“Squat Into Comfort” by Dan Fitzgerald

When I was a little kid I went camping with some friends for a few nights. I remembered vividly how my body was covered in mosquito bites, dirt, and having to use nature as my bathroom. You could say that nature and I don’t exactly get along. For those of you who know me or are getting to know me, my personality and demeanor don’t exactly scream “Bear Grills” or “rough-and-tough.” I am content with my Starbucks white chocolate mocha in the morning, going to an art museum, and going to a friend’s apartment to watch Netflix. Yet, something changed in my urban-socialite life this past week. I went to Zaouia Ahansel.

During a tenuous four-hour drive with everyone from my Amideast program through the winding, rocky roads of Morocco, I saw nothing but rocks, mountains, and herds of goats for miles-upon-miles in all directions. Just as I was about to assume that village couldn’t possibly exist out in this barren land, I saw it. Hidden in the deep Atlas Mountains of southern Morocco lied dozens of brown, rectangular houses on slanted slopes adjacent to a clear blue mountain stream, turning the valley a vibrant green. This Amazigh village of 500 people gave me the challenge of my life.

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“Mountain Magic” by Sofia Deak

By far the most incredible excursion I have made in my time in Morocco has been our group trip to Zaouiat Ahansal, a mountain village located in the Middle Atlas Mountain Range approximately eight hours by bus from Rabat. To reach the village, our bus struggled along a windy and steep mountain road that afforded the most incredible views of the valleys, crags, and wildlife in the rural mountain countryside. I was excited to see the village; I had never been to such a remote place before and I was curious about what it might be like.

What met us all in Zaouiat Ahansal was not exactly what I was expecting, but still I was blown away by what I experienced there. First, to set the scene: The village is located in a valley between two mountain peaks, and natural spring water flows through the valley from a source high up among the snowy summit. Sand colored homes crop up along the base of the mountain, with four castle-like structures that house the four holy families of the village. Donkeys, sheep, and goats slowly head back and forth to pasture or carrying the fruits of a hard day of labor back home. Dust sometimes rises up around you; the villagers are praying for some much needed rain. Every single person you pass in the street, from the tiny schoolgirls smaller than their backpacks to the wizened old gentleman guiding his donkey, stops to say hello. They shake your hand, and then touch their hand to their heart— saying you are in my heart, you are dear to me. This place, obviously, is nothing short of enchanting.

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But Zaouiat is more than just a pretty picture. While we were there, we stayed in the home of the village’s Sheikh, who is a descendant of the village’s founder, an Islamic Saint from the 12th century. It was here in the Sheikh’s house that I felt as though I glimpsed the spirit of this little village. It was in the home of the most powerful man in the region that a beautiful, innocent, and seemingly unassuming friendship came to define what this place was all about.

A quick side note: The entire population of the village is Amazigh, or Berber . . . except for an American family who founded a local organization called the Atlas Cultural Foundation. The founder, her husband and their eight year old daughter have lived in the village for years, focusing on architectural preservation and recently expanding to include educational supplements and better public health projects. The organization’s founder is a fascinating, incredible woman; all of the AMIDEAST students picked her brain the entire duration of the trip trying to soak up some of her wisdom.

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“Friends and Bread” by Dan Fitzgerald

I knew making friends abroad would be difficult, but I never imagined how difficult it would be. Think back to your first time in high school or moving to a new city. Were you scared? Did you think everyone was staring at you because they knew that you had no idea what you were doing? Did you ever over-think every conversation and interaction you had with someone and assumed that you said something wrong? Well guess what, being abroad is about the same. I don’t have enough fingers on my hands to count the amount of times I talked to a Moroccan and probably made a fool of myself.  Not the best way to make friends abroad.

I’ve heard of stories of those who go their entire semester abroad without making one friend from their host country. That’s not a bad thing if that isn’t one of your goals, but I’m a social butterfly who needs new relationships. I wanted to have some kind of a connection with Morocco and prove to myself that I can make friends outside of my comfort zone. That’s when Nacera showed up.

