Category Archives: Rabat

“Muslimeen or Misreen?”

The man I knew was wearing aviator sunglasses, an off-brown gallaba down the full length of his body and white Croc sandals, the same exact outfit he had been wearing two months ago. As we waited outside the Salé madrassa for a runner to return with our change, my father decided to engage the man in conversation. Speaking in his native tongue, my father rattled off a stream of Egyptian Arabic, punctuated by hard “G” sounds and disappearing “Q’s.” The man listened, fully comprehending, then responded in the staccato and swallowed tone of Moroccan dialectic “darija.” My father stood silently for a second, then respond with a phrase I would hear several times over the course of his visit: “I don’t understand Darija.”

A dormitory in the madrassa.

A dormitory in the madrassa.

Arabic is a di-glossic language, comprised of a formal, literary component known as fusha and an oral, colloquial dialect known as ammia. Each geographic area has its own style of speaking, with dozens of practiced dialects. The divergence between these dialects can be profound, with certain letters being pronounced in different ways and completely separate words being used to describe the same thing.

My father came to visit last weekend. Having grown up in the Asyuit province of Upper Egypt, I was curious to see how it would handle himself in Morocco. After checking him into his hotel, we walked over to my host family’s house, where Nizha had already set out a large pot of tea and a tray of cookies in preparation for his arrival. What struck me was how precisely executed his introduction was. He began by saying alif shukran (a thousand thank-you’s) to Nizha for hosting me and constantly repeating how ‘atheem (grand) her house and hospitality were.

My father (left) walking in Casablanca

My father (left) walking in Casablanca

Communicating primarily through fusha with my host family lent a more formal air to the conversation, though it was interspersed with funny anecdotes and colloquialisms. Typically, my father has been rather reserved or shy when meeting the parents of my American friends, so it was nice to see him operate in his element. He could not resist from quoting several lines of Arabic poetry while in the presence of our family, nor refrain from expressing classic Egyptian pessimism about the present state of Arabic culture. When he was leaving, Nizha said to me that my father was an ‘alim (learned scholar). I think the truth is a bit closer to what Jake remarked: my father knew exactly how and when to play up his Arabness.

Asyuit Province has one of the largest concentrations of Copts in Egypt. In Salé, the man with the off-brown gallaba wanted to show us what the Grand Mosque interior looked like. He brought us around to the main door where a man with a Muskim skull-cap answered. The man with the cap eyed us warily then asked “Antum Muslimeen?” Are you Muslims? A hold-over law from the period of French colonial rule prevents non-Muslims from entering mosques.

“Ihna Misreen.” We are Egyptians, my father replied.

“Copti or Musli?”


“La. Haram.” The man let us look through the entrance, but then closed the door.

Luckily, we were able to see the interior of Casablanca’s mammoth Hassan II mosque, which offers tours to non-Muslims until 2pm. Known within our family as difficult to impress, my father compared the effort needed to build the mosque to that exerted to build the pyramids, high praise coming from an Egyptian.

The interior of the Hassan II Mosque.

The interior of the Hassan II Mosque.

We ended our visit with a stop at a hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop. While for most of the trip I had deferred to my father’s command of formal Arabic, I was able to employ the Darija I had learned in my classes to order and pay for our lunches. I’ve always been a bit salty that my father never taught me how to speak Arabic when I was younger, but now I might get the chance to teach him a little bit of Darija at the end of all this.

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“So, Why Would Somebody Live Here?”

This was the question I repeatedly asked as our bus steered its way through the winding paths of the High Atlas Mountains. Sometimes I asked this question sarcastically, my stomach churning with each twist and turn of our four-hour long journey. Sometimes I asked this question with genuine curiosity, as I pointed to isolated mud structures standing alone on their hilltops. Even after spending two nights in the remarkable village of Zawiyat Ahansal, I still haven’t stopped asking myself this question, but it has a distinctly different connotation now.

