Category Archives: Rabat

Moroccan Hospitality and North Africa’s Tallest Mountain

On the train to Marrakech, a fellow traveler whose family owns a bakery insisted we take some of the pastries he was traveling with, and then immediately put me on the phone with his daughter — an English student — when he found out I was an American studying abroad. Halfway up North Africa’s tallest mountain, we were greeted with “La Bes?” or “No harm on you?” by every Moroccan trail guide or shepherd we crossed paths with. And on our way back down, a new friend insisted we warm up with some hot mint tea before finishing our trek.

This past weekend was exceptional in some respects, but not in others. Our climb to the top of Mt. Toubqal was full of new encounters, but also served only as a reminder of the incredible generosity and Moroccan hospitality that we experience nearly every day here.

A ceramics shop in the Marrakech medina

A ceramics shop in the Marrakech medina

On Friday we left after class on a train to Marrakech with our backpacks full of all the hiking snacks we could find at the local supermarket, a change of clothes, and our hiking shoes. We spent our first night in Marrakech, where we explored the narrow maze-like streets of the medina. Only pedestrians and motorbikes can fit between the walls, and we were only able to find our way thanks to all the shopkeepers and children out along the streets who would point us in the right direction away from the many dead ends. It felt like following the yellow-brick road.

We also explored the bustling center square of Marrakech, called Jemaa el-Finaa. Jemaa al-Finaa is like something out of a storybook, especially at night when the square lights up with foodcarts and spice merchants, monkeys and snake charmers, street performers and storytellers. It’s a very popular destination for Moroccan tourists as well as foreigners, so it ends up feeling like a flood of people, music, delicious smells, and a spirited celebration of all things Moroccan.

At a snake charmer’s blanket in Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square in Marrakech

At a snake charmer’s blanket in Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square in Marrakech

5 a.m. Saturday morning: We woke up and ate breakfast in dim morning light in the courtyard of our Riad. It was very early to jump in a taxi headed for the mountains, but our driver chatted with us enthusiastically almost the entire way to the village of Imlil, where hikers start their trek up to Toubqal.

Trekking up the mountains from Imlil

Trekking up the mountains from Imlil

We hiked up and up for hours, only stopping to see a local Muslim saint’s shrine, where we sat next to a waterfall and ate our PB&Js. We correctly predicted that the somewhat strange Moroccan peanut butter wouldn’t taste half bad after a couple hours of trekking.

Ripe, juicy apples — the best trail snack

Ripe, juicy apples — the best trail snack

We encountered countless horses and mules wearing colorful blankets and lugging hikers’ possessions up the mountainside. Some of the men who led them up the mountain were singing Amazigh songs to pass the time, and all of them greeted us as we climbed.

A saint’s shrine on the way up into the mountains

A saint’s shrine on the way up into the mountains

That afternoon we arrived at Refuge de Mouflons, which serves as a sort of base camp and hostel for everyone embarking on a Toubqal trek. We claimed three bottom bunks in the large dormitory, bundled up, and played cards and drank mint tea on the terrace, where we watched the afternoon fog roll up the mountainside.

We ate dinner next to a cozy fireplace in the Refuge with fellow hikers from Germany, Australia, and Spain, and made friends with our waiter who was excited to find out that we were studying Arabic.

Some hikers spent the night in tents at Les Mouflons

Some hikers spent the night in tents at Les Mouflons

5:30 a.m. Sunday morning: After a humble mountain breakfast we followed other groups of hikers to find the trail up to the peak of Toubqal. Along the way, we found a Moroccan flag and kept it in our backpack as we scrambled up between boulders and streams, until we reached ice and snow. At 13,671 feet, Toubqal is the tallest mountain in North Africa.

Waving the Moroccan flag above the snowline on Mt. Toubqal

Waving the Moroccan flag above the snowline on Mt. Toubqal

After a generous and prolonged goodbye tea with our Moroccan waiter friend at the Refuge, we all scrambled for hours back down to Imlil, where we had to dodge walnuts being shaken from the trees for harvest day. Finally, we hopped in a taxi, dusty, sweaty, and tired, and the driver drove us — with one hand on the wheel, one hand cracking walnuts on the dashboard — all the way back to Marrakech.

