Category Archives: Rabat

Discovering Rabat

Sheep. They are one of the first things I noticed after we finally get free of the chaos that is the Casablanca airport parking lot and head along the highway towards Morocco. There are so many sheep, at least that’s what they look like to me, grazing in pastures by the road. Additionally, Morocco is flat; I used to refer to the Midwest when judging exactly how flat a landscape was, but I’m going to have to rethink my scale. The vast and scrubby landscape along the highway definitely bested the Iowa cornfields in terms of being a literal plane.

Speaking of a different type of plane, I had essentially zero troubles getting into the country. Flying alone to a foriegn place was out of my comfort zone enough that I think I was shaking a little when I handed my passport to the man at customs. However, everyone I met was incredibly friendly and helpful. The airplane did take a long time landing in Morocco, long enough to make the two women sitting next to me start to look rather pale, but it was no worse than some other plane rides I’ve had. The slow, though bumpy, descent gave me an even better sense of the flat (sensing a theme yet?) Moroccan landscape.

The drive from Casablanca to Rabat helped to give me a better sense of place, though it looked very different from the city itself, which is loud and bustling and full of traffic. At this point, we are all comfortably settled in a hotel in Rabat, where we will stay until we meet our host families in about three days. We are spending this week learning about both the program and the city, basically covering everything we will need to know to have a successful next four months. I am almost surprised by how natural everything seems to me considering how far I have traveled in just a short period of time.

A view from the orientation hotel.

A view from the orientation hotel.

Okay, let me clarify that last statement. Rabat is like nowhere I have ever visited. For example, we happened upon the king’s palace by chance while walking around today. That is not something that occurs in Minnesota. Also there is constant sidewalk “construction”, and I have already stepped in wet concrete. Traffic waits for no one, jaywalking seems to be the only way to go, and stray cats nap on most corners. However, the adjustments to daily routine, such as slowly learning to drink the tap water, which is completely safe but sometimes gives people stomach aches initially, I have been able to take in stride.

I have not yet used my Arabic when speaking with any Moroccans, but I have made that my goal for the week. I’ve been relying on French, parce que c’est plus facile et tout le monde essaient de parler francais avec moi, but I need to start being bold with jumping in to Arabic. We will be doing a crash course in Moroccan Arabic this week, which should make things easier.

Post 2 Photo 2  - Chmielewski, Mika

The signs at Chellah, an archeological site on the edge of Rabat, are in both Arabic and French

One thing I have found most striking about Rabat is how prevalent French really is. I think this phenomenon, of people defaulting immediately to French when addressing foreigners, is not true in all parts of Morocco. However, is is certainly true in Rabat, and the multiplicity of languages in the city is evident wherever you go. Street signs are written in both Arabic and French, and many signs on buildings include Amazigh as well. This bi- and trilingilism has many complex cultural implications that after just a few days here I have not yet had time to fully grasp. Even after four months I doubt I will understand it, but stay tuned for a later and more in depth post about the subject.

On the plus side, I think my French has improved even in the two days I have been here so far. City life in Rabat is fast paced, and though everyone I have encountered has been extremely friendly, it is still much harder to do even simple things in this new environment. All the people who claim the key to language learning is immersion really aren’t kidding. Just reading street signs and ordering tea has become a daily challenge, but one that I can already feel the positive effects of.

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Filed under Morocco, Rabat, Area & Arabic Language Studies, Mika Chmielewski

Introducing Mika Chmielewski – Fall 2015 Morocco Blog Abroad Correspondent

When I started taking Arabic fall term of my freshman year of college, I never expected it would land me here, finalizing my packing list for the semester I will spend in Rabat. And yet here I am! I am incredibly honored to be the Fall 2015 Blog Correspondent for the AMIDEAST Program in Morocco. For those of you reading, wherever you might be, I hope I will be able to provide you with some meaningful insight into the four months I am about to spend in Morocco. I will try my best to give you an accurate portrayal of my semester in Rabat, as well as my insights and discoveries along the way.