Entry 7 Photo 4 Mountains - Andrew HannaZawiyat Ahansal seems like one of those places frozen in a time long since forgotten. It was founded by Sidi Said Ahansal in the 13th century and served as the natural nexus for local Amazigh tribes. Nestled in the sometimes frigid and harsh Atlas Mountains, Zawiyat Ahansal is an oasis of grazing lands and fresh water. Today, the village is slowly being open up to the outside world, with the introduction of electricity and tourism to their economy, but it very much retains its character and spectacular beauty.

That can be partially owed to the work of the Atlas Cultural Foundation, an NGO initially dedicated to the architectural preservation of Zawiyat Ahansal. It has since expanded to encompass education and public health programs in partnership with local NGOs. We got the opportunity to meet with its founder, Chloe Erickson, to discuss her work and what life is like in the High Atlas Mountains.

A restored granary and saint's residence known as an ighirim.

A restored granary and saint’s residence known as an ighirim.

The village is overseen by man known simply as “the Sheikh.” He is the ultimate arbiter in all disputes, both tribal and communal. If necessary, he can refer a complex matter to the official Moroccan government, but very rarely does this actually occur. In a classically ambiguous Moroccan way, the sheikh is both chosen by the government and dependent on the support of the populace. It is a semi-hereditary position, with locals apparently being able to change the familial line if they are universally dissatisfied.

We got to spend time with the current Sheikh, eating Sunday dinner and attending a party at his house with village members. Amazigh drums kept the rhythm of the night, with most of us joining in the circular swaying and clapping dance. I got henna on my arm depicting the Amazigh letter “Z” shaped like a scorpion.

The Amazigh Letter Z painted on a door.

The Amazigh Letter Z painted on a door.

While there were some structured hikes and activities, I spent significant time exploring the village on my own. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking while traveling through Morocco. With so much to see and experience, it’s easy to get lost inside my head. In the Maghreb, Zawiya can mean a place of Islamic scholarly instruction. But it also means a place of retreat, where one can center their thoughts and connect with their spirituality.

While sitting at a café overlooking the pink-tinged souq, I asked my friend, Rachel, if she could picture herself living here. I don’t think she conclusively stated that she would be willing to stay there for the long-term, and I don’t think I gave a definitive answer either. I still don’t know if I could. It’s not just because I would have to give up the luxuries of the modern world (though, I would do my utmost to construct a personal sitting toilet as quickly as possible). I tried to let myself feel peaceful during my explorations and initially succeeded in doing so. But I am a naturally restless person. I don’t know if I am ready to let myself feel that peaceful yet.

Souq in the distance

Souq in the distance

So I continue to ask myself, why would somebody live here? And what does it take to do so? I don’t have the answer to that question, but if I ever do, I honestly might find myself back in the village of Zawiyat Ahansal someday.

Entry 7 photo 3 Jake - Andrew Hanna

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Hangry in Asilah

Hangry, Definition: the feeling of excessive hungry to the point of anxiety or distress; a portmanteau of “hungry” and “angry.”

Ever since I was a kid, my brother would joke about how terrifying I’d get if I haven’t eaten in a while. Apparently, I become abrasive and lose my temper quickly. He makes these jokes when I am already hangry, exacerbating the hanger (the nounal form of hangry). I’ve generally been able to keep my stomach filled while in Morocco (thanks in no small part to the decadently enormous meals prepared by my host mother), hiding this personality flaw from most of my friends here.

That changed in a dramatic way during my trip to Asilah.

Entry 6 Overview - Hanna, AndrewAsilah is a northern coastal city less than an hour away from Tangier. While not as large, nor as historically significant, Asilah definitely has the edge when it comes to art. Recently, Ishaq and I decided to become international art collectors, so Asilah was the natural choice for a weekend trip. A group rapidly coalesced and tickets were bought. Travel is simple in Morocco, with our destination only a three hour train ride away from Rabat.

The city is filled with galleries, both official and unofficial, showcasing contemporary Moroccan art. Some are a fusion of classical calligraphy with modern designs; others employ bold new styles and approaches from around the world. The Centre de Hassan II Rencontres Internationales offers free admission to see stunning paintings in an exhibit equally as beautiful.

