Category Archives: Rabat

From the top of the Atlas

I woke up with the early morning rays of sun streaming through the pane-less window. Underneath me I could feel the hard concrete floor, bare but for a couple of thin blankets for nominal comfort. The white-chalk graffiti on the gray walls was illuminated by the warm light, pronouncing the messages of mischievous local youth and of travelers long gone. Outside the window, a sprawling dry lakebed lay beneath imposing mountains capped with snow, and far off in the distance, from a nomad camp, a rooster announced the arrival of the new day.

blog 9 pic 1 IMG_5405 - Philip, EliThis was the second morning of a three-day trek through the Ait Bougmez Valley in the High Atlas. A bus to Beni Mellal, at the foot of the mountains, and then a grand taxi to Azilal through windy roads climbing up to the Amazigh town. From Azilal, another grand taxi twists through even narrower mountain passes and sharp drop-offs on a road paved only several years earlier. Prior to the road – our guide later told us – the easiest journey to Azilal was a two-day donkey ride in the summer. In winter, the snow would clog all the roads, and the inhabitants of the valley were entirely isolated.

More recently, trekkers and tourists have begun visiting the valley – marketed as “Happy Valley” in the various travel guides – with much more frequency, and many mountain guides and small hostels have popped up. Despite this, outside of the main administrative town on the paved road (which looks as if it escaped an old Western film), the way of life seems to have remained mostly unchanged by the introduction of modern amenities. Walking through the tiny villages, some only a cluster of mud-brick houses is like taking a trip back in time.

blog 9 pic 2 IMG_7086-  Philip, EliThe houses themselves are constructed out of a mix of mud and straw, packed tightly into molds, and set three feet deep. Surrounding the villages are intricately irrigated fields, divided neatly into small family plots. Each plot boasts a mix of wheat, vegetables and fruit trees, dotted with beautiful irises, poppies and assorted wildflowers. Young men use traditional wooden plows to till the land, women with scythes reap the wheat, and donkeys laden with building material, hay or vegetables are used to ferry from section to section. Chickens loaf around the houses or walk importantly through the fields, and hens cluck angrily at cats stalking their chicks. Other than the power lines extending from house to house and across the hills, this scene would have been identical one, two or even five centuries earlier.

Going plowing

Going plowing

We left the time capsule after the three-day hike, and the driver of the minibus to Azilal informed us he would be continuing to Marrakech. For a brief moment we considered the idea – a hostel in the narrow streets of the vast medina, fresh orange juice from the many carts at the square, maybe an interesting new scarf at one of the souks. Yet the minibus would be departing to Marrakech only the next morning, and the extra trip would not make sense. In that moment I suddenly internalized that yes, I am leaving Morocco. That I will not see the ancient red city again, will not get lost in the maze of streets, will not be frustrated by the nudging vendors, will not marvel at the sea of tourists red-cheeked and wide-eyed by the heat and the snake charmers. In just a few days, taking a train to one of the oldest cities in the world, or a few packed taxis to mountain villages passed over by time, will no longer be a possibility. And with this realization came a great sense of joy and accomplishment. For four months I have lived and traveled, breathed and listened and tasted and explored, sampled from every town or city or region, and grew to know a country packed with opportunities. Morocco, it’s been a blast.

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The Weekly Souk

Alongside highways and small roads, in large towns and tiny villages, exists an incredible phenomenon. Once a week, folks gather from the surrounding countryside to central locations throughout Morocco, and out of the dust, the weekly souk is formed. The villagers use any movable platform to ferry their wares to the souk. Old trucks are packed with sofas and chairs, hollowed-out minibuses stocked with sheep – bellowing out the windows, overloaded ancient vehicles with sacks of household goods. Then the donkeys. Donkeys pulling huge carts laden with goods, donkeys carrying large packs dangling on either side, donkeys moving entire families on their backs. All these, machine and beast, funnel to the well-used souks, clogging the roads and slowing passing traffic to a crawl.

