“A Weekend in the Sahara” by Allison Brady

This weekend, I had the opportunity to check a life-long dream off my bucket list: to go to the great Sahara Desert.  Reaching the Sahara from Rabat was no easy feat.  To reach the most popular town to access the dunes, Merzouga, I first had to head to Meknes (near Fes) to take an overnight bus South and East over the Atlas Mountains and to the edge of the Algerian border.  The total travel time was about twelve hours each way.  My excitement was significantly dwindling by my 5 a.m. arrival, and I groggily made my way to the hotel from which my “Sahara camel tour” would be based.  Thankfully, the tour would not begin until the early evening, so I slept late into the morning.

After I woke up, my energy and excitement were renewed.  My tour guide, Mohammed, I gave me a tour of the local village.  I was staying in a village next to the larger and more touristy Merzouga, but it was clear that almost every business was still specifically geared to cater to tourism.  Every building boasted some advertisement for souvenirs like the iconic scarf-turban worn to protect the face from the sand and wind, or for desert activities like ATV tours over the dunes. 

I also got my first peak at the dunes. The Village lies in an oasis dotted with palm tree and sits some miles in front of the Atlas Mountains, which form an impressive distant skyline. The line of the trees and shrubs ends and after a number of yards, and there the dunes begin. The effect is difficult to explain or capture in pictures, but it is mind-boggling to see the mountains of sand begin so abruptly and extend far beyond human sight. For the rest of the day, I waited out the peak heat of the sun next to the hotel pool. At five, I went with my group to meet our rides into the desert: the “desert taxis” as Mohammed called them.

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DSC05673.JPG Atlas Mountains in distance with Oasis

Riding a camel is not particularly comfortable or fast, but the views as we crested tall dunes further and further from “civilization” were incredible.  We arrived pretty soon at the camp, which was a sturdy group of decorative tents equipped even with electricity and a porta-potty type toilet.  Though we were surrounded by dunes, we were clearly never that far into the desert, as was made apparent by my working cell reception on top of the adjacent dune.  Additionally, the abundance of usual comforts in the camps (even some benches set on top of the dune) and the many clusters of neighboring camps dotting the desert landscape made for a funny feeling of being simultaneously in a cushy resort and in the middle of nowhere.  The reminders of the tourism industry in no way spoiled my time, however.  Though it was not the exoticized and wild Sahara experience of the Western imagination, the landscape and the people were authentically incredible in their own right.

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DSC05648.JPGDunes/camp

My tour guide and the rest of the local townspeople are Tamazight/Berber, but different from the Tamazight people I met in the Atlas Mountains.  Although I told Mohammed that I was studying Arabic, he preferred to speak to me in English because Arabic was not a first language for him either.  In fact, he spoke just about every language imaginable to communicate with any potential tourist.  It surprised me how much he emphasized his identity as “African.”  In Rabat, the identity of Morocco as an “African” country or of Moroccans as Africans is contested.  Some people prefer to identify as “Arab” based on their family lineage, or more broadly as “Moroccans,” and some recognize a Tamazight family history.  It depends on the person.  However, the refrain in the desert was always: “This is Africa,” “Welcome to Africa,” “How do you like Africa?”  Of course, some of this refrain could be influenced by a desire to capitalize on the exotic image tourists look for when they visit the desert.  Still, there was an unmistakable distinction in the difference between language, dress, and affiliation of the people I met there from the Morocco that I am used to in Rabat.  Mohammed himself mentioned his frustration with some of the influences of the urban centers on his town and way of life, including the cell tower that now gives reception to the desert camps, or the DJ that an adjacent camp brought along for a desert party at night.

My trip to the Sahara was a highlight of my time here, and honestly of my life.  Despite the exhausting overnight trip, and even though the experience may not align with my childhood imagination of a wild place removed from civilization, the astounding beauty of the landscape and the warm hospitality of my hosts will stay with me forever.

 

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“Belonging in Morocco and Managing my Insider/Outsider Status” by Elizabeth Beaton

 

Salaam!