Entry 6 The Boys - Hanna, Andrew

That, coupled with easy access to the beach, would already make Asilah a must-see destination in my book. But you don’t even need to go to a gallery to see incredible pieces. The walls of the city are white-washed, providing the perfect canvas for aspiring street artists to turn their entire city into a work of art. One wall is covered in solid-color geometric shapes, haphazardly stacked on top of one another. Another is a veritable cacophony of multi-colored and sized Arabic letters, sprawling out in waves.

One artist near the city’s bigger courtyards is a woman with no functional use of her feet or hands. Between her big and index toes, she grasps a brush and finely dips it into her paint set. Laid out next to her are dozens pieces of wood (some as small as a wallet, others larger than a laptop) on which are painted detailed depictions of Asilah’s towers, walls and buildings.

Entry 6 Wall Art - Hanna, AndrewOf course, I had no idea that any of these things existed as we disembarked at the Asilah train station. All I knew was that I was hungry, I wanted to check into a hotel and that it was getting dark soon. My travel companions, instead, wanted to walk out onto the beach to see the sunset. Being the only member of our party who regularly travels with a rolling suitcase, I was not particularly inclined to carrying my luggage out onto the beach. This inclination manifested itself in a snide look I gave to J.T. when he asked if I could carry his bag, before slamming shut a cab door. That was pretty rude of me. It wasn’t until I had stuffed my mouth with seafood paella later that evening that I felt human enough to apologize to my friends.

Entry 6 Beach - Hanna, AndrewThe next afternoon I found myself lounged out by the aforementioned beach, eating churros and dates. Clear waves crashed onto a soft layer of sand and a constant ocean breeze brushed our skins. What on earth was there to be hangry about?

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Walking on Water

I take a breath, close my eyes and try to walk on water.

Sitting cross-legged on a rocky outcrop over the clear, blue Atlantic, I empty my mind. I focus on the glorious sunlight warming my exposed skin and the simultaneous feeling of chilliness, as my body is buffeted by ocean winds. I focus on the rocky crevasse I’ve chosen as my seat, both rough and comfortable on my rear end. I focus on the salty sea spray peppering my face, as waves crash against the shore twenty feet below.

Oceanspray photo 2 entry 5 - Andrew HannaThe words of my professor run through my mind: “What we are going to do is very simple,” he tells our class. “For the next ten minutes, you are going to try to walk on water.” But he’s wrong. It isn’t simple. I imagine my bare feet standing at the edge of the ocean, water lapping my toes. But before I can ever step forward into the water, intrusive thoughts enter my brain.

I’m trying not to think about that car ride up to Marrakesh, listening to Pink Floyd while my Islamic Reform professor grills me on topics ranging from the Afghanistan War to the Western Sahara. I’m trying not to think about the eleven-page grant contract I’ve been assigned to translate from English into Arabic for my volunteer placement. I’m trying not to think about pulling my friend out from the hazy fog of a Moroccan discotheque, as she suffers an allergic reaction. And I’m certainly trying not to think of Fez.

Maybe an ocean is too much of a challenge. The first time I walked on water, I initially pictured myself at Lake George in New York, where I used to spend summers with my family. But every time I stepped off the dock, I would sink instantly, bobbing below the lake’s choppy swells. The instant my feet touch the water, they pass through the surface. After several minutes of repeated frustration, I realize the key is examining the place where solid and liquid meet. It’s not about floating, it’s about suspension. Later on, Jake describes it as the feeling of when you place your palm on the surface of water.

Boats photo 1 entry 5 - Andrew HannaWalking on water takes total serenity, something difficult to come by here. My days are chaotic, starting at the roundabout in Bab el-Had, imploring taxis to take me to the “MacDo Agdal,” near AMIDEAST. I scurry from class to class, from class to volunteer placement, from l’Ocean to Agdal and back again. I’m navigating traffic, deploying Darija and always, always discussing Middle Eastern politics. I do my best to take an hour in the evening just for myself, whether that be going to the local “Fitness Musculation Gym” (literally “the Association for the Lifting of Weights and the Formation of Mass”) or reading a book at the café by my house.

