By Lisa Ewart
I remember the day like it was yesterday. After traveling for several hours in a variety of old and dilapidated taxis, I arrived in my new home in a small town in the northwest African country of Morocco. I didn’t know much about my new community. I knew it was rural and that its people were Muslim. I knew that there were limited opportunities for youth and most likely no English speakers. I also knew enough to know that I knew almost nothing. So as I walked through town to the home of a family that would become my family, I tried to take it all in – the surrounding hills, the wildflowers, the sheep, and the curious and eager glances of my new neighbors. I felt excited, a little overwhelmed, and completely unprepared.
But there I was. That first night I remember sitting with the family who agreed to host me for my first month. After a delicious meal, we tried to communicate. In my pre-Peace Corps life, I was a lawyer, and my go-to communication was verbal language. But despite two months of training and a very patient teacher, my Moroccan Arabic (Darija) was limited and the language I did know seemed to escape me that first evening. So we smiled, we laughed, we pointed, we did charades, and we relied on the little language I managed to conjure. I repeatedly said that I was happy (Ana frahana) and that everything was zwin (pronounced z-wēn; spelled زوين).
The English translation for zwin is pretty or beautiful, but when one’s adjective selection is limited (like mine is in Darija), the word can be used to describe a variety of situations that are appealing: an experience, an idea, a person (either in appearance or in character), a sunset … you get the point. Throughout my Peace Corps service, I encountered so much that was zwin, and I used that word over and over again to express my happiness, my agreement, my amazement, and – always – my gratitude.
That first night was the start of two incredible and challenging years. It wasn’t always easy or comfortable. At times I felt lonely and frustrated by some of the community norms, and I missed my friends and family and many of the basic comforts of my former life. I also struggled with having so much to say, but not always knowing the Darija words to say it (or thinking I knew how to say it, but realizing from the resultant giggles or confused looks that I had miscalculated). But over time, I adjusted, my ability to communicate improved, and I became part of the community.
On the work front, I worked with a dynamic director at the youth center and willing community members to build programming for youth. We had some great successes (and some failures), and together we made an impact on the lives of dedicated youth. Zwin! I also worked with a group of talented and motivated women to build their traditional embroidery and baking business. Helping them realize their own potential while they helped me realize mine – zwin!
And my family expanded too. My host family, my neighbors, the women in the cooperative, and the children at the youth center became my family. They included me in all aspects of their lives. They invited me to eat countless meals, to break the fast during Ramadan, to join for Eid Kabir, to dance during Ashura, and to celebrate engagements, weddings, and babies. Many of these things felt different to me – different music, different religion, different language, different food, and different traditions. But my reaction was almost always the same – zwin! And when times were tough, my Moroccan family supported me in the best way they knew how – by feeding me. And the food was always zwin.
Indeed, the most zwin thing about my community was its people. I often marveled at the kindness and generosity of my community members and their willingness to be inclusive of me despite our differences. And as my language improved and I better understood the conversations happening around me, I learned why they were willing to do so.
In Morocco, I became comfortable with people talking about me in front of me. There was never a malicious intent – people were curious (it didn’t take a genius to see – or hear – that I was not from there). After a while, I started to understand the questions and the answers: Is she married? No. Does she speak Darija? Shwiya – a little. Does she have family here? We are her family. Why is she here? She is a volunteer with youth. And, inevitably: Is she Muslim? No. To that last question, my family would add: but she has a qlb zwin – a pretty heart.
A zwin heart. I got it. To them, it didn’t matter that we came from different cultures, countries and religions or that I was unintentionally committing cultural and language gaffes left and right. They believed I had a zwin heart. And that was what mattered. Of course, my heart is often not zwin. I sometimes feel anger, judgment, self-righteousness and all those other feelings that we are taught not to admit. But in this town, surrounded by these people, I strived to live up to their assessment of me and to have a zwin heart. And my heart felt happy; it felt zwin. I was a better person because of the zwin hearts that surrounded me and the love and understanding that we built together. Not based on a common religion or culture or language, but based on a mutual desire to understand and be understood, to open ourselves to someone who was different, to be kind and compassionate, to be helpful, to be human and to try our best to make this world a little better for ourselves, our families, and our community. Yes, at our core, we were not that different: our hearts wanted to be zwin. And at their core, my experiences with my Moroccan community were not that different than my experiences with my American community: celebrations of family, community, love and faith. All very zwin.
And on the last day of my service, I watched as a new taxi – a huge improvement over the dilapidated one that brought me to town over two years before – pulled up to take me away. And despite the tears of sadness at leaving this place that had become my home, there was much to celebrate and my heart – like that new taxi – felt zwin.
Bio: After practicing law for nearly a decade, Lisa Ewart joined the Peace Corps and served as a youth development volunteer in Morocco for two years. Lisa recently returned to the United States and is looking for opportunities to create community in Atlanta.
Editor’s note: Skirt! magazine publishes selected essay submissions each month as part of our mission to amplify women’s voices and issues women care about.