In the past two weeks I have had the opportunity to travel to Spain twice on two separate trips. During fall break, I traveled to Madrid to stay with friends from when I studied abroad in high school. Then, this past weekend I went by ferry with three friends from AMIDEAST to Seville and Granada. Below are photos from the ferry in Tangier. It has been so wonderful to return to Spain and reconnect with people I knew from four years ago and to also explore new places with new friends. These two trips have helped me to reflect on my time here in Morocco and on my identity here as both an insider and an outsider.

I am clearly an outsider in Morocco in terms of both culture and linguistics. When people see me on the street they know based on my appearance that I am not from here. When I open my mouth and speak a combination of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Moroccan dialect (Darija) with a heavy foreign accent, they know for sure that I am not Moroccan. There are always things that I do not know, that everyone around me does know. I am the odd one out. Since I am certainly not from here, when I meet a new person the first question is always, where are you from? My response is along the lines of, I am from the United States, but I study in Rabat. With this statement I am explaining my foreign-ness, but also trying to explain that I do belong here. I am a student here, I live here, and I am a part of Morocco.

I strive to be more of an insider while at the same time trying to manage my identity as an outsider. Learning Arabic, both MSA and Darija, is that main way that I try to better fit in; but language is not the only aspect of Moroccan life that distinguishes me as foreign. Culturally, the learning process is never ending. My strategy to become less confused about Moroccan culture is to ask lots of questions. I am able to speak with my host family and professors about certain aspects of culture. During cultural dialogues organized by AMIDEAST, I get the chance to talk about other topics like marriage, dating, and identity. By first understanding the differences, I can better adapt how I act to present less as an outsider.

To me, the differences between insider and outsider are prominent. Traveling in Spain reminded me what being an insider feels like: understanding people on the metro, ordering foods that I know and love, and being asked where in the city do you live? Instead of where are you from? To be an outsider is the constant reminder that I am not from here. I have come back from my visits in Spain excited to struggle against this reminder as I continue to construct my identity here. Aspects of Morocco are already so entrenched in my every day routine. In Spain, Arabic words like mumkin (maybe) and Insha’Allah (God willing) slipped in alongside my Spanish words. Despite frequent cultural confusion and lots of conjugation mistakes, I am making progress. While I do not sound like I am from Morocco, saying certain phrases is now completely second nature. I am very thankful for the moments that prove to me that I am slowly becoming more and more a part of Morocco.

 

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“Sand, Souvenirs, and Camels Galore: Merzouga, the Sahara’s Hidden Gem” by Derek Denton

Salam again, readers!

Before I departed the United States for this semester in Morocco, one of the many praises I heard about the country I would be visiting is that it has been dubbed the “California of the Middle East.” The title is not totally apt, as Morocco is several thousand miles from the geographical Middle East, but it is still a mostly relevant description. The reason for this is because Morocco (like California) hosts an abundance of differing environments: a lengthy coastline of beautiful beaches, tall and freezing mountains, immense woodlands, and- as I saw this weekend- the majestic Sahara Desert.

Recently, I had earned the privilege to visit a village in the middle of the Sahara Desert and about 15 miles from the Algerian border, “Merzouga.” A relatively small settlement, Merzouga is predominately inhabited by the Amazigh people, a native population of Morocco that predated Arab migration to the region (and the Roman Empire’s expansion into northwestern Africa, in fact). They utilize their own language, which has since been an active influence on the local Arabic dialect, “Darija.”

Getting to the village was an absolute pain: a three-hour train ride accompanied by a ten-hour bus ride all the way to the eastern border. But, while it was not immediately clear when I arrived late in the night, the grueling trip definitely paid off. It was in Merzouga that I had experienced more than a few once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. I had spent the day exploring the village, acquiring souvenirs, and- of course- sampling the local cuisine (On that last note, I feel that it is important to inform my readers that raw camel milk actually tastes very similar to that of a cow, albeit warmer and thicker). The night of my trip, however, was when the experience became truly awe-inspiring. About two hours away from the village was a small campsite where I had decided to spend the night. After all, an opportunity to live in a tent out in the middle of the world’s largest desert is an opportunity I had to see. But two hours is a long way on foot, so instead, I had to travel the traditional way of desert-trekking: on camel back.