I was halfway through the semester when our program gave us the chance to take a field trip to a local bakery and learn how to make Moroccan crêpes and breads. For those of you who don’t know me, I seriously love bread. I am a human dumpster for carbs, so when I found out about the opportunity to go make AND eat bread, I signed up immediately. On the day of the field trip, I walked into our meeting room when this 19-year-old, five-foot-five, spunky Moroccan girl walked up to me and spoke to me in perfect English. “Are you here for the bakery trip?” she said. “Of course,” I responded. Her deep maroon hijab was perfectly matching to her oversized maroon sweater, and I already knew that this girl had style. This was Nacera.

 

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We went to the bakery all the way out in Salé, the sister city of Rabat, and got put right to work preparing the dough, shaping the bread, and cooking it on the stove. Not to show off, but I was told that I’m a pretty great bread baker by the master baker herself, Nacera’s Mom. I spent hours with Nacera and her mom making dozens of savory crêpes only to consume all of them in the span of twenty minutes. What can I say, bread is life. I had so much fun with Nacera that we decided to swap our WhatsApp numbers and message about the next time we could hang out. Blog reader, was this the start of a friendship? It certainly was.

A few weeks later, Nacera messaged me and my friend Galey asking if we wanted to come visit her university and sit-in on her music class. This was my chance to meet and hang out with Moroccans my age and maybe not be a social disaster, so Galey and I said yes. For the next three hours, Galey and I sat in the music class listening to everyone sing some of the most beautiful Arab songs I’ve ever heard while not understanding a single word spoken in the class. At the end of class, we walked out of the classroom and Nacera introduced us to all her friends. Most greeted me in English and didn’t seem interested in us, but the minute I spoke some Darija to them, the entire group erupted in laughter and smiles, excited that I knew some Darija. I spent the rest of the time talking with Nacera and her friends about music, sports, jokes, life, and it felt like I was back at my own university hanging out with my friends.

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It’s hard living in a new place where you don’t know anyone while also learning the culture. But everything becomes easier when you find that one friend to help you along the way. Nacera has been that person for me, which is why I’ve dedicated this blog post to her. Thanks Nacera, you’re the real MVP.

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“Making Morocco Home” by Sofia Deak

As Morocco feels more and more like home and my last few weeks here move much too quickly to an end, one thing has been nagging at the back of my mind. I did not become as close with Moroccans my age as I would have liked, and even though my 12-year-old host sister insists “But I am your friend, Sofia! That is all you need!” I still sometimes felt like I was missing out on an important part of my abroad experience.

Others on the program have had more luck in this department, having bonded with language partners or made connections through sports teams. However, just as I was getting accustomed to the idea that maybe I would not have it all, the weather changed: figuratively and literally.

Recently, Rabat has been warming up. The sun is bright and hot all day, and I pine for AC as I climb the four flights of spiral steps to my bedroom each evening. Luckily for us all, Rabat is right on the coast, and while I’ve spent a lot of free time this semester staring in awe at the impressive waves slamming into rocks along the shore, I never really thought about actually going in the water. On a whim, though, some friends from AMIDEAST and I decided to give surfing a try one hot weekend we all stayed in town instead of traveling.

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I grew up with the beach and am comfortable in the ocean, but I was still somewhat scared to try out surfing in Morocco. I had never been before, and the waves in Rabat are definitely intimidating! What if I was not able to understand the instructor? What if I got dragged out to see but my cries for help in Standard Arabic would not only be misunderstood, but would be laughed at? What if there were sharks?

Nevertheless, I put my (potentially absurd) fears aside and decided to give it a go. To my surprise, I was instantly hooked! I do not think I will ever be less amazed at the sight of the glistening, bright blue sea beneath me and the Rabat Oudaya, a 12th century Kasbah right on the water, zooming toward me as I surf in to the shore. Additionally, one of the beautiful things about Morocco is how cheap it is— a surf class here in Rabat is around $10 USD.

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Surfing has been the final piece for me in the puzzle of making Morocco “home.” The instructors recognize me, tease me, and tell me Morocco will miss me when I leave. The other students, from 7-year-old Moroccan girls (who are actually quite good at “shredding the knar”) to middle-aged-men trying out a new hobby (not unlike me), have become familiar faces and— dare I say it— friends to me here.

