Category Archives: Rabat

“That’s a Wrap!” by Shante Fencl

Five days have passed since I left my life in Morocco behind. This is exactly how I feel, as if a part of my life decided to stay there wandering the streets of Rabat while the rest of me got on a plane. After I said my goodbyes (that are actually just “see you laters”) and shed more than a few tears with my friends, I got on a train to the Fez airport to board my flight. As I made my way through the train cars with my luggage, I continued to think of all the people I met over the past four months. Every face that entered my mind was accompanied by a memory and it made me want to burst into tears. I sat down in my seat and immediately pulled out my headphones to block out my thoughts with music, but as I searched my purse I realized I left my headphones at AMIDEAST! I did not care much about the headphones (that were already broken) but without music I had to face my fear of being alone with the thought of leaving Morocco.

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Rooftop overlooking Casablanca.

At that moment, a woman next to me asked me why I was going to Fez. In Arabic I responded with the word for “airport,” trying hard not to show interest because I did not feel like talking to anyone at the moment. The woman continued to talk to me and eventually her husband entered the cabin. They could obviously see that I was travelling alone and wanted to know my story, so I had to build up the strength not only to force conversation, but to do it in Arabic! The couple spoke no English and I knew within a few minutes I would exhaust all the Arabic I know and they would stop talking to me; but, to my surprise, almost an hour had gone by and I was still conversing without issue! My spirit had been lifted by the realization that I had accomplished one of my most important goals: I can carry on a conversation in Arabic! We talked about culture, food, politics, religion, and family. Each minute that passed made me feel as though I had done something great with my time abroad. This was the ending I needed to wrap up my experience in Morocco. I left the country proud of what I accomplished.

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Me with two of my closest friends Alae and Sam.

I did not return to the US after leaving Morocco. Instead, I am in Italy with my Italian host family from when I went abroad in high school. Every year or so I come back to spend a month with them. I always planned to come to Italy after leaving Morocco and then return to the U.S. from here, but one of my best Moroccan friends invited me to celebrate the end of Ramadan with his family. Yes, this mean I will return to Morocco in less than two months!!! Now that I know I will be back in Morocco so soon, I have something to look forward to. But I am afraid to see what happens after I leave the second time. I don’t know where my life will take me after graduation next year, but now I know I have a place in Morocco if I choose to return. These four months have given me so much. I am so grateful for the opportunity.

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My little Italian cousin Beatrice and I finally reunited

Now that I have completed the program, and therefore this blog, I want to thank you all for following along. It has been an honor to share my experience, and I hope I have inspired those reading to do the same! Until next time!

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Morocco, Rabat, Shante Fencl

“Oh Yeah: It’s the Desert Post!” by Shante Fencl

I can remember back to a day in middle school when it was time for our science lesson. The topic of the day “Ecosystems,” and we learned just how diverse the world was outside of the plains of Ohio. We talked about the rainforest, the mountains, the swamplands, and even the desert. This hot and dry stretch of land with massive sand dunes was always the most fascinating to me. The idea of one day travelling to a desert never entered my mind. It was always mythical to me from the start. I would watch the old Bob Hope and Bing Crosby classic Road to Morocco and see the two make their way over sand dunes in the Sahara. I never thought that, one day, I too would ride off into the sunset on a camel!

In the months before coming to Morocco, I knew I had to visit the Sahara, but I had no clue who I would make these magical memories with. I was lucky enough to go with Sam, one of my best friends that I have met on the program from North Carolina, and Alae, one of the most amazing Moroccans I have met thus far. These two gentlemen and I took a 12 hour trip from Rabat to the desert town of Merzouga in the South East of Morocco. After arriving, we made our way to the town center to buy our desert attire. One of the most important things we needed was the blue Saharan scarf. This not only made us look fabulous, but protect us from the sand rays and the sand.

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Me on a camel!

Towards the late afternoon, we prepared to embark on our journey to our campsite two hours into the desert by camel. Our guide, Brahim, helped us each onto our camels. I was nervous at first, but after getting on the camel, the only thing I could feel was pain! As a public service announcement, when riding a camel, bring cushion! After reaching out campsite, we were able to sand board down the dunes, watch the sunset, and play the drums under the stars. We even woke up early enough to watch the sunrise over the mountain boarder between Morocco and Algeria.

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Sand in my hair in the desert.