The road we took to our campsite was clearly well-traveled, in that there was a physical path present in the sands that led to and from Merzouga. But rather than a roadway of gravel or asphalt, this one was made entirely of accumulated camel droppings from many desert tours.  I don’t remember a moment of my life where I was quite as sore as I was when I stepped off the hump of my camel. Throughout the history of the region, camel-back travel was the mainstream mode of transportation, so it was an interesting experience to share the soreness in my legs that I am sure the region’s ancient settlers had felt after their travels.  That night, my fellow tourists and I had the opportunity to join our guides in a dinner of Camel Tajik (no, it was not the camel I rode) and dancing in the largest tent. We were not the only ones having such fun: the depths of the desert, I could hear more music being played from other campgrounds. The night seemed to go by quickly, and before I knew it I was waking up at sunrise for a trip back to Merzouga.

If anyone ever considers visiting Morocco, Merzouga is a hidden gem, I cannot stress enough, should absolutely be visited. There are many things to love about this country, but there is nothing quite as memorable as a day in the desert where you can ride a camel, eat a camel, drink camel milk, and dance like a camel. I would like to go back someday with some friends. In fact, prior to writing this blog entry, I have encouraged several of my classmates to visit the city as soon as possible, or at least before winter sets in. The Sahara is something too important to be missed!

And, as usual, I have some marvelous photos to share this experience.

1. Technically, 'Dromedaries' the fact that separates these majestic beasts from camels is that they have a single hump.Technically, ‘Dromedaries’ the fact that separates these majestic beasts from camels is that they have a single hump

2. The turban I'm wearing here was a neat souvenir I chose to pick up. Very useful to keep gusts of sand out of my mouth while I rode.The turban I’m wearing here was a neat souvenir I chose to pick up. Very useful to keep gusts of sand out of my mouth while I rode

3. My group's caravan through the sands.My group’s caravan through the sands

4. That brown area in the background is Algeria. We were so close to the border that I actually saw into next country!That brown area in the background is Algeria. We were so close to the border that I actually saw into next country!

5. The first thing I had a chance to do at the campsite was try out a sport I did not know existed- SandboardingThe first thing I had a chance to do at the campsite was try out a sport I did not know existed- Sand boarding

6. Tiny little antique lamp- This will be remembered as one of my favorite souvenirsTiny little antique lamp- This will be remembered as one of my favorite souvenirs

And the travels have not yet ceased. This week my classmates and I are visiting the city of Fez, “the City of Science.” I look forward to bringing back stories in next fortnight’s blog entry for you all!

-Eli

 

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“Cramming for Midterms and Seeing the Holy See: Unexpected Ways to Learn an Important Skill” by Derek Denton

Salam readers,

The last two weeks has offered me extensively different experiences. If you recall, I signed off my last blog by mentioning that I needed to begin studying for midterms, which I was able to complete on Friday. Thankfully, right after exams were over my fall break began. I decided to enjoy the first weekend with a short visit to the world’s smallest country: Vatican City. These two radically different experiences- one of ardent studying and, the other of luxurious traveling- have both taught me an important skill: patience, especially while residing in a foreign land.

It is no exaggeration to say that learning Arabic is the most difficult challenge of my life thus far. I have minimal experience in studying foreign language, and unlike the French there is no significant overlap between English and Arabic. Furthermore, the non-language classes I am taking here on the history and politics on the Kingdom of Morocco were something I had little experience studying. So, when midterms encroached on me last week, it was a real challenge to ensure I was prepared. During this period, I had rehearsed short Arabic speeches and wrote several practice essays to study for the unprecedented academic challenge of the exams. And, needless to say, there were times when it felt too difficult. Every time I forgot a word critical to an Arabic sentence or left out an important historical figure’s name from a practice essay the challenge felt even more daunting.

