Category Archives: Rabat

“Hello.”

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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Introducing Andrew Hanna – Spring 2015 Morocco Blog Abroad Correspondent

Sitting at my desk with the heat turned up to full blast, sensation begins to return to my raw, numb cheeks. It snowed two days ago, but it’s only gotten colder each day since, making each journey outside the comfort of my room an arctic expedition. It’s Reading Period at Princeton University, which means every single student is racing to write all their papers, do their problem sets and squeeze in some studying time before final exams. My desk is surrounded with books I’ve yet to read and assignments I’ve yet to do, but all I can think about is landing in Rabat next week and feeling the (reportedly) 60 degree sun warm my chilled bones.

Snow entry 1 photo 1 - Andrew HannaSo who is this frozen fellow? My name is Andrew Hanna, and I am AMIDEAST’s Blog Correspondent in Morocco for this spring semester. I’ll be updating every two weeks here on Mosaic with stories of my interactions, excursions and thoughts during my time abroad Through my posts, I hope to share my experiences with you and offer a glimpse of what life is like somewhere world apart from what most of us know.

But if you’re going to follow me on my adventures, you should get to know me a little bit better first. I am a junior at Princeton University, majoring in the department of Near Eastern Studies. My focus is on Egyptian politics and Arabic language study. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend some time in the region already, having lived in Egypt during the summer of 2011 and studied in Jordan in the summer of 2013. The reason I chose to travel to Morocco is because I’ve developed an interest in North African society and would like to broaden my horizons when it comes to my field of study.

Morocco fascinates me because of how culturally diverse it is. I grew up in a diverse household. My father is Egyptian and my mother is Korean. My entire life has been spent navigating between these two halves of my identity, trying to understand where I came from and what that means to me today.

Traveling to Petra in Jordan.

Traveling to Petra in Jordan.

I started language studies when I entered college, and have now completed classes in formal and Egyptian-colloquial Arabic. Despite over two years of classroom time, I’m still apprehensive about my language skills. The biggest challenge I know I’m going to face is forcing myself to speak out in conversation with everyday people. I’ve been told that Moroccans find the Egyptian dialect very funny, so at least that’s something I can comfort myself with when people start laughing at my Arabic.

Outside of my academic interests, I help run Model UN conferences at my school and work on an online food magazine. This year I’ve developed a deep passion for food, both as an art form, as well as a source of comfort in times of stress. I’m an abysmal cook myself, but I know how to chop up a mean salad. That’s why I’m extremely grateful to be living with a family next semester, if only to get the chance to try some real home-cooked Moroccan food. Now of course, I can’t wait to meet my new family and spend time with them, but the food is key.

Looking out my window I can appreciate (from inside) how beautiful the snow looks covering slate rooftops. But the towering pile of books on my desk and the wind whistling through window cracks remind me of how much I can’t wait to get to Morocco. I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences with all of you. Next time, from Rabat!

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B’Salama, Morocco

Today, I’m writing my final blog post of the semester from my home in Portland, Oregon, back in the U.S. It feels wonderful but also very strange to be home, and I’m still adjusting back to speaking only English, using forks to eat dinner, dressing for winter temperatures, and being thrown into the height of holiday season. Morocco feels very far away (25 hours of travel back home made that clear) and simultaneously quite close (my dream last night took place in the train station in Rabat).

Me with two of my wonderful host siblings

Me with two of my wonderful host siblings

Our last week in Morocco was spent reflecting on our 4-month experience living in Rabat. We talked about what we had expected to miss most about the U.S., and what we had actually missed — independence, being able to express ourselves without language barriers, and efficiency. We also talked about the things we would miss about Morocco — the smells, colors, and sounds, taking our time and having no one rush us, bartering in the markets, meeting friendly strangers who helped us for nothing in return, sharing long sit-down meals, and constantly encountering new things.

Picking oranges at my professor’s farm during reflection week

Picking oranges at my professor’s farm during reflection week

We also had the opportunity to reflect with our Moroccan professors, including my Media Arabic professor who took us to his farm for orange picking, exploring, and couscous eating. I learned a lot in the classroom at AMIDEAST but even more from the experience of living life hands-on in Morocco, so it seemed appropriate to talk about what we’ve learned over the course of the semester while juicing oranges on a farm outside of Rabat.

Our hands tattooed with traditional henna art.

Our hands tattooed with traditional henna art.

Part of what felt particularly sad about leaving was the feeling that I had thrown so much of myself into the place I was living for the last four months — stepping constantly outside of my comfort zone, trying to speak and understand the language, to be culturally appropriate, and to have fun and express myself in a Moroccan context — and would now be leaving that behind. In my last week in Morocco, I was able to feel proud of how far I had come since my first weeks in the country. When I could successfully navigate an issue or when a Moroccan complimented my Darijah, that gave me a sense of accomplishment and validation, particularly because of how huge of an adjustment it was to get to that point. But I tried to frequently remind myself, amidst sad goodbyes to my favorite café owners, friends, and host family in Rabat, that even though it might feel like I was leaving behind everything I had worked so hard to accomplish in Morocco, I would truly be carrying the experience and what I learned from it back with me to the states.

Me with my host mother and host father

Me with my host mother and host father

Memories from my favorite excursions to Zawiyat Ahansal, Chefchaouen, and Fez, my Arabic language skills, my relationships with members of my host family, and a deeper understanding of daily life in a Muslim country and of Moroccan and North African culture are some of the things I hope will stick with me as I return to my life in the U.S. I will continue to study Arabic and build on my knowledge of North Africa and the Middle East, stay in touch with my host siblings, and as per the advice of one of our professors, I will always be planning the return trip — whether for research, vacation, or work at some point in the future.

B’Salama, Morocco (but only until next time)!

B’Salama, Morocco (but only until next time)!

I am so grateful to my family and friends back at home, to my advisors at Brown, to my professors and directors at AMIDEAST, to my host family, and to all my friends with me in Morocco for supporting me and encouraging me in what was undoubtedly one of the most impactful and inspiring experiences of my life. Thank you so much for an unforgettable four months. Until next time, Morocco!

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Lost in Translation?: Language and Dialects in Morocco

“If you have your mouth, you’ll never be lost.” – Moroccan Proverb

Colorful dry paints for sale in Chefchaouen

Colorful dry paints for sale in Chefchaouen

In Morocco, people rarely consult maps, ask for addresses, or pay attention to street names. Instead, many Moroccans will hop in their car to visit a friend in another city, and upon entering the city, they’ll roll down their window and ask shopkeepers and neighbors who they see on the street, “Do you know where so-and-so lives?” Usually, eventually, this works.

Wood-carved statues in Chefchaouen

Wood-carved statues in Chefchaouen

This is but one example of how Morocco’s predominantly oral culture plays out in day-to-day life. Whenever we take a taxi to school, instead of using street names, we talk to the driver about the biggest landmarks that it’s close to (between the mosque and the McDonalds in Agdal). Neighborhood news spreads by word of mouth faster than imaginable, and waiters never write down orders (even if they will likely forget).

A white cat spotted in the blue city

A white cat spotted in the blue city

In addition to its deep-rooted oral culture, Morocco also has incredible linguistic diversity. This past week we traveled to Chefchaouen, a city in Northwest Morocco just inland of Tangier, known for its buildings in many shades of blue. Traveling to the North, we found that pronunciation and common words and phrases were different from what we had been accustomed to in Rabat. This diversity in the dialect can be seen even between cities relatively close to each other — for example my professor from Rabat says that slang in Casablanca is completely different, and parts of it could even be considered rude to use in Rabat.

A newspaper printed in Arabic and Tamazight

A newspaper printed in Arabic and Tamazight

French, Modern Standard Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, and Tamazight (spoken by the Amazigh community, known as ‘Berber’ in colonial times) can all be found in the major cities as a result of Morocco’s rich historical past. Amazigh people make up roughly half of the population of Morocco, and three major dialects are spoken within the Amazigh community. When Arabs came to Morocco in the 8th century they brought Islam and Modern Standard Arabic (in which the Qur’an is written) with them. French is still used in the educational system and in commerce in Morocco due to the French protectorate that began in 1912.

The edge of the mountains surrounding Chefchaouen

The edge of the mountains surrounding Chefchaouen

Though I had studied Modern Standard Arabic at my home university in the U.S., it’s been a fun challenge to learn Darijah, the Arabic dialect, which is strictly spoken and strictly Moroccan (most Arabs from other countries find it difficult to understand). Darijah includes Arabized words borrowed from French, Spanish and English, and is full of unique phrases that I’ve come to use constantly here, and will likely have trouble parting with.

Children sitting on their front step

Children sitting on their front step

One of the most important phrases is “enshah allah,” which translates to “God willing” and is used when talking about anything in the future — whether it is something that will hopefully happen (like a coffee date with your friend or success on you test) or just a way to politely avoid making a firm plan (maybe it will happen, but only if God wills it!). A uniquely Moroccan phrase used commonly in Darijah is “b’Saha wah raha,” which means “with health and comfort,” and is said on many different occasions, including whenever anyone serves food or tea, after a haircut, after buying something, after going on a run or working out, or even after taking a shower.

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Trekking Through the Sahara, Circling Through Time

A train led to a bus led to a camel, and at long last I set out on my first trek through the dunes of the Sahara Desert. We rocked back and forth on the backs of our camels, moving with their strange but steady gait in a motion our sore legs would feel the results of the following day. We set out in the late afternoon and rode for a couple hours led by our guide, who we trusted completely to show us the way given how difficult it was for our untrained eyes find any landmarks in the desert landscape.

The shadows of our camel caravan cast on the dunes by the strong Saharan sun

The shadows of our camel caravan cast on the dunes by the strong Saharan sun

The sunset in the Sahara that night was one of the most dramatic I’ve ever seen. We watched from atop our camels as the sky turned brilliant and sharp shades of pink, orange, and red, and lit the sand dunes around us with a soft reddish glow.

Sunset over the dunes

Sunset over the dunes

When we arrived at our tent camp just after sundown, our guide “parked” the camels, tying their knees so they wouldn’t stand up and leave us before morning. We settled in and were left with hours with nothing to do but sled down sand dunes, drink tea, converse over a leisurely Tajine dinner, and enjoy the Amazigh music our guide played for us on the drums.
When the stars came out in bright, twinkling clusters, we lay atop a dune near camp and peered out into the enormous desert sky for hours before bed.

Our tent camp at the desert oasis

Our tent camp at the desert oasis

It was easy to lose track of time in the Sahara, but the concept of time is something that I’ve come to think about frequently while in Morocco, not only when I’m left with hours of free time in the peaceful quiet of the desert. While Americans tend to view time as linear and monochronic, Moroccans usually see time as circular and polychronic. Put broadly, while Americans bend to time, Moroccans usually see time as bending to them.

Four AMIDEAST students’ camels follow their guide through the sand.

Four AMIDEAST students’ camels follow their guide through the sand.

On a day-to-day basis, some of the most apparent cultural differences I’m presented with in Morocco stem from a different perception of time. Some of the differences I still find frustrating, while others are a refreshing break from what I might be used to. When I go to mail a letter at the post office in Rabat, the man at the counter might ask how he can help me, then take a phone call while I’m in the middle of explaining my request, then continue helping two other people at the counter, then come back to me. This type of interaction is not at all rude in the eyes of most Moroccans, but is simply illustrative of a polychronic culture in which employees might tend to try to help seven people at once, instead of asking six of them to wait in line to address them one by one.

The last trees at the edge of the Sahara

The last trees at the edge of the Sahara

The perception that “time bends to us” can also be observed in the way that Moroccans value their relationships and often place time with loved ones over the completion of an activity or task. In America, when a host invites friends or family over for dinner, the evening usually centers on the task of preparing, eating, and enjoying a dinner together. But when my Moroccan host family has relatives over for dinner, the guests will usually sit and enjoy tea in the living room, talk for several hours, and sometimes eat dinner as late as midnight. After dinner, guests will stay at the table to talk or watch TV for at least another hour and are almost without fail invited to either stay for a nap, or to spend a night on the couches. In Morocco, an invitation to “dinner,” could more accurately be described as an invitation to be included in the home-life of the host for 6-24 hours.

Ripples drawn by the wind in the Saharan sand

Ripples drawn by the wind in the Saharan sand

I’m most frequently reminded of cultural differences with regards to time in Morocco when I’m frustrated with a lack of efficiency, or when a 15-minute errand becomes a 2-hour adventure. But when I think about Moroccan concepts of time in a broad sense, I’m also constantly in awe of the remarkable prioritization — made evident in so many ways each day here — that Moroccans give to their personal relationships and the people who are important to them.

Pink clouds and blue sky marked sunrise the next morning

Pink clouds and blue sky marked sunrise the next morning

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