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Katie Lamb, Morocco, Rabat

‘Taking the Corner’ in Zawiyat-Ahansal

In the past five days, we’ve ventured outside of Rabat to the town of Beni Mellal in the Moroccan countryside, the village of Zawiyat-Ahansal in the High Atlas mountains, and the bustling city of Marrakech.

On our way from Rabat to the High Atlas mountains, we spent one night in the town of Beni Mellal, where we explored the Kasbah and waterfall gardens and met with local university students.

The Kasbah de Ras-el-Ain on a cliff overlooking Beni Mellal

The Kasbah de Ras-el-Ain on a cliff overlooking Beni Mellal

Many of the students at the local university are originally from Benni Millal or the surrounding area, and identify with rural life in Morocco. Our cultural dialogues centered on the differences between and perceptions of country-dwelling and urban-dwelling people, both in Morocco and in the United States. In Morocco, people from rural areas are sometimes called “balaadi,” while those from city are “romi.” We talked about the stereotypes surrounding each group in Morocco, and could see some of the overlaps with similar perceptions in America. It was also fun to hear about what students in Beni Mellal were most proud of — many of them really value the slower pace of life in the countryside, and the respect and familiarity they feel towards their community.

After our cultural dialogues, we all went out to a beautiful dinner of pastilla and tajine together. Since the Moroccan students that met with us were English students, it was interesting to hear what we all had in common in our educational experiences. One of the students I met told me about how much he loves reading Jack London and William Faulkner.

After a 5-hour twisty-turny drive through the Atlas Mountains the following day, we finally arrived at the tiny rural mountain village of Zawiyat-Ahansal.

The view of the mountain village from above as we approached Zawiyat-Ahansal

The view of the mountain village from above as we approached Zawiyat-Ahansal

The mountain landscape was absolutely breathtaking, the air was fresh, cool, and dry, and it was quiet except for the sounds of the wind and the river running through the mountain valley.

It was a new experience for most of us to get out of the urban areas of Morocco and to have to dress our most conservatively and assume that no one in our proximity knew French or English. It was also refreshing to be off the grid for some time and to be surrounded by such incredible natural beauty.

Our first morning in Zawiyat-Ahansal, we hiked to the neighboring village to tutor elementary students in English. We played games and sang songs, and were greeted by a fantastically eager, smiling, smart and slightly shy group of kids. It was striking and impressive to see all the young children wearing their backpacks and hiking for half-an-hour all along the mountainsides to get home from school at the end of the day.

A group of friends stops for a quick break on their hike home from school

A group of friends stops for a quick break on their hike home from school

Cloe Medina Erikson, the founder of the Atlas Cultural Foundation, hosted us and showed us the region. She first visited with her husband to go rock climbing on their honeymoon, and since then has made this tiny nestled community her whole life.

In addition to learning from her expertise, we also interviewed the Sheikh of Zawiyat-Ahansal, whose job is to mediate and resolve any conflicts that arise within the region. After a final day of hikes, we ended our stay in Zawiyat-Ahansal with a feast at the Sheikh’s house, where we were adorned with henna tattoos and invited to join a traditional Berber drumming and dance circle.

The Sheikh’s house

The Sheikh’s house

“Zawiya” literally means “corner” in Arabic, but there is also an expression in Morocco that says, “Take the corner,” meaning, take some time to step back, self-reflect, and re-examine (or in Chloe’s words, “take an adult time-out”).

Hundreds of pilgrims reach Zawiyat-Ahansal each year to visit the grave of the saint-like figure Sidi Said Ahansal (who founded the Zawiya in the 13th century), but they also come seeking peace and reflection. I felt incredibly lucky to have gained this different perspective on Morocco from this tight-knit and welcoming village, and to have had time for myself to “take the Zawiya” and be absorbed in my peaceful and isolated surroundings, away from the fast pace of daily life in the city.

Pouring tea on a Zawiyat-Ahansal balcony

Pouring tea on a Zawiyat-Ahansal balcony

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Soaking it All in: Cultural Encounters at the Hammam

These past two weeks have been full of constant interaction with our Moroccan host culture — whether it has been in our homes with our host families, at school in our classes, or venturing to new places in Rabat or other parts of the country.