I try to surf once or twice a week despite my busy schedule of classes, English teaching, and exercising (I am running another 10K this weekend in El Jadida!). I do this because I love it, yes, but also because it just deepens the sense of camaraderie I have begun to experience here in Morocco, and makes me all the more aware of how much I have come to love this place and think of it as my own. I think when I look back on these unfairly quick, mesmerizing months, I will remember it in two ways. At the same time, Morocco has been fast, scary, and full of adrenaline, like trying to balance on a surfboard hurtling toward the sand; it has also been calming, deeply memorable; a moment stuck in time, like floating in the bright sea, laughing with a new friend, waiting for the next wave.

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“Learning and Teaching Language” by Sofia Deak

Before I came to Morocco, I knew that “improving my Arabic” was one of my major objectives, but I didn’t imagine what that would actually look like. Through the extreme patience of my host mom and our daily discussions in Arabic after dinner, I have become confident enough to have conversations in Arabic without relying on English. Using a combination of Standard Arabic and Moroccan Darija (as well as a fair amount of pantomiming) I am improving beyond my previous expectations.

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While I am really proud of the progress I am making, that does not negate the fact that I am realizing how incredibly diverse the Arabic language is, and how truly difficult it is to master. I get discouraged when I spend two hours poring over my vocabulary homework, only to forget the majority of the words the next day. Also, I always knew there were different dialects that were significantly different— however, I did not realize how much the language might differ WITHIN a dialect. In Morocco, diversity is one of the only constants. For example, a Moroccan from Tangier in the north might have a difficult time understanding a Moroccan from Ouarzazate, in the south. Tajine, the famous Moroccan staple food, is pronounced “tajouane” in the north, and this is just one of countless examples of dialectic differences that exist within the Moroccan dialect, completely ignoring how foreign Darija is from Standard Arabic and all other Arabic dialects!

It is easy to get frustrated in trying to learn Arabic, and sometimes I feel discouraged that I will never be able to be as comfortable with the language as I would like. (This happens especially when an earnest Moroccan is trying to explain something to me in Darija, whether at a restaurant or in a taxi or on a train— and all I can offer them is a confused look and a sorry smile.) However, there are shining moments that remind me to keep trying, and that the experience of learning the language is just as amazing as being able to use it. Last night, I learned the word for “tickle” in Arabic and Darija, thanks to my host mom starting some impromptu tickle fights — during dinner!! Lots of spilled water, fits of laughter, and sprinting away from the table later, I don’t think I will ever forget the word, or this moment.

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Another thing that encourages me is the weekly English teaching that I have been engaged in since my arrival in Rabat. My students are beginners, so really new to English. They have so much to learn, but they are so eager and dedicated. Most are adult learners, which itself is a challenge, but being able to say simple sentences excites them so much. This project really reinvigorates me with the understanding that learning a language takes time, and that is sometimes boring and full of flashcards, but also can be really memorable and full of laughs (and not only when learning the word for “ticklish”). Ultimately, I know that I am making huge improvements thanks to being in Morocco, and I cannot wait to learn more!

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“Fun in the Sun” by Dan Fitzgerald

Studying abroad is a lot like going into a new relationship. You start out in that honeymoon phase where everything is new and adventurous, you are excited by every little thing, and you can’t possibly imagine what life was like before it. But then that honeymoon phase ends and you realize that the world is still spinning and suddenly things aren’t as interesting anymore. You finally realize your significant other has little quirks that annoy you and the spark that once arose in you by every little thing is going out. Typically, in a relationship one of two things could happen: you either break it off as there is nothing left to inspire you, or you find that raw spark in all the little things that truly makes you happy. If you haven’t caught on already, I’m talking about my relationship with Morocco.

I am more than half way done with my semester abroad in Morocco and I am certainly out of the honeymoon phase. I soon realized that outside of studying for class, eating, and sleeping, I have a lot of free time on my hand. I don’t know about you, but free time is my worst enemy, as I become bored and restless very easily. Most people abroad, especially those in Europe, would solve this by traveling more, but even extensive travel was starting to wear me down (as well as wear my bank account down). So where do I go when I need to cure my angst? The beach.