Nonetheless, I responded to this by reminding myself that I should not expect the coursework to be easy. Studying abroad in Morocco was a new experience for me- a first for my college, in fact. I had to remember that I needed to be patient and persist at a steady pace. Going too quickly would get me done with the challenge faster, but would leave me with a half-hearted exam. Going too slowly would mean giving up, which was absolutely not an option. I had to remember that this was a new experience, in a new country, and that required the skill of patience.

The other experience from this last night, and the far more exciting one in my opinion, would be the short trip I had to Rome. I have wanted to visit Italy for quite some time (being a history buff and whatnot), and studying in a country relatively close to the boot-peninsula seemed to grant me the best opportunity to visit I would have for a long time. However, while my fall break spans a whopping week-and-a-half, the airline company that I found only flew to Rome on Saturdays and back to Rabat on Tuesdays- leaving me a very short window to see such a profoundly historical country. For this reason, I opted to spend my vacation in one of the two countries within Italy’s borders, the far smaller, but no less awe-inspiring, the Vatican City. I had charted my plan carefully, picking out a hotel literally next door to the Vatican’s walls and arranged for transportation to get there. If all would go according to plan, I would enjoy a majestic weekend in the home to the Holy See.

But, of course, things did not go as planned.
The weekend started off to an extremely rough start when my hotel, apparently, forgot that I was checking in. Due to the airline’s extremely narrow schedule, I would expected to arrive at my hotel at around midnight. I had previously informed the hotel this, and they agreed to keep a receptionist in late to accommodate me… And then I arrived to locked gates. I was without a place to sleep that night.

At first, I was (naturally) upset about this setback but, being angry would have not gotten me anywhere. Instead, I used this traumatic unfortunate event as a time to practice being patient. Similar to when I was preparing for my midterms, I observed the challenges before me: I needed a place to stay, and how that is affected by being in a country I had never been to before. I considered what I knew: The Vatican is a highly popular tourist destination, so finding a hotel on short-notice should be no problem. And so, I walked around the Vatican walls and made phone calls until I found a hotel. The crisis was averted and I was able to find a place to stay available for last-minute bookings..
From there, the vacation was fantastic. It also allowed me the opportunity to bring back an excellent assortment of photographs to share!
1. The Vatican Museum's Entrance is Notably Ominous at Midnight The Vatican Museum’s Entrance is Notably Ominous at Midnight.

2. My first view of the Saint Peter's Basilica, also known as the Pope's Church.My first view of the Saint Peter’s Basilica, also known as the Pope’s Church.

3. Rome is particularly famous for its assortment of fountains! There are about 1,500 of these marvellously-sculpted drinking water springs thRome is particularly famous for its assortment of fountains! There are about 1,500 of these marvelously-sculpted drinking water springs throughout the Eternal City.

4. If its interior is anything like its exterior, Saint Antonio's Castle is a landmark I will regret not exploring.If its interior is anything like its exterior, Saint Angelo’s Castle is a landmark I will regret not exploring.

5. Behold- the 'forboding' border between Italy and the Vatican.Behold- the ‘foreboding’ border between Italy and the Vatican.

6. On Saturday, I visited the National Roman Museum, dedicating to preserving relics of the Roman Empire. Here is a statue of a depiction of tOn Saturday, I visited the National Roman Museum, dedicating to preserving relics of the Roman Empire. Here is a statue of a depiction of the Greek terror, Medusa.

7. On a funny note- I don't drink alcohol, so the next-best option to tasting Italian wine was this fine Italian grape juice. Aged to perfectiOn a funny note- I don’t drink alcohol, so the next-best option to tasting Italian wine was this fine Italian grape juice. Aged to perfection.

8. And finally, we have here the Holy See of Saint Peter's Church. The figurative throne of the Pope above one of the many altars. For size sAnd finally, we have here the Holy See of Saint Peter’s Church. The figurative throne of the Pope above one of the many altars. For size scale- each of those letters above are eight feet tall.