Meditation has been helpful in situating my thoughts and placing them in a larger context. After over seven weeks here, the dramatic departure from the world I knew has given way to a comfortable, yet busy, routine. I’m still affected by culture shock on a subconscious level (as my friend, Maxine, can testify to following my emotional diatribe regarding menstruation and Islamic divorce law earlier this week), but my concern isn’t really the adjustment anymore. Now, I am trying to figure out how to make the most of the time I have here and how to understand the changes that are happening to me.

Every Sunday, I go for a run by the shore. After an exhausting whole fifteen minutes, I typically give up and find a nice rock to sit on by the water. This is the first time I’ve explicitly tried meditation. I relax and let go. Let go of crowded streets and shouting shopkeepers. Let go of all the people the ocean reminds me of back home. Let go of a tangerine sun dipping beneath the horizon.

Sunset photo 3 entry 5 - Andrew HannaIn my mind’s eye, I place one tentative foot on the water’s surface. It doesn’t pass through.

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I rush through the darkened streets of Fez’s medina in a haze. It’s starting to get late. Not too late that I shouldn’t be out, but late enough that it’s a bad idea to walk alone. Most of the shops have closed up by now, though a few cigarette and chocolate vendors will operate their little hanoots for a few more hours. The narrow streets are cast in a heavy yellow glow emanating from electric lamps hanging from jutted stone protrusions. I’m lost in thoughts whirling through my head. Not watching where I’m going.


A crowded Fez street.

A crowded Fez street.

A wiry man sidles up next to me. “Hello. Everything’s okay?”

“Yeah everything’s fine.” I look ahead and see that the coming street is dark and empty, while the road I just walked down has one or two open hanoots.

“You have somewhere to stay? Come with me, my friend.” He motions towards me.

“No, I’m okay. I’m fine. Goodbye.” I turned around and walk back to the closest hanoot, staring at off-brand Oreo cookie without really looking at the cookie. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch him double back and walk behind me. My shoulders tense up.

“Goodbye!” His shouted word turns my head and the heads of other nearby men towards the source. He’s staring right at me as he marches up the street I came. “Goodbye!” he spits again, venomously. I feel like I’ve hurt his feelings, but I don’t go after him. Instead, I call Ishaq and ask if he can wait for me outside our hotel so we can walk outside together tonight.

Another story. Ishaq and I are navigating Fez’s twisted paths during daytime. We’ve spent the afternoon verbally boxing with shopkeepers who’re trying to coax a few extra dirhams out of our pockets. This time, we’re absolute bargaining machines. We just purchased some truly beautiful art for an almost criminally-low price.

A man calls out Ishaq’s name. Ishaq recognizes him and starts to weave his way quickly though the crowded streets. It’s someone who makes their living “guiding” tourists around the city and then demanding money afterwards. I follow him until we’re stopped in the middle of the street by a pot-bellied shopkeeper wearing a yellowish gallaba (robe).

“Hello! Come into my shop! See what we have to offer you!” I refuse, but the man grabs Ishaq’s hand and pulls him in. I’m standing outside as the “guide” reappears and tries to talk to me. Ishaq motions to come into the shop. I enter and the owner whispers to us, “Just wait here for a little while. He’ll leave soon.” I had completely misconstrued his intentions.

A scarf-weaver's lair.

A scarf-weaver’s lair.

Harassment isn’t an issue on which I, as a heterosexual male, can authoritatively speak. I don’t understand what it’s like to be verbally harassed, something that happens to one of my friends at least five times a day. I don’t understand what it’s like to be followed on the tram or the streets but a curious, but creepy, Moroccan. And I don’t understand what it’s like to feel the stares of a row of men as you walk by a male-only café in metropolitan Agdal.

I do know, however, that while harassment might be more personal here, sexualization is not unique to this country or this culture. One of my friends told me about how she was repeatedly catcalled by police officers in the Bronx while working as a Red Bull girl. American reality TV portrays vapid and shallow celebrities known only for their looks. Victoria’s Secret billboards broadcast an unhealthy and damaging perception of women’s beauty over Times Square.

And not all Moroccans harass. Some of my peers have formed close friendships and even respectful relationships with Moroccan men. My own experience with Moroccans has been overwhelmingly positive: from the humble Meknesian man who showed us a gorgeous afternoon view, to the Fezian shopkeeper who kept us out of trouble, to the boys in El-Jadida who clambered up onto a rampart to return the lighter I had dropped while climbing.