 

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I know what you are thinking. “Dan, that is so stereotypical. Of course, everyone loves the beach. This isn’t something unique to Morocco.” You’re right, but cool your jets, because the beach here in Rabat is much more than your average beach back in the States. I frequent the “Plages de Salé” so much that I will most likely go there today once I finish this blog post. It’s a large beach that lies next to the Oued Bou Regreg river and the Atlantic Ocean. The place is magical especially in the evening as the sun sets on the water and bathes the Rabat Kasbah in an orange glow. It’s also the perfect place to let loose with both my American friends and meet some new people, especially when it comes to volleyball.

One Friday in February, a bunch of AMIDEAST students and myself decided to meet at this beach after couscous lunch to play some soccer and volleyball on the beach. We all meet up, draw our volleyball court in the sand, and start the match. In all honesty, we all chose to play volleyball because we knew we would make fools of ourselves in front of Moroccans if we played soccer. But soon all the Moroccans playing soccer matches around us started watching us play volleyball and soon joined in a classic Morocco v. United States volleyball match. This match could have lasted until the sun set, but strangely enough a large cloud of fog blanketed the entire beach. That’s when we had to call the match a draw even though the Moroccans clearly beat us, but that will be our little secret.

 

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Besides the views and activities on this beach, my favorite things about Plages de Salé is that it is only place where I have found Moroccans outside of their comfort zones. I’m talking about real Moroccan couples enjoying time together, Moroccans playing with their dogs in the ocean, parents building sand castles with their children, the list could go on. What I have found is that Moroccans operate their lives very differently between the spheres of public and private, making it hard to see Moroccans as who they really are. But here on this beach, I see their vulnerability more than ever. I see them enjoying life.

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“A Weekend in Rabat” by Sofia Deak

Like most students studying abroad for a semester, I usually take advantage of my weekends to travel around my host country. Thus far, my trips to Chefchaouen, Essaouira, Tangier, Fez, Marrakech, and Casablanca have been the highlights of my experience in Morocco. Each city taught me something new about this beautiful and culturally rich country, and each was entirely unique.

However, worn down from my relentless travels and nervous about upcoming midterm exams, I decided to spend this past weekend here in Rabat. Some unfairly accuse Rabat of being boring, but I personally love my day to day routine there and the less “touristy” feel of the city. Nevertheless, I was not expecting this weekend to be one of the very best I’ve had in Morocco.

On Saturday morning, my host mom Zohra invited me to join her at our neighborhood hammam, or public bath house. I love the hammam- the heat of the rooms, the comfort and camaraderie between the women, young and old, large and small… it is a wonderful, relaxing, and authentic experience every time. Going with my host mom was even more special because I was able to share a part of her life with her instead of just being an outsider in the hammam. She introduced me to her friends and scrubbed my back, a common occurrence in Moroccan hammams between friends and strangers alike. One of my favorite things about the hammam is the sense of community and relaxation. Morocco is still a relatively conservative society and modesty is rewarded among women, but there’s none of the shyness or awkwardness that I am used to in the comparatively more “liberal” US surrounding nudity. Women are confident and supportive of one another in this all female space, something I found inviting, refreshing, and modern in an otherwise traditional setting.

After finishing up at the hammam, my host mom and I walked home and practiced some Darija, and I couldn’t help but feel that my willingness to try this foreign public bath with Zohra strengthened our relationship and marked a very special point in my abroad experience.

Sunday was the opposite of the relaxation of the hammam- somehow, fifteen other AMIDEAST students and I found ourselves at the starting line of an 11K race at 8am!

Entry 6 - Photo 2.JPGWhile none of us had trained, we actually had a really fun time running together, cheering each other on and helping each other finish, with some healthy competition thrown in of course. As I huffed through miles four, five, and six, I couldn’t help thinking that, like my study abroad experience, the middle of the race was likely to be mostly forgotten- struggled through, but at a consistent and familiar pace. I was really forced by this realization to acknowledge how quickly my time in Morocco is going by, and how I need to be appreciating all the little moments, like running a race with my friends and visiting the hammam with my host mother. As I was running the race, it seemed to drag on forever, but before I knew it, I was crossing the finish line.

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This weekend reminded me to slow down, to relax, to foster the relationships that make studying abroad so special. And even though I was not out traveling to some incredible new place, I realized what a treasure I have right at my fingertips – at home in Rabat.

 

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