When I considered what I would learn in Morocco and the Vatican, I had expected to bring back home a knowledge of a new language and an expanded understanding of foreign culture, but I would not have thought that these travels and trials would have help me build these oft-forgotten skills like patience. It’s just another reason why this trip is a once-in-a-life-time opportunity, I suppose!

See you in another fortnight, readers!
-Eli

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“Language progress: Modern Standard Arabic and Darija” by Elizabeth Beaton

Salaam!

I have finished with all of my midterms and I am flying to Spain to spend fall break with friends. While preparing for this trip, I’ve been thinking a lot about my language progress in Morocco over the past two months.

Before coming to Morocco, I had studied Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) for two years at my home institution Mount Holyoke College and MSA continues to be my target language while living in Morocco. However, people in Morocco also speak lots of other languages aside from MSA, like Moroccan Arabic Dialect (Darija), French, and often a Berber language. In Rabat, Darija is the language that I hear most often spoken on the street and I use my Darija when negotiating with taxi drivers or buying bread. While I came into my study abroad experience wanting to improve my MSA, my priorities have shifted a bit. Learning Darija has become really important to me because it means being able to communicate more fully with the people around me. It has been a challenge to learn two different kinds of Arabic at the same time but, I love being able to see the similarities between the two.

I still have plenty of opportunities to practice my MSA during the day. I generally practice my MSA in class with my language partner and with my host family. My midterms for my classes all happened in the week leading up to Fall Break. While exams are always stressful, preparing for them was a useful way to review and reinforce all of the Arabic that I’ve learned so far.

I speak in Modern Standard Arabic with my language partner, Sanae. She is wonderful! I really look forward to when we get to hang out. We meet up weekly and speak half of the time in English and half of the time in Arabic. We’ve gone to the zoo and taught each other the words for all the different animals. I loved exploring the medina together and walking to the ocean.  I have also been to her house for Friday couscous and she has come to mine too. Thinking back on the things we’ve done together I am reminded of the benefits of studying abroad. Living here and learning Arabic in Morocco is so different from learning it from a text book. I’m really grateful to be able to learn vocabulary while drinking tea with Sanae’s family rather than memorizing words out of a book. Here are photos of the ocean from an afternoon that I spent with Sanae.

photo of ocean (1)

My host family has helped me so much with my learning. During meal times, we talk together in MSA and I try to incorporate what Darija I learned in class that day. We watch many Turkish soap operas that are dubbed into Darija or into Levantine Arabic dialect and a lot of our conversations revolve around trying to understand all of the plot twists. I find the consistency of everyday conversations really comforting and the repetition is really helpful for me too! Every morning my host mom asks me and my roommate Mariah, Did you sleep well? Then in the afternoon the questions become, how are you? Are you fine? Is everything good? Since I hear those questions every day I am confident in my reply, more confident in my Arabic in general, and I understand Moroccan culture better. One of my favorite language moments happened when I was walking home from class. I saw two friends run into each other on the street and they said all of the variations of how are you? It was such a nice surprise to able to understand an interaction on the street. In that moment, I felt like more of an insider and felt like I was making some concrete progress with my Darija.

another ocean photo.jpg

Until next time!

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“Fresh Air and Fresh Perspectives” by Allison Brady

When we first arrived in Morocco, our orientation included a warning that all study abroad students will go through many different stages of emotion in their relationship to their new host country.  These involve honeymoon periods in which everything seems “shiny and new,” periods in which everything becomes overwhelming, and even periods of resentment due to the change and homesickness.  There’s no set rule of how these feelings progress, and some days I have experienced a little bit of each all in the same day. During the first few weeks, most of my time felt like the “honeymoon” stage.  I fell in love with Rabat and the people around me.  I still love Rabat and every part of my life here.  However, as the stress of midterms has crept up and combined with daily stressors of navigating a new culture, I have admittedly experienced a higher percentage of the latter emotions lately.