For those not in a hurry to continue driving, the sight of the telltale congestion is a boon. In a small village in the desert north of Errachidia, the souk was tiny, consisting of a dozen stalls for vegetables and assorted products. A ten-minute walk around produced beautifully woven colorful bread plates, handmade using palm date fronds. Other souks are much larger, and some are absolutely massive. Many villages have specific plots saved for the exclusive use of the weekly hustle and bustle. The stands, booths and stretched tarp remain abandoned and silent, until the big day when a human flood descends into the stalls. Outside the designated area, peddlers display their merchandise sprawled out on the ground. Anything from clothes to old electronic devices can be found, but the bulk is often second-hand goods, broken wares, or what may be called ‘antiques.’ Searching through these can be tedious, but may yield retro Ray Bans frames or old leather bags. In one such place I found an old cigarette box from the 40s, stamped with the words “Produced specifically to prevent sore throat.”

Most souks are laid out with specific sections selling different goods. Each row, and in bigger souks even several rows, are dedicated to a different product. All the produce sellers will be concentrated in one area, often the grain sellers – with heaping mounds of barely or sacks of flour – will be nearby. The clothes rows are packed with scarves, jellabas, dresses, pants, suits, socks, produced locally or in China, for a price cheaper than can be found anywhere else. Next will be household products, ranging from shampoos to brooms to tagines. Heaped among them are traditional natural soaps, dried rose flowers, spices and other raw products for home use. The edges of the souk contain the ‘heavier’ sections. The meat market is one such section. Whole cows or sheep hang by the stalls, and the butcher will cut slabs according to the customer’s desire. Hearts, liver, kidneys are all available, and it is completed with chicken-slaughtering booths. Another edge, sometimes adjacent, is the food court, where freshly butchered meat is brought, grilled and served right away. On the outskirts is the livestock market. Sheep, goats and donkeys are sold and bought, either ridden out of the market, or packed tightly into the large trucks and taken back to the farms.

blog 8 pic 1 IMG_4776 - Philip. Eli

Some souks have areas that are unique. The souk in Azrou of the Middle Atlas, for example, is known for its local carpets – and some wealthy tourists come from all around to purchase unique designs. In a souk in the valleys outside Marrakech, I saw a whole district of blacksmiths producing yard tools, heating the iron in fire till it’s red and pliable, and working it into the desired shape.

The weekly souks in Morocco are incredible places. Almost anything can be found, and they provide a glimpse into a way of life that in many ways has remained unchanged for centuries. It is a place for community building and strengthening relationships with neighboring villages or folks from far-flung areas. The souks are not a tourist attraction, existing entirely for Moroccans, and in fact the tourists sometimes become an attraction themselves. Most importantly, if you stumble across a weekly souk in your travels, remember: bargaining is the only way to shop here. Good luck!

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Jews of Morocco

Signs of Jewish culture are everywhere in Morocco. Adjacent to the ancient walled medinas of Moroccan cities stands the Jewish quarter – Mellah. The name, meaning salt in Arabic, is likely derived from the location of the first Mellah, built among brackish swamp near Fes. Historically, these walled-and-gated communities were built with the dual purpose of protecting Jewish Moroccans from riots, as well as restricting their expansion to other parts of the city. Over the centuries, as Jewish populations expanded, the Mellah was bursting at the seams. Only with the French occupation were Jews finally permitted to live outside the walls of the crowded Jewish quarters.

Marrakech Synagogue

Marrakech Synagogue

Today, the Mellah remain poor, but also serve as tourist sites. Its uglier past ignored or unknown by the current Muslim inhabitants who boast of the coexistence between Jews and Muslims in Morocco, and insist on showing tourists the Jewish synagogue – for a fee, of course. Yet, though a few synagogues in the old Jewish quarters still operate, to find contemporary Jewish Moroccan life one most look in the Ville Nouvelle – the modern European-style areas of the city.