The ride back home to Rabat after our stay in Merzouga gave me time to reflect on how many different things this beautiful and unique country has to offer. I have spent most of my semester in the capital city surrounded by concrete and taxis. The fast paced life of Rabat made me appreciate the simplicity of the Sahara that much more. Now, as I am writing my final blog post in country, I have come upon the realization that even if I lived in Morocco for the rest of my life, I could never fully embrace the diversity and complexity of this wondrous and enchanting land. In the coming weeks, as I take my final exams and come to grips with the fact I must soon return home,  I hope to hold on to these memories for the rest of my life!

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Sam, Alae, and I on our camels!

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Morocco, Rabat, Shante Fencl

“Community Based Learning in Morocco” by Elyse Desrochers

On Tuesday, I walked into the human rights NGO I have been volunteering with for the past semester for the last time. In the conference room where I so often simultaneously translated documents from French to English while trying to understand the Darija that the employees were using to discuss the projects that they were implementing with local associations all over the country, the table was lined with Moroccan pastries, Bastilla, a delicious Moroccan dish made specifically without nuts just for me, and orange and mango juice. While loading my plate with Bastilla, I listened as people went around the table thanking me for volunteering and I reflected on all the ways that this volunteering experience opened up my eyes to essential aspects of Moroccan culture. This volunteering placement, which is part of a Community-Based Learning class, allowed me to see Morocco in a way that would not have been possible had I not decided to participate in it.

There’s one obvious thing that volunteering helped me learn about, and that is civil society and the movement to build democracy in Morocco. While Morocco is a country where political participation is often low and the expression of dissenting voices is not always heard, civil society is vibrant and strong in Morocco. It is constantly pressuring for the adoption democratic reforms. There are civil society associations with diverse goals all over Morocco. It was fascinating to work in one of those associations, but it also taught me how much is still left to accomplish and what can be done to improve NGO’s in the country. I enjoyed working in my particular association because they focused specifically on training local NGO’s to give them the capacities necessary to be more effective.

I also was able to learn more about Moroccan communication styles, which is often an area of Moroccan culture that leaves Americans scratching their head. Morocco communication style is vey different from American communication style in that it tends to be less direct. It is necessary not only to figure out what the person is saying, but also what their silence is saying. For example, if a person only responds with “inshallah” which means “God willing”, and not a definitive yes, it most likely means that whatever you just suggested is never going to happen. Being exposed to this kind of communication style on a regular basis allowed me to understand how to communicate more effectively in all aspects of my life in Morocco. And it gave me an effective response to all the shopkeepers asked me if I would come back later to by the souvenirs I was looking at.

“You’ll come back for this leather purse later, yes?”


The volunteering experience also gave me the opportunity to ask questions about things I wasn’t sure about or I was interested in. I often asked my director about migration in Morocco and women’s rights. I also asked more basic cultural questions, like whether it was more common to do two bises (cheek kisses we use to greet here) or three. It was great to have people who could answer my questions and be willing to explain different aspects of the culture to me.

Photo 9 - Elyse Deroschers

Finally, it allowed me to meet friends. I became friendly with the secretary at the association by helping to give her English lessons every week with some other girls I study with. Now, we do things in Rabat together and she has invited me and some girls over to teach us how to make Moroccan food.

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Elyse Desrochers, Morocco, Rabat

“It’s Time for a Wedding!” by Shante Fencl

I have now been in Morocco for three months. My first month consisted of trying to orient myself in the city of Rabat, grasp survival language skills, and adapt to cultural norms. My second month was overtaken by school work, travel, and creating friendships with both Moroccans and other American students. The third month was comprised of only one thing: PREPARING FOR A MOROCCAN WEDDING! Before I go on to tell you all about how amazing it was to experience my first Moroccan wedding ceremony, I must first explain how I got there in the first place.

It has become known throughout the entire AMIDEAST building that I, Shante, will greet and carry on long conversations with just about anyone. I guess you can say it is the Midwesterner in me that will not allow a single person to walk by without at least saying the customary greeting of “salam.” So it is no surprise that I quickly became friends with two people I see every day: the guards in front of the AMIDEAST building. I have come to know these two wonderful men very well throughout the semester and speak to them any time I get a chance. Aside from practicing my language skills with them, I enjoy hearing about their lives, families, and just joking around any time I enter or exit the building.

One day as I was preparing to start my Monday morning Arabic class, I saw one of the guards at the door of the building. I expected only our usual “hello” and “how are you” and asking him about his weekend and his wife and children, but was surprised to have him stop and ask my plans for the first weekend of April. His niece was getting married and he wanted to invite me to the wedding. Before this moment, I had already heard about how unique Moroccan weddings can be. They usually start around 8pm and last as late as 7 the next morning! I immediately accepted the