Sometimes in Morocco, I feel exactly like the girl pictured here:

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Rabat may be smaller than cities like Casablanca or Marrakesh, but it shares the same loud character, busy, crowded streets, and fast pace. This is not necessarily a bad thing!  I often love feeling swept up in the bustle, noise, and movement of people going about their lives.  What might seem like “chaos” or “disorder” to someone accustomed to tamer Midwest city avenues can also feel exciting and full of vibrant life. However, it also makes going out and about an event that requires me to stay on my toes, whether it is to avoid being run over by wild traffic, or to mentally steel myself against street harassment.

To me, the biggest change in perception living here has been of feeling comfortable in the busyness and noise of a bustling city, to then having the need to be alert to urban realities grow tiring.  So, I took a break from them!  Even though it was the weekend before midterms, I decided I needed a daytrip out of the city.  I went to the beautiful and calm seafront village of Asilah. I spent the 3-4 hour train ride studying and watching the landscape change from Rabat, to desert, to rolling hills of the Mid-Atlas until we reached the coast again further north.  I then spent the day strolling through pristine and art-covered walls of Asilah’s gorgeous old medina, and sank my feet into the sand and ocean water to breath in the fresh wind.

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It was a good reminder that my frustrations were not truly with “Morocco”: this experience was part of Morocco too! I also thought about how it would be if I lived in a smaller, subdued town like Asilah. After just a few hours, I felt like I had seen most of it.  I was constantly bemused at how empty and devoid of life the streets seemed in comparison to the rambunctious crowds of Rabat’s old medina. I am glad that Morocco contains so much to explore and so many different kinds of places to experience, and I came back to Rabat ready to rejoin the throngs of locals also experiencing the many joys and risks of city life.  Now, I am about to leave again; this time, for Italy for Fall Break. I am excited to again get some outside perspective from Morocco, but I am equally eager to return to the people and places that are my crazy beautiful home

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“Marrakech and Learning More about Myself” by Elizabeth Beaton

Salaam!

This past weekend I traveled to Marrakech with two friends from AMIDEAST. We organized the trip ourselves with suggestions from the program, and on Friday afternoon after class I found myself on the train heading off to Marrakech for a busy weekend. The plan for the weekend included touristy activities in Marrakech like visiting the Jemma el-Fnaa a square located by the markets of the medina and the Bahia palace and gardens. Below is a photo with my two friends from one of the courtyards in the Bahia palace.

courtyard bahia palace with ayesha and mariah

We also planned a day trip to the waterfalls of Ozoud on Saturday. I loved being more independent during this weekend and applying other skills like time management, communication, and self-awareness, that I have developed during my time so far in Morocco.

While on the train from Rabat to Marrakech, which lasts about five hours, I finished some of my readings for the upcoming week of classes. The trip gave me plenty of time to look out the window, read about comparative political theory, and chat with other people in the train compartment. I managed my time so that I could enjoy traveling to really beautiful places, while also balancing my academics. I am motivated to manage my time well because I am living in such a beautiful country.

Once in Marrakech I had the opportunity to practice some of the communication skills that I have developed while in Morocco. I put my Darija knowledge to good use while bargaining with taxi drivers to lower the cost of a fare and while bargaining for pottery in the souq– market. This weekend I also texted with my language partner about my travels and practiced more of my Arabic with her.

Throughout the weekend I tried to continue to be self-aware and to know myself more. This skill is one I am always trying to improve. I reach out for help when I need to. On Saturday morning this meant calling our program coordinator to help explain the situation to a taxi driver who would then take us to the waterfalls. Ozoud helped me to reaffirm how much I love nature and how happy it makes me. The long taxi ride back to Marrakech on Saturday evening provided me with time for journaling and self-reflection. By taking time to process all of the beautiful moments and also the harder moments, I discovering more about myself and what I love. This was the beautiful view of the waterfall.

ozoud

Sunday morning before catching the train back to Rabat, I went to the Bahia palace and the Ben Youssef Madrasa. I spent time on the train reflecting the skills I practiced during the weekend, writing down research questions about public transportation, and scrolling through my camera roll. Here are some of the photo highlights of the Bahia Palace and a photo me at the Ben Youssef Madrasa.

madrasa ben youssef

 

bahia palace stained glass

 

 Bahia palace

Until next time!

 

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