Since moving in with my host family two weeks ago, I’ve been warmly welcomed into our family’s daily routines. We eat beautiful meals off shared plates with our hands, watch local television shows, and occasionally drink mint tea with relatives until past midnight. My host father and siblings know some Modern Standard Arabic and can help me communicate, especially with my host mom who speaks only Darija, the Moroccan dialect. But despite any language barriers, I’ve definitely felt the warmth of Moroccan hospitality whenever I’m at home in our apartment in l’Ocean.

Sunset on the sea in l’Ocean

Sunset on the sea in l’Ocean

Last Wednesday, we took our first trip to the hammam with a large group of AMIDEAST students. The hammam — a public steam bath — is very popular in North Africa, and is a particularly important part of Moroccan culture and life. Traditionally, Moroccans visit the the hammam about once a week, often on Thursdays to cleanse and purify before Friday prayer.

Public hammams can be found in almost every town in Morocco, and in almost every neighborhood in Rabat. Most have separate bathing rooms and entrances for men and women, and some are single-gender.

In preparation for our trip to the hammam, we gathered in a classroom at AMIDEAST and mixed together “rhassoul” — lava clay used on the hair and skin — scented with rose water. Many of us also brought “sabon beldi,” a black olive oil soap commonly sold in jelly-like form in Moroccan souqs.

Rooftops in Essaouira

Rooftops in Essaouira

We also learned about the celebrated experience of going to the hammam. For Moroccan women in particular, the hammam can be a liberating and relaxing escape. Within the walls of the hammam, many societal divisions are shed along with their clothing, and women can socialize and relax with people they might not be able to talk to often. This results in lively conversations, lots of gossip, and occasionally drama.

The experience also made me think about what my home culture is comfortable and uncomfortable with. Western society has often been critical of Arab women covering their bodies with conservative clothing or by wearing the hijab, but on the other hand, Americans are generally not comfortable with the exposure that is commonplace in the hammam.

On entering the hammam, the first room is a large open changing room which doubles as a place for women to relax after their hot steam baths. Moroccans bring large buckets and ladles, and a glove to scrub with, which were also available to rent. We went first to the third room at the very back of the hammam, in which the temperature is kept hottest. We filled our buckets at the faucets lining the walls and staked out a corner. As we got hotter and cleaner, we migrated to the warm room, and then the cooler room, and finally left almost two hours later feeling completely rejuvenated. I ended up really loving the communal celebration of getting clean, socializing with friends away from the craziness of everyday life, and leaving feeling brand new and smelling like rose water. I can see why many Moroccans wouldn’t miss their weekly hammam.

Hanna, Meg and I in a rowboat on the river that runs between Rabat and Salé

Hanna, Meg and I in a rowboat on the river that runs between Rabat and Salé

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Relishing Rabat: Our First Encounters

It’s orientation week in Morocco and it seems like all we can talk about, think about, and wonder about is our new home here in Rabat.

A colorful carnival just above the beach.

A colorful carnival just above the beach.

So far I’ve been happily exploring in sponge-mode. I’m soaking up everything I can, whether I’m making my way through the crowded souk (market), strolling along the river, drinking mint tea with new friends at the café, or listening intently to the new sounds of Darija, the Moroccan Arabic dialect.

Street art seen in Kasbah de Oudaias.

Street art seen in Kasbah de Oudaias.

We’ve been busy trekking near and far around the city with our cameras and have managed to see a lot in only four days. On my first day in the city, we entered the walls of the medina and made our way through a bustling marketplace full of everything from colorful spices and beautiful linens to knock-off DVDs and little plastic trinkets.

Yesterday, we ventured through Kasbah de Oudaias, where a grand 12th century gateway leads into a picturesque neighborhood of bright white and blue houses on narrow winding footpaths overlooking the Atlantic.

We also toured through the Roman ruins of Chellah and later discovered the intricate detail and elaborate architecture of the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, which contains the tombs of the previous Moroccan king and his two sons.

The Mausoleum of Mohammad V from afar.

The Mausoleum of Mohammad V from afar.