I found the Jews of Fes at exactly such a location, a beautiful synagogue tucked away in the new city. It was the holiday of Purim, celebrated by reading the Book of Esther, drinking, exchanging gifts, and, of course, a large feast. Finding the small Jewish community not only allowed me to celebrate the holiday, but also provided a window into a part of Morocco that is fast disappearing.

Torah Scroll of Fes

Torah Scroll of Fes

Once a large community, today only about sixty Jews remain in Fes, and most are in their sixties and seventies. Nonetheless, a feeling of a tight-knit, vibrant community permeated the beautiful courtyard of the cultural center, and the decorated interior of the synagogue. Entering the center, I felt as if I stepped into a different Morocco. Though the designs on the wall, the heat of the day, and the food – delicious pastilla, harira and salads – were all clearly Moroccan, the atmosphere was distinct from the predominantly Muslim culture outside.

The old men sat joking and shouting in a unique accent of Moroccan darija, mixed with French and Hebrew. Wines and whiskies lined the tables, and all were munching on sweets and candies prepared for the holiday. I spoke with one old man about how the holiday was practiced back when the Mellah was still full of Moroccan Jews. He took a bite of a sweet baked good, and in between chews, began reminiscing.

Purim Feast

Purim Feast

‘Gambling,’ he said, ‘is discouraged by Jewish law, except for on Purim. During the holiday, shoppers would go to the bakeries to purchase sweet cookies and cakes, but they wouldn’t pay. The shopper would place a five or ten dirham coin, and the baker would wager the equivalent in baked goods. Then, they would play cards. The winner would take it all. Some folks would take home five kilos of cookies without paying a single dirham!’

Today, the tradition is gone, though the old men still play the same card games. The community is aging and seems to be quickly disappearing. Those still living in Morocco are quite content, and are not interested in leaving. For me, this was an incredible opportunity to catch a glimpse of a culture that was an integral to the fabric of Moroccan life and history, and to see my practice and traditions in a new and unique light.

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A Joke in the Desert

My favorite parts of Darija (local Arabic dialect) class are the little Moroccan jokes inserted in our book. Our teacher, a small, grandmotherly and bubbly lady, excitedly explains the punch lines over and over until we finally understand, or at least until we satisfy her with our confused laughter. Until this past weekend, I assumed that these jokes were intended to serve merely as a taste of the culture or perhaps good-natured entertainment.  The important and useful parts of class were the dialogues and vocabulary for purchasing fruit and vegetables or reserving a hotel room. My trip to Merzouga this past weekend showed me otherwise.

Traveling to the Sahara desert is a serious trek. Merzouga, the town adjacent to the largest dunes in Morocco known as Erg Chebbi, is a train ride and overnight bus away. The only reason to make this over twelve-hour journey is for a camel ride through the magnificent dunes, which draw tourists from all over Morocco and the world. We arrived before the dawn call to prayer, and other than fellow groggy passengers and a few waiting guides, the town was deserted. Our camels were leaving for the desert in the cooler evening, and we spent the morning and afternoon hours napping with intermittent excursions to the dusty streets of the town.

Dusty Merzouga

Dusty Merzouga

In Merzouga itself there is not much to see outside the mud-walled houses, a few souvenir shops selling the meters-long iconic blue scarves, and a bunch of turbaned-men lounging and sipping on sugary tea. We spent most the day in the shade, drinking water and looking forward to our expedition into the desert. As the temperature began to slowly drop, our guide called us, and the trip began.

Getting on a camel is an experience in itself. The trouble starts once atop the sitting camel, as the dromedary stands on its hind legs first, causing the rider to lunge forward, tilting at a dangerous angle and holding on for dear life. Then the front knees rise, throwing the rider violently backwards, until equilibrium is reached with the camel standing upright. I thought that was the scariest part, until I had to get off the camel. This process in reverse is much more terrifying.