But before I can tell you about what I am going to be doing, you ought to know a little bit about me. My name is Mika, and I am a rising junior at Carleton College, a liberal arts school in the Midwest. My path to studying abroad in Morocco has been unique to say the least. For starters, I am majoring in physics and getting a certificate, similar to a minor, in Arabic. In addition to studying science and languages, I also love dancing, rock climbing, and astronomy.

My Arabic class celebrated our last day of two years of classes together with some great Arabic music and this photo.

My Arabic class celebrated our last day of two years of classes together with some great Arabic music and this photo.

I believe in the importance of being a global citizen, and of learning how to connect with a broad range of people. I also believe that the only way to truly be successful in studying a language is to immerse yourself in the language in a place where it is spoken in daily life. I made the decision to spend my next semester in Rabat for a variety of reasons, but immersion in language was the main one. Having studied French as well as Arabic, I am eager to be in a place where I can speak and practice both languages. I am excited to devote myself to soaking up as much language as I can for the next four months and to finally have the chance to be surrounded by spoken Arabic every day. Though I know my brain is going to be extremely confused for a while!

Besides being in a new country, Rabat will be a new environment for me in another way as well; I have never before lived in a city. I am looking forward to navigating all the different challenges of the city, though I know it will at times be at least as challenging as navigating the challenges of a new country. By the end of the program, I hope to be whizzing around in petit taxis like a pro. As a college student, I have gotten used to traveling around and not having one permanent living place for an extended period of time, though I have never traveled anywhere as distant as this before. Throughout my time in college I have been interested in the idea of “home” and of how our identities are shaped by the places we visit and live. I still feel deeply connected to the small town I am from, but I am also eager to explore and discover other places and environments. I know that these experiences will change some of who I am and how I perceive the world. As such, I am interested in pursuing ideas of identity and shifting culture in Morocco. I hope to share many of my musings and discoveries in this subject with you all as well.

My cousins and brother and me during winter break last year

My cousins and brother and me during winter break last year

Now, I am off to finish printing the last few documents I need, before I begin this exciting new chapter in my life. I will be back in just a few weeks to let you know how I am, and the other AMIDEAST students are, settling in to the beginning of our term in Morocco.

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Mika Chmielewski, Morocco, Rabat

The Next Step

I’m writing this from the desk of my new apartment in Amman, having just arrived earlier this day. The desk isn’t really much of a desk, more like a slab of wood on top of two seesaw support units. For the most part, I am unpacked, with a few items still strewn on top of my new bed and nightstand. Some of the hats I bought in Morocco have journeyed with me and are hanging off the hooks behind the door. It’s only been a week since I flew out from Rabat-Salé airport and I’m already on the move again.

Entry 10 One - Hanna, AndrewMy last days in Rabat passed by in a haze. I remember attending the AMIDEAST farewell dinner with my classmates, and I remember the last goodbyes we said to each other. Despite all the warnings I received about reverse culture shock, arriving back in the United States felt eerily normal to me. It wasn’t until I visited my university and college friends that I began to notice things that made me anxious. I couldn’t believe I was sitting on the same couch, with the same people, doing the same things, pretending as if I had not been away for four months. Internally, I felt like my understanding of the world had been altered in a dramatic way, but it was (and still is) difficult to vocalize this understanding. It made me feel a little secluded from everybody else.

It probably also didn’t help that I was wearing a full-length jallaba.

I didn’t really give myself time to readjust after Morocco, flying out to Jordan just one week after the end of the program. I’m finding it difficult to let go of Morocco already. During my long, stumbling conversation I held with my cab driver, I kept introducing Darija words into my speech. Jordanians say “shoo” instead of “shnu” to indicate “what.” I told my driver point-blank that I don’t think I’ll ever stop saying “shnu.”

But what I learned from my time in Morocco wasn’t just colloquial words, or how to traverse the countryside, or where to buy the best lentils. It wasn’t just how to bargain for a tunic, or how to avoid street harassment, or when to let myself go with the flow. What I learned, I think, was how to see the world with a different set of cultural lenses. Now, wherever I go, I see things from a new point of view. Not from a Moroccan perspective, as I am not truly Moroccan, but neither am I wholly whatever I was before.