Exploring here so far has been breathtaking and everything is new and striking. But our first days have also been charged with a huge amount of anticipation for what’s to come in the next four months. Inside AMIDEAST classrooms, we’re preparing for everything from eating with our hands to dealing with street harassment to greeting Moroccans in Darija to understanding the stages of our own cultural adjustment.

Tomorrow we will meet and move in with our host families. Getting to be a tourist in Morocco this week has been incredible, but as I’m trying to read menus or wandering around a new area or struggling to respond to the Darija greetings of a local shopkeeper, I’ve also been constantly aware of my position as an outsider in Rabat.

The view up the street in Kasbah.

The view up the street in Kasbah.

More than anything, I’m excited to meet my Moroccan host parents and host siblings in the hopes that my four months with them will help me begin to understand what it means to be an insider in Morocco. There are many things that may never come naturally to me — for example, I’ve already discovered that most Moroccans speak at least three languages, and often mix or switch quickly between French, Darija, and sometimes English or Spanish — but I hope that through spending time in the home of a host family, making Moroccan friends, or developing my Arabic skills, I’ll begin to understand not only what I see from the outside when I’m walking the streets of Rabat, but what goes on inside Moroccan homes, and the values and beliefs that might guide the everyday cultural practices of the people around me.

A colorful boat anchored in the river between Rabat and Salé.

A colorful boat anchored in the river between Rabat and Salé.

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Katie Lamb, Morocco, Rabat

Introducing Katie Rose Lamb – Fall 2014 Morocco Blog Abroad Correspondent

Hello all! My name is Katie Rose, and I am honored to be AMIDEAST’s Rabat Correspondent this fall. I will be periodically updating the Mosaic blog with photos and stories from Morocco over the next four months. I hope that my posts will serve as a way to document our undertakings and convey some of the things I learn and discover while abroad to those back home. I also hope that this blog will be a way to capture memories that my fellow AMIDEAST students and I can look back on in the future.

The next few weeks will be full of introductions. I will be introduced to a new country, new dialects and cultures, new foods, new peers and friends, a new host family and new professors. But first, let me start off by introducing myself.

I am entering my junior year at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where I am majoring in International Relations with a focus on security and society in the Middle East. Outside of class, I am a Metro editor at The Brown Daily Herald and a tutor for a refugee family from Myanmar. I am also a coordinator for the Interfaith Exchange, which fosters community service and interfaith dialogue among high school students in Providence.

I spent this summer in Providence working in public health policy for the Rhode Island Health Center Association, and recently returned home to Portland, Oregon, where I am now spending lots of time catching up with old friends, listening to some great live music and hiking with my dog (and other family members) in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

My friend and I at the summit of Neahkahnie Mountain on the Oregon Coast.

My friend and I at the summit of Neahkahnie Mountain on the Oregon Coast.

I think traveling — encountering new and different customs, people and places — is one of the most amazing learning experiences one can have. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to India, Guatemala, and several other countries in my lifetime, but I knew entering college that study abroad would be a very high priority for me because of the unique opportunity it would offer me to truly get to know a place by living and studying there for a more extended period of time.

As I gear up for my departure, I feel extremely lucky to be embarking on this huge adventure, but also nervous about jumping into this experience without knowing quite what to expect.

I chose to study abroad in Morocco in hopes that I will be able to improve my Arabic skills and experience life in a Muslim country while also encountering the many things that make Morocco so unique. I am particularly excited to study the intersections of Morocco’s Arab, European and African influences, and to see the collisions of new and old everyday within Rabat, crossing from the modern city into the medina.

Although I am nervous about language barriers and feeling lost or misunderstood in my new and foreign environment, I am really looking forward to forging new friendships, developing relationships with my host family and returning to the U.S. in December with an abundance of great stories to tell.

My brother and I at his 8th grade graduation. He will be entering his sophomore year of high school this fall.

My brother and I at his 8th grade graduation. He will be entering his sophomore year of high school this fall.

I am so grateful to my family, friends, professors and advisors who have supported me in preparing for this adventure, and I cannot wait to meet all my AMIDEAST peers and embark on this great journey together. Thank you for reading!

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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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