Camels in the Desert

Camels in the Desert

Once on the camel and away from town, the brief hassle of mounting the camel immediately faded away. Rolling dunes of warm, reddish sand stretched as far as the eye could see. The desert is too beautiful to try and express in words, but I hope the pictures do it justice.

Dunes

Dunes

As the sun set over the desert, we settled in for dinner in the small tents nestled between the dunes. Our guide, a young Amazigh man from Merzouga, invited some friends over, and we all shared a delicious tajin. We discussed the proper length of the scarves (they thought that anything shorter than 5 or 6 meters was useless), learned some words in the local Amazigh language, and were implored over and over to eat more. After dinner and some drumming, our guide declared it was time for telling jokes. They shared some local jokes, which can only be fully appreciated by people who live with the sand, heat and dry wadis of the desert. When they ran out of jokes, we were asked to share. Tentatively, I began telling the one from class, using darija mixed with words in Standard Arabic, some English, some Spanish, and a healthy dose of hand motions. At the punch line, they actually laughed, probably as much from the joke itself as from my attempts at saying it. For me, the success of the joke transformed the situation from just tourists coming to see the dunes, to fully experiencing not only the landscape, but also the people and culture as well. A little darija, even in the desert, can go a long way.

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Surfing with the King

Friday was already going to be an adventure. I was convinced by a couple of friends to try surfing at one of the surf clubs along the coast of Rabat. Overlooked by Oudaya, the ancient cliff fortifications, the shore provides Rabatis some open space – albeit strewn with discarded bottles and plastic – to play soccer or swim. I have never been surfing before, and the idea of attempting to balance on a board in the tumulus surf seemed ludicrous. Yet, I relented, even at the cost of missing the weekly family couscous lunch. Warm noontime sun bathed the streets of the city as we flagged a cab towards the medina. We wore jeans above our bathing suits to remain modest throughout our journey to the beach.

Oudaya

Oudaya

Large crowds were awaiting us at the medina. As we stepped out of the cab, a festive mood greeted us, and the excitement in the air was palpable. Mobs of onlookers thronged past the main square of Bab al-Had to a smaller, fenced off entrance in the medina’s walls. Men donned in white jalabas – the traditional Moroccan dress – and red caps stood waiting, surrounded by policemen along the periphery of the temporary fence, a protective barrier from the pulsing crowd. All around, young and old Moroccans were holding small red and green Moroccan flags and clutching pictures of the king. A troop of young, rowdy school children briefly halted their horseplay and erupted into a chant in praise of their king. The cheer spread through the crowd, accompanied by a burst of red of the waving flags. Somewhere from within the enclosure a drum was striking a beat.

Suddenly, royal guards donned in white capes and holding large flags streamed out and assembled in formation alongside the path leading to the small gate. Other guards rolled magnificent traditional carpets, covering the sidewalks and tram rails. Traffic stopped. Anticipation filled the air. The whole crowd leaned precariously forward, risking tipping over for a brief glimpse. And then, a motorcade of sleek, back limousines and police motorcycles pulled to a stop in front of the entrance to the medina. The door opened, and to the sound of cheers and trumpets, out stepped a man in a golden jalaba: the king. Smiling and waving, the king passed by the flag bearers, the advisors clad in white, and the stiff policemen, and entered the medina for the Friday afternoon prayer.

As the crowd dissipated, I reflected on what I had just experienced. Seeing the king was a goal I really hoped would be realized, and after just three weeks in Morocco, I saw a figure that looms larger than life for Moroccans, though most have never seen him in flesh-and-blood. As an American, used to a vibrant media and democratic system, it is almost unbelievable to suddenly live in a monarchy, where the ruler is sanctioned not by the will of the people, but by God and history. Yet, as unfamiliar as this is for me, even the pro-democracy activists I have met did not wish to see a Morocco without a monarch, desiring instead a more reserved, ceremonial role for the king. All were wary of what a future without a king would look like. The king, they say, holds Morocco together.