The view from El-Jadida's ramparts.

The view from El-Jadida’s ramparts.

People are complex, both here and in America. Differences in cultural identity and norms further complicate the issue. Generally, I’ve learned you can’t trust everyone in your public and private lives. But that doesn’t mean that people can’t surprise you with their helpfulness, or their kindness, or their willingness to understand a place thousands of miles away that you call home.

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The Subtle Art of Negotiation

“That is the price. I can go no lower.” I face my traveling companion, Ishaq, standing in the middle of Meknes’ overly-crowded souq. I try to signal my intentions without giving away our bargaining position, but I can’t say much without tipping off the vendor as to how much I want these skinny sweatpants. Luckily, I’ve been trained in the subtle art of negotiation.

The Souq at Meknes.

The Souq at Meknes.

“But ya basha,” I say, using the honorific term reserved for Ottoman-era Egyptian officials, “We are students. We don’t have a lot of money.”

“No, that is the price.”

“Well what if we buy two? Maybe you can lower the price.”

“No, that is the price.”

“But ya ustaadh,” I’ve called him a professor. Now that he’s buttered up, time to deliver the final blow. “I’m Egyptian. I’m an Arab like you!”

“… yes you are Egyptian. And I am Moroccan. And the price is still 20 dirhams.” I’m disgruntled, slightly peeved even. Meanwhile, Ishaq cannot contain himself from laughing at my abysmal bargaining attempt. We’ve lost the initiative. “So do you want them or not?”

I look Ishaq in the eye one more time. They really are nice pants. And last year my college roommates all had skinny sweatpants. This might be my only chance.

“Well of course we do.” I pay the equivalent of $2.09 and pick out the most comfortable sweatpants I’ve worn in my entire life. By the end of the day, I’ve bought a Moroccan wallet with coin and cash pouches, a (supposedly) Italian flat-cap and a sandwich all for less than $15. In subsequent negotiations, we rely on the skills of Ishaq’s new friend, a local Meknesian man named Aiz ad-Din, who is much better at bargaining than I am.

Playing iSpy with Ishaq at the Madrassa.

Playing iSpy with Ishaq at the Madrassa.

Since settling into my new home-stay, my experience in Morocco has been one of negotiation. I’m negotiating my way through Rabat’s hectic streets, jumping back onto the curb every time a car decides to run a red light. I’m negotiating the amount of free time I have to spend, as my schedule gets more packed with each passing day. I’m negotiating new ways of thinking about religion, about politics, about language and how these things have a tangible impact of the daily lives of the people around me.

There are some things that are non-negotiable. After we leave for school, our home-stay mother cleans our bedroom from top-to-bottom, turning everything inside out. It doesn’t matter if I want to keep certain things on top of my nightstand or on top of my bed; everything gets put away according to Nizha’s wishes. Jacob, my roommate, embarks on a scavenger hunt every evening just to find his Talmudic prayer book.

Modern Standard Arabic class starts promptly at 8:40 AM on Mondays through Fridays. At my university, I’ve never scheduled a class before 10:00 AM and even then, I can’t say I have a perfect attendance record. Strangely enough, I haven’t had any trouble getting up on time to make the 15 minute cab ride to school. Maybe it’s because most Moroccans live like college students. They eat dinner after 8:00 PM and spend most of the afternoon in cafés, drinking tea and coffee.

The hardest thing to negotiate here is Morocco’s complex identity politics. Following Arab Spring protests in 2011, a new constitution was promulgated recognizing the country’s Arab-Islamic, Amazigh and Saharan identity, “enriched” by its African, Andalusian, Hebraic and Mediterranean influences. Judaism had a profound historical influence on Morocco’s Amazigh tribes, while Islam forms the basis for the monarchy’s legitimacy. Each street vendor, café waiter and academic intellectual has their own ideas about how the different groups fit together (or don’t) under one common Moroccan banner. One Amazigh cab driver told me he didn’t think learning the Tamazight script served any practical purpose, while another lectured me on the importance of Morocco’s Judeo-Amazigh heritage. During that particular drive, Jacob and the Amazigh cab driver somehow managed to make me, the Arab, feel out of place.

