundreds of coins late into the night is not an option I have. I either have to leave the bag, or carry it with me in its entirety, hoping that its value will have actually been worth its weight when I finally get around to assaying it. The time of decision upon me, I clunk the heavy bag of coins back down in the suitcase.

With that I open my eyes and find myself staring at the ceiling of a Rabat hotel room.

I had the dream four days ago, and with only two weeks left in my house and this country and the life I’ve lived for the past couple of years, I’m still just as clueless about what I’ll be pulling out of the bag once back on the other side of the Atlantic. What sort of coins have I collected here, perhaps even unknowingly? What will their value be once taken elsewhere? And when I spread them out and look them over on that distant floor, will I find that they were ultimately worth carrying with me after all?

“Try this,” he told me.

I dazedly glanced up, struggling to focus my blurry vision upon his outstretched arm. In his hand my dad grasped the ubiquitous blue plastic cup — one of about 30 sitting around the house, the byproduct of years of concession-stand souvenirs from UNC football games — and I hesitated for a moment as he propelled it steadily toward me.

I’m exhausted, I’d been telling myself. You’d think a few decent hours of sleep would recharge you, no matter how tired you were when you retired to bed. But spend a week shoveling mulch for eleven hours a day in the summer heat, and you start to experience that sort of lingering fatigue that just can’t be remedied with a single good night of rest. Each morning at 6 AM I’d been rousing myself, increasingly reluctantly, and dragging my feet zombie-like into the living room. Once there I’d chat for a few minutes, begin to find some energy, and then rush off to throw on some clothes and get to work. But not this morning. I’d barely made it out of bed, barely zombied my way to the living room couch, and wasn’t now even pretending to keep my eyes open. Responding to the familiar voice was a weak protest against the lethargy.

And there was the cup, that unnatural blue hue filling my borderline consciousness and beckoning, calling. I knew what was in that cup. I didn’t particularly like its taste, even less so its concept. I’d stopped drinking soft drinks a year before, and with them the last vestiges of regular caffeine.  But I was tired, so energyless that I was playing with the shameful idea of just not showing up for work. I’d never even had a full cup of the stuff. But could it propel me off this couch? The classic struggle between ideology and pragmatism rife within my mind, I glanced at the neon blue cup and made my choice. As usual, the pragmatic prevailed.

Thus began my messy love affair with coffee. Within twenty minutes I felt as if I’d just arisen from a winter hibernation, energy boundless and curiosity unassailable. I was ready to get up and out of the house. I was ready to see the world. I was ready to shovel some mulch.

And shovel I did. The energy remained with me throughout the day. I mulched an entire property’s worth of flowerbeds. Driving home, I marveled at the change. That was so much easier.

I took coffee to my second year of university. My GPA rose accordingly. I had developed a taste, and the taste became a habit. The habit became a routine. The routine became an addiction. Coffee upon waking. Coffee after class. Coffee after lunch. Coffee after afternoon classes. Coffee before evening work. I wasn’t a cheery Starbucks coffee-drinker; to this day I don’t know how college students can afford just one of those expensive lattes. From the grounds up, I brewed it myself: filter, grounds, water, turn pot on, wait impatiently, pour until oversized cup is full. No milk. No sugar. No vanilla extract and no cream on top. Going to be out for a while? That’s fine; I’ve got an insulated mug. And even cold coffee is better than no coffee, right?

Caffeine certainly is an amazing drug. It can give you a short — even long, for the uninitiated — boost of energy and ability to concentrate. Once you’ve developed a dependency, however, the positive effects one can observe are in many ways just the product of having alleviated withdrawal symptoms. As long as you have access to coffee, you can skirt this realization. But the day you don’t — your head pounding and your mood depressed — it’s hard to deny that you’ve reached a point where your basic ability to function relies upon your consuming caffeine. In Morocco, I got to that point. I spoke Arabic; I thought I was good at speaking Arabic. One day I ran out of coffee. I nevertheless left my house and went to hang out with a friend. I found that I could communicate almost nothing, and quite honestly, it hurt my pride. Your skills, knowledge, and the products of your efforts shouldn’t be arbitrarily hinged upon a substance to which you can’t necessarily be guaranteed access. Something as intrinsic as language certainly shouldn’t be.  So, without giving it much more thought, I quit.