Ocean in Morocco

Ocean in Morocco

We left the square and the king behind, and walked along the ancient reddish walls of the medina towards the glimmering blue of the ocean. Young men were playing soccer on the beach, couples were sipping tea in the seaside cafés, and a few brave souls were surfing in the waves. Such serenity is difficult to find in the intensive pace of life back home, and for a moment, I could understand why many Moroccans would like things to stay just the way they are.

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Delicious Morocco

I eat my lunch at a place that is the textbook definition of a hole-in-the-wall. Located across the large Mosque, hidden behind a small park of benches and pigeons, and set inconspicuously among shops of electronics and book supplies, the little kitchen thrives. Long lines of Moroccan men – dressed in construction gear or business suits – congregate by the small wooden shelf that serves as a table. Eating is hurried, either taking food to go or standing by the counter for a quick meal. An Arabic-only menu of Moroccan flatbreads and donuts is written above the counter, but the green soup (perhaps of pea and fava bean) has to be asked for by name. The cook and owner of the little booth speaks only darija, so we order primarily by pointing, making inquisitive faces, and engaging all the other hungry buyers in explanations of what the different types of fried dough are, and which one is the most delicious.

A meal for two at the anonymous stand consisting of a steaming bowl of mysterious green soup and fried rghifa flatbread spread with cheese and honey costs approximately 10 dirhams, or a just little over one dollar.

Traditional Moroccan meal with new friends

Traditional Moroccan meal with new friends

Not to worry, if desiring a splurge, the streets of Morocco are teeming with food. Whether in modern Agdal or the ancient Medina, there is never a shortage of restaurants, cafés, or street vendors offering (sometimes insisting on) a delicious meal or quick snack. Many restaurants offer traditional Moroccan dishes such as tajine – chicken, meat or fish mixed with vegetables cooked in a special ceramic pot – and the delicious Moroccan couscous. The latter is often only found on Fridays, as that is when couscous is traditionally eaten at home with the whole family. Dotted among these are some restaurants catering cuisine from around the world – including Iraqi falafel, Italian pastas and even Sushi. Mexican food is yet to be found.

Moroccan couscous

Moroccan couscous

Leaving the neat and orderly restaurants opens a whole new world of snacks and street food. The old medina in particular is full of a variety of carts and stands with a broad array of food types. Stands grilling all sorts of meat are ubiquitous to the narrow alleys, as are ones frying freshly caught sardines, packing them tightly into pita sandwiches lined with chopped vegetables, eggplants, rice or eggs. Those are my favorite. Lighter snacks include roasted nuts or pumpkin seeds, boiled chickpeas topped with a special blend of spices, and peanuts or sesame glued together with honey to form thick bars of sweetness. Though more common in the south of Morocco, the fruits of prickly pear can also be found. These are cut free from their skin in two quick swipes, exposing the bright red or yellowish-green fruit, which are then promptly impaled on a toothpick and handed to the eager buyer. These delightful goodies (the red variety is sweeter) come at a price of only one dirham each!

A key ingredient in all Moroccan dishes and one that contributes greatly to the famed taste is the freshness of the produce. Men selling oranges or mandarins out the back of pickup trucks picked the same fruit a short while earlier, the leaves and small twigs still attached to the fruit. The fish market is dependant on the waves, and clear days bring in a large catch of sardines and larger fish. All other produce is likewise grown locally, harvested in season, and sold at the market the very same day it was picked. Not only is the food tastier, the connection to the final product is deeper. The boats which caught the sardines can be seen relaxing in the river beyond the souks selling them to the vendors which fry them right in front of my hungry eyes. When the whole process of creating the food is witnessed, it ends up tasting significantly better than anonymous fish packed tightly into a tin can.

Freshly caught fish!

Freshly caught fish!

To be clear: Mom, I still love your food! Yet there’s something unique about the dishes and produce in Morocco. From their preparation, to their presentation, the whole journey of food here is an incredibly tasty ride.

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The Learning Train

Taxi? Taxi? Fifty Dirham! Taxi?

Perhaps the most common refrain on the streets of Marrakech – a shopkeeper, restaurateur, or even a pedestrian, will offer a cab ride or some small trinket for sale.

This past weekend was our first one “in-country.” We’ve been in Morocco for just under a week, adjusting to the unhurried pace of life, to heavily gestural communication and to our new parents and siblings. There is much to see in Rabat, which has both a modern city with apartment buildings, cafes and high-end clothing stores, as well as historical areas, including a vibrant ancient medina. During the orientation week, I began exploring both sections of the city, witnessing how the old and the new meld into each other, flowing freely between high-end restaurants and ancient markets. In the coming months, I hope to discover more and more of the city’s alleys, shops and sights.

For this weekend, some brand new friends and I decided to explore more of Morocco, and travelled south to Marrakech. The simplest way to Marrakech is a four-hour train ride. The trains in Morocco are a cheap and excellent way to travel, and an even better way to make friends – but more on that later. We arrived around noon, and the first thing I noticed were all the tourists. In Rabat, I am one of very few non-Moroccans around, and even after just a week in Rabat, I’ve grown accustomed to having to use a mixture of literary Arabic, the spoken dialect (Darija) and a lot of hand gestures to buy anything from soup to notebooks. In Rabat, for the most part, I am seen less as a tourist, and more often people assume I am indeed a student. Yet in Marrakech, all of a sudden I was lumped together with travelers and visitors of a week or just a few days – and seeing the sights necessarily included incessant refusals to purchase some artifact or coffee. At times, the implorations tested my nerves, yet a sentence or two in Arabic did wonders – an almost magical transformation from tourist to quasi-local. I was asked several times whether I was Arab, or at least have an Arab grandparent. Equipped with a bit of Arabic, a determined sense of humor and a lot of la shukran (no, thank you), navigating the souks and squares became much more pleasant.

Vendors in Marrakech

Vendors in Marrakech

The city itself is beautiful. Markets of shops filled with pyramids of fragrant spices, scarves of every color waving in the soft breeze, and tiny stalls of deliciously fresh avocado, date or orange juices. The sights, smells and tastes are truly incredible. After two days of breathing in the city, it was a little sad to leave. Our trip, though, was not yet over.

Marrakech and Atlas Mountains

Marrakech and Atlas Mountains

Taking the train back to Rabat, even though we embarked on the very first stop of the route, somehow there was barely a seat to be found. After traversing several train cars, we found an eight-person cabin with three empty seats, exactly what we needed. We squeezed in between the other passengers, and began to strike up a conversation with one of the passengers – a student at the university in Marrakech with great English. In English peppered with Arabic words and phrases, we discussed whether honey-sesame or honey-peanut snacks were better, and where the best beaches in Morocco are located. Soon enough, the whole cabin joined in, sharing their advice in Arabic, French and limited English, or pooling together their vocabulary to help translate words from Arabic to English and vice versa. As we shared our honey-peanut snacks bought in the Marrakech souk (the cabin was unanimous that these were indeed better), one of our fellow passengers thoughtfully remarked, ‘you are teaching us English, we are teaching you Arabic. We can call this the Learning Train!’

Friendliness on the Train: Two Strangers

Friendliness on the Train: Two Strangers

This sentence encapsulates what my experience in Morocco has been, and what I hope it will continue to be. It is one long journey of learning through encountering brand new experiences and people. These moments provide chances for learning, and also for sharing, creating a true learning train.

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Introducing Eli Philip: Spring 2014 Blog Abroad Correspondent in Morocco

For the past week I was immersed in a program exploring food and eating within Judaism. Many of the texts we studied encouraged consciousness of the source of the food, intentionality around eating, or different dietary restrictions. Yet almost all the texts implicitly assumed that a deeply powerful human connection is built through the act of sharing a meal. This age-old insight sharpened my anticipation and my excitement for the adventure I will begin next week: I am going to Morocco! The country is completely foreign, the culture quite different, and the people brand new, but the knowledge that all these barriers can fall to the wayside by sharing a simple meal is thrilling. I cannot wait to begin meeting, encountering and building relationships. And besides, the food is supposed to be delicious.