Amazigh-Style Rugs

Amazigh-Style Rugs

Moroccans have been negotiating these identities for centuries, so I don’t expect to fully understand it during the short time I have here. But perhaps as my skills in negotiating continue to grow, so too will my understanding.

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A Word of Advice

A word of advice: Don’t lose your debit card on first day in Morocco.

While it’s never a good idea to lose your debit card in a foreign country, it’s an especially poor move to make on your first day. It’s okay to lose it one week later. By this point you feel comfortable enough to blast music on your headphones while riding Rabat’s sleek, ultramodern tram system (even though you’ll probably get off at the wrong stop, like I did). It’s fine to lose it five days later, after you successfully hail your first blue petit taxi (even if you spend the rest of the afternoon stomping around muddy Medina water wearing nice dress shoes). It’s not even a terrible idea to lose it just three days later after you take a “shortcut” to class (which inevitably takes ten minutes longer than the normal route). Just don’t lose it on your first day.

Stomping around the Medina

Stomping around the Medina

My first week in Morocco has been a whirlwind of new challenges and adventures. I’m still adjusting to life at my home-stay, where I’m living with the wife of the former Moroccan ambassador to France. I’m slowly acclimating my body to Moroccan food and water, which has yet to make me sick, Alhamdulillah. I’m even noticing my Arabic speaking skills dramatically improve which each conversation or interaction I have. But my first definitive experience was losing my debit card to a hungry ATM machine at Rabat-Salé Airport. In later entries, I’ll talk more about my home-stay and life in the city, but I learned an important lesson during my first few days that warrants this story.

I was unable to retrieve my card before leaving the airport because the bank employee had just left for his lunch break and would not return for a couple of hours. After checking into Hotel Oumlil with the rest of the Amideast students, I told Doha, our Program Manager, about my predicament. Doha was reassuring (as Doha is) and arranged for transport when the bank reopened for business. I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to forget about it. Drinking Moroccan tea with my new friends and watching a local cat claim sovereignty over JT’s chair helped take my mind off things.

Katie faces off with the cat

Katie faces off with the cat

Monday morning, I hopped into a cab from Amideast to head to the airport. My driver was named Ibrahim, a local Rabat resident. Ibrahim knew French and Darija, the spoken Moroccan dialect. I speak English, formal Arabic and some Egyptian dialect. My Arabic was a little rusty, but this was my first opportunity to test what I had learned in the field. Through broken formal and colloquial conversation, I learned Ibrahim was a first-year English student at Amideast and drove cabs on the side. He’s a fan of Rabat’s club soccer team and knows all the words to their song: Black Army. I told him I liked rap, mentioning Jay-Z.

“You have Jay-Z,” he said. “We have Dizzy!” Ibrahim promptly put on Dizzy DROS, a Moroccan rapper from Casablanca.

We arrived at the airport and I marched in, expecting to triumphantly return with my debit card in hand. Unfortunately, the bank employee fell sick earlier that day and went home just a few minutes before. I gave my phone number to the information desk and left. Back with the group, I was starting to feel a little peeved. I received a call while touring some Roman ruins that I should return to the airport later that night.

Entry 1 photo 3 - Andrew HannaDuring the drive, Ibrahim and I didn’t talk much. Traffic was miserable and I was too anxious to speak. But as we looped around a bend, I looked out the window and saw Rabat’s cityscape give way to a vibrantly green pasture, studded with brown mounds of dirt and vivisected by a snaking blue river. The sun was setting behind the bridge and shadows stretched out over concrete houses in the distance. I hadn’t noticed this pasture on our first drive because I had been so focused on the task at hand.

I obtained my card with little fanfare, exchanged numbers with Ibrahim and settled back into Hotel Oumlil for the night. What I learned is that it’s okay to lose your debit card your first day in Morocco. You might just see something incredible on the way.

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Filed under Andrew Hanna, Area & Arabic Language Studies, Morocco, Rabat