My head hurt for weeks. My Arabic reverted to the level at which it had been perhaps six months earlier. This time, however, when I eked out complicated wordsmithery, I felt like it was fully by my strength of will. Slowly, I got by. Slowly, I could wake up and not dart directly to the kitchen. Slowly, I found that I didn’t really feel that necessity anymore.

That was roughly a year ago. I’ve had maybe fifteen cups of coffee since then, never more than one in a day and never more than two days in a row. I recently wrote that finishing two years of Peace Corps has been a feat of perseverance. But at least that was one I anticipated, planned for and had help with. I’m almost just as proud of quitting coffee, because I did it on a whim, completely at my own behest, and without even telling anyone for months. Is this permanent? I hope so. As long as I don’t end up regularly shoveling mulch again, I think I’ll be alright.

You may not have believed me when I said that my reed piccolo was playable. To qualify, I claimed neither that it makes too eloquent a sound nor that it is in tune with itself or anything else. It does, however, produce notes that you can change by covering and uncovering the boreholes. Above you can actually hear it in action. I like to play around with short recordings of this sort; this is one is particularly exciting given it’s the first I’ve ever made incorporating an instrument constructed from materials I found in a field. I uninspiredly named the recording “Pasquotank,” an Algonquin place name common to my area of North Carolina that theoretically means “where the river forks.”

Time, and the human relationship to it, is a funny thing. We can do nothing to affect it, besides altering our own perceptions. Time marches on heedless of our demands and desires and wishes that it would stop, pause, leave us in those moments of ecstasy and glory and accomplishment; it inversely plods along ever so reluctantly in times of despair and failure and uncertainty, those instances in which we would beg for it to run, fly, rush ahead and transmute us into occupants of another reality. Time is the one aspect of everyone’s life that may be completely neutral. Time is the ultimate arbiter.

Perhaps that’s what imbues it with such cold authority. Time is an invisible scale tuned to the finest degree, indiscriminate as it weighs one life against the other, ignorant of values and motivations and hopes and dreams. I was born in 1987. He was born in 1987. We’re both 23, and that’s all that time can tell you.

Two years ago, to this day, I stepped up to the customs desk at the Casablanca airport and was delivered a hasty stampful of smeared black ink reading “9-9-2008.” So were thousands of other people that day, a few of whom I would see again. I remember the exchange hazily, almost as if it were some fading dream cursorily constructed from fragmentary images in my mind of the airports, borders and nondescriptly uniformed officials of a different time and a different place. But the stamp is still there, clinging resolutely to the wrong page of my passport, and today I’m looking at a washed-out “09/09/2010” on my cell phone display and wondering what its significance is.

Two years is simultaneously a short time and a long one. I ponder whether or not it in and of itself can be considered an accomplishment when time, neutral as it is, speaks little for the actual events of all the infinite fractions of moments bracketed within its midst. It’s true, I think. Two years, by itself, is just an arbitrary number beside an arbitrary word. Time measures; it doesn’t observe. Time can’t provide context.

But I, on the other hand, can. Two years in Morocco has been an exercise in resiliency, in exhilaration, in embracing unanticipated joys and bracing against unexpected mishaps, in examining goals  and commitments and one’s foresight as to being able to meet them and keep them. Foresight. That’s the word to which I keep coming back. We all want to know that we had the wisdom in the past to imagine where we’d be today. Not that we’ll get the all details right. But can we envision at least some part of ourselves correctly in a reality that does not yet exist?

Two Septembers ago I was in the airport terminal in New York, about to leave for Morocco, trying to do just that. I wrote about it here. The terminal was familiar; it was the February 2007 departure point for my first 6-month stint in the Middle East, and I couldn’t help but recall my last memories of that physical place. At the time I mused:

“Here I am seated only paces away from the reminiscence’s place of origin. Yet this time is different in its own right, and despite the static nature of the terminal — still as clean, efficient, and impersonal as it was two Februarys ago — I know that much has immeasurably changed since I last passed through it. Those strangers with whom I was last here are now some of my best friends, fellow inheritors of shared experience, humor and challenge. Standing on a familiar hilltop but staring at a new horizon, I wonder: what transformations will the terminal cast upon its new set of passerthroughs?”

It’s assuaging to read those words, dated 9-9-2008, and think that the answer they imply is rather accurately parallel with a description of 9-9-2010. And so is the unspoken assumption about the future: I’ll still be there. I’ll still be here. I’ll still be in Morocco, sticking to the plan, keeping my commitment, living a life for which I volunteered three years prior despite all the uncertainties it would entail. It hasn’t always been easy. It hasn’t always been hard. And the good fortune that’s allowed me to do it hasn’t always been of my own making. Time doesn’t discriminate, but the changes in our world — and, more importantly, in ourselves — that accompany it often do. Two years, in isolation, is meaningless. But two years ago I asked myself where I wanted to be today, and the answer was where I’m sitting right now. And it’s that act of foresight that grants that portion of time and its passage, however objective and intractable, the meaning it has today.

A short brief from Al-Jazeera’s front page (my translation):

An Israeli Plan for the Breakthrough of the Amazigh Movement

A study that describes an Israeli plan in support of the breakthrough of the Amazigh movement has sparked controversy in the Maghreb, especially in that this breakthrough would aim to encourage some of the movement’s leaders to expedite the process of Israel’s normalization with the states of the Arab Maghreb Union. The study, published by the Moshe Dayan Center based out of Tel Aviv University, indicated that the greatest obstacle to normalization in the region is represented by Islamic nationalist movements, which pressure regimes in the region to halt progress towards it.

خطة إسرائيلية لاختراق الحركة الأمازيغية

تثير دراسة كشفت عن خطة إسرائيلية لاختراق الحركة الأمازيغية سجالا كبيرا في المغرب، ولا سيما أن الاختراق يهدف إلى استثمار بعض نشطاء الحركة لتسريع عملية التطبيع مع دول اتحاد المغرب العربي. وأشارت الدراسة التي أصدرها “مركز موشي دايان” التابع لجامعة تل أبيب إلى أن أكبر عائق أمام التطبيع في المنطقة يتمثل في الحركات الإسلامية والقومية التي تضغط على الأنظمة في دول المنطقة لإيقاف مساره.

I always think it interesting to find mention of the Amazigh in Arabic news outlets, where this indigenous people of North Africa often constitutes only a side note at best. The character of Amazigh nationalist movements has been overwhelming secular, which certainly does cast them in a political light far removed from that of the Islamists. Unhindered by notions of pan-Arab unity and unmotivated by religious aspirations, would an increasingly influential Amazigh faction push for a change of the status quo with Israel? Perhaps, though my sensibilities would anticipate a much more inward-looking approach from a movement born of concerns over a threatened cultural and linguistic identity. More ideological figures of the movement’s past may have been more likely to challenge the full envelope of political realities, but its increasingly pragmatic modern incarnation seems to realize that the key to political legitimacy lies in advocating the issues that it holds central while towing the established line for those on the periphery. And why would Israel, located far from the Amazigh heartland and largely irrelevant to daily life in the Maghreb, be anything other than the latter?

Carved at 4 AM last night. Second attempt; this one’s playable. Cute, huh?

Despite living in the center of Morocco’s Berber carpet country for the last two years, and having seen quite a few carpets in all stages of production, until recently I remained an exclusive observer. With the end of my time here rapidly approaching, however, I’ve reached the point where I could longer hold out. Below is the awesome handmade carpet I just picked up today at a nearby women’s cooperative. While already eye-catching to begin with, what really won me over is that this carpet is subtly all about food. The triangular patterns are reminiscent of the ubiquitous Moroccan tagine, while the smaller details incorporate motifs of spoons and forks. I like the Moroccan culture of carpet-weaving, and I like Moroccan food — so what better a souvenir to bring back that one that reminds me of both?


Welcome to my corner of the web! I am currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.


Seasonal River


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