44798_1398102280793_1479330207_2768758_5661393_n - blog 1 pic 1- Philip, EliSo who am I? My name is Eli Philip, and I am currently a junior at Brandeis University, studying Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. I just wrapped up my third semester learning Arabic, and am looking forward (a bit nervously) to take my skills to the next level and begin learning and actually speaking the Moroccan dialect. My passion for the region and its cultures and peoples probably began before I was even born. My entire family – including grandparents, aunts, uncles and many cousins – is from Israel, and I spent the first ten years of my life living there, where our next-door neighbors were Moroccan Jews. The Middle East is an integral part of who I am, and keeps drawing me back to further explore the region. The opportunity to not just pass through, but to be fully absorbed in Moroccan life, seemed like the perfect way to add color and depth to my existing connections to the Middle East.

Since my family moved from Israel to Philadelphia 12 years ago, we’ve traveled throughout the United States. In that time, I managed to visit 45 states, most recently on a road trip with a couple friends through the Deep South. I am looking forward to continue traveling and having adventures during my four months in Morocco. I know the country is beautiful, and has both human and natural wonders that are unmatched – and you can be sure I will write about them here. Other than traveling, my passion is spending time in the outdoors, especially hiking and camping. Nature is invigorating in its own right, but since the natural world has a significant influence on culture and lifestyle, it also provides a unique window to the lives of the people of a particular area. Like generations of Moroccans, I plan to traverse the mountains, wander the deserts and lounge on the coasts, reveling in the natural treasures and seeing the impression they left on the people who share it.

Hiking in Northern Israel

Hiking in Northern Israel

Living in Rabat, at least for the first several weeks, is bound to be challenging. Though I am confident I could communicate using only hand gestures, I know that surmounting the language barrier will open the door to much more substantial relationships. I am certain that as my language skills improve, so will my experiences, and as a result, so will these blog posts! So even though I am nervous now about navigating this new culture, I am looking forward to this challenge, and to exploring Morocco with you all!

Next time from Rabat!

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Coming Home and a Final Word

It feels good to be home.  Although studying for a semester in Morocco was perhaps one of the best experiences of my life so far, I can’t deny the comforts of being back in Colorado.  Seeing friends again, talking face-to-face with people who I had not seen for months, and just being around familiar streets make me value my home and relationships much more.  Interestingly enough, Morocco means home now as well.

Sometimes it can be overwhelming to try and compartmentalize and synthesize all the experiences I had in Rabat and the rest of Morocco.  The excursion with the AMIDEAST cohort to Zawiyat Ahansal tends to stand out in my memory.  Spending a weekend in an remote village in the Atlas Mountains is something I’ll cherish forever.  It seems crazy to think about how different the lives of the individuals living in that village are than my own.

I also think about my own trip to the Atlas Mountains to climb Jebel Toubkal.  Staying in the refuge, almost getting lost, and a harrowing taxi ride back to Marrakech fill the ears of anybody willing to listen.  After seeing some of my friends, I sometimes feel compelled to bring up these stories in the hopes that I create at least a genuine interest inside them for Morocco.  It would be an injustice to not tell people about such great people and places.

Overlooking Fes

Overlooking Fes

Another component of the study abroad experience that I find hard to not talk about is my host-family.  All the good food I ate, the conversations that were had over hot tea, and countless shenanigans with the host-brother cannot be traded for anything.  The look on my friends’ faces when I tell them about the naming ceremony and slaughtering the sheep are priceless.  Conversely, it’s nice to eat bacon again.

Since I have only been home for about two days, reverse culture shock has not hit me yet.  I am a little nervous to establish a new routine.  It’s going to require a concerted effort on my part to readjust to the fast paced lifestyle of the United States after the more laid back and less structured routine I had in Rabat.  I plan on adopting and incorporating some of the things I did differently in Morocco to my daily routine in the U.S.  For example, I benefited greatly from eating dinner later at night.  It provided me more time to get things done during the day in such a way that I sometimes felt more time efficient abroad than at home.

The last family couscous.

The last family couscous.

Using Arabic everyday is another huge part of my study abroad experience that I will miss.  I became much better at conversing and using my language to get around and take care of myself.  This was one of the more empowering features of my time abroad.  Now that I’m home, I plan on maintaining a certain level of proficiency in the language and expanding my expertise in others.

Perhaps the most important thing that going abroad has taught me is how vital my education is to me.  I have not felt this empowered about my degree at any point in my undergraduate time until now.  Going to Morocco with a group of students who care about international affairs and relations has helped me become excited for what the future has in store for me.  Living and studying abroad has given me much more confidence in myself professionally and I cannot wait to start making a difference after college.

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Connor Sims, Morocco, Rabat

The Holiday Season in Rabat: Family, Food, Music

This weekend was one for the books in Rabat.  Some other AMIDEAST students and I were lucky enough to be apart of some of the most intimate cultural experiences we have had thus far in Morocco.  This weekend had it all: good music, almost too much delicious food, family, friends, and a lot of blood.  Allow me to explain.

On Thursday, our host sister, Meryem, informed us that she sings for the Royal Philharmonic of Morocco in the chorus.  She is an extremely talented individual, performing for most of her life and currently doing so while raising a family and working full-time.  Every December since 2009, the Philharmonic plays one of Beethoven’s symphonies in its entirety.  As a member of the ensemble, Meryem was able to get tickets for Pablo and I.  The Friday evening concert lasted about three hours and was spectacular.  It was interesting to not only hear the wonderful music, but also observe the abundance of languages being spoken throughout the audience.

The main stage of the concert hall where the Royal Philharmonic performed.

The main stage of the concert hall where the Royal Philharmonic performed.

The next day, we began our first Moroccan birthday celebration.  Our host father’s brother and his wife recently were blessed with their first child two months ago, but they wanted to come to Rabat to be with family and celebrate the Moroccan way.  This includes slaughtering a sheep (much like the Eid holiday a few months earlier) and a daylong feast.

Saturday was dedicated entirely to the sheep and preparing the meat.  A few days prior, the animal was brought up to the roof of our apartment building where it slept and was taken care of.  Around noon on Saturday, the entire family went up to the roof for the ceremony.  Essentially, this tradition is done in remembrance of the sacrifice of Abraham, and how (according to the Quran) Allah ultimately stopped him from killing his son Ismail and instead provided him with a ram.  In much the same way, my host father and his brothers busily took up the task of killing the ram in a hilal (allowed in Islam) fashion with a prayer and a blessed knife.  The rest of the day was spent dressing the meat and preparing for the party and arrival of family on Sunday.

Our four legged friend and the birthday boy.

Our four legged friend and the birthday boy.

I want to begin my recap of Sunday by stating that I have never been so full in my entire life.  My host mother cooked approximately eight separate rotisserie chickens, most of the sheep, bowls of soup, baskets of fruit, and countless cookies throughout the day.  Surprisingly, she was one of the women dancing the most when the music came on after the main meal.  I couldn’t help but tell her she was an athlete of sorts, which prompted her to tell me that she had even run a marathon before.  I guess it is only appropriate for the interesting family stories to come out when gathered around the table.

I feel incredibly lucky to have been given an intimate glimpse into how a family celebrates and expresses their joy about a new member of the family amongst one another.  Even though I am not in the U.S. for the Christmas season, the ritual with the sheep, the feast the next day, and even the concert gave me the greatest feeling of holiday spirit I have known since the beginning of the month.  Family is the most powerful facet of Moroccan culture, and I can guarantee that a weekend with the family in Rabat will be a good time.

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Connor Sims, Morocco, Rabat