One of my close friends from Morocco sent an article explaining that study abroad is the process of turning into a Triangle. You begin as a Circle, living among other Circles, in a Circular land, until you leave and go spend significant time with the Squares. You eat Square food, sleep on Square beds and learn Square customs. Over time, your curves sharpen as you become more Square-like. You eventually transform into a Triangle, neither a part of the world you came from, nor part of the world you live in, but something different. I don’t know what kind of shape I’m going to be when this summer is all over, but I’m betting it’ll be a particularly interesting one. I’ve learned what I can from Morocco for the time being, but now it is time to take the next step into a different world, with different people and different adventures.

Luckily, I haven’t lost my debit card yet.

Entry 10 Two - Hanna, Andrew

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Singing in Chefchaouen

“My first love… I saw her in the [city’s] quarter…” – Song Lyric from Ya Chefchaouen

Trekking up the hilly path towards the Spanish mosque, I pause to rest on a flat dirt outcropping. Turning around, I can oversee the entire city of Chefchaouen nestled at the base of the mountains. Shades of blue pepper the cityscape, with the darker shades seeming to have a stronger concentration at the center of the medina. Having spent the afternoon there, I can attest to Chefchaouen’s reputation as the “Blue City.” I’m left breathless (though whether that can be attributed to the city’s beauty or my lack of physical fitness is up for debate).

Entry 9 One - Hanna, AndrewContinuing my journey, I catch up with my companions on the path. I turn to them with a knowing smile. Then I break out into an (off-key) tune.

“Ya Chefchaouen, ya nouara!”

Jake and Ishaq join in with a booming, “Ya habiba, ya minara!” Mary gives us an exasperated look as we continue to sing Nouamane Lahlou’s Ya Chefchaouen. Luckily for her, we have been training for this moment for the past two weeks. Melodies about first love and Moulay Ali Ben Rachid (the city’s founder) flow from our practiced lips. Mary disappears over the hill’s ridge, most likely overwhelmed by our beauteous harmony.

Entry 9 Two - Hanna, AndrewSongs are one of the best parts of our Moroccan Colloquial Arabic class. Our teacher, a grey-haired, yet exuberant lady, mixes different jokes and dialogues in between lessons of vocabulary and grammar. But the songs are the highlight of the course. Most classes begin or end with a resounding chorus of our favorite tunes: Allo Feenik (Hello, Where Are You?), Ya Bint al-Biladi (Girl of My Country) or Habib al-Qalb (Girl of My Heart). One of my friends in another room tells me they use the sound of our singing to indicate to their professor when class is over.

Singing with my classmates is one of the activities that helps bring us together as a group. We’ve grown close after these past months, and with only two weeks left, it’s almost time for us to say goodbye. I’ve formed some close friendships, both with AMIDEAST students and members of my host family, which I hope continue long after this program is over.

Entry 9 Three - Hanna, AndrewBut my love for Morocco has been sealed. It’s a love that comes with all the foibles and triumphs of real love. During my time here, I’ve marveled at madrassas and squished into overcrowded and sweaty train compartments. I’ve climbed Portuguese ramparts and smelled pungent city alleyways. I received a free hat from a man in Zawiyat Ahansal and foiled an attempted pickpocket in Tetouan. Morocco is a seething, bubbling, lively cauldron of different smells, sights and sounds. It’s a country full of fears and hopes, dreams and tragedies, happening right before your eyes. In a way, it’s just like every other place in the world where people live. This is just one that I happened to fall in love with.

We reach the end of our hike to the Spanish Mosque. Most of us sit on a ledge, overlooking the city for a while. I walk around and stare at a herd of goats grazing on the mountainside. Morocco isn’t my first love, but it’ll certainly be an unforgettable one.

Entry 9 Four - Hanna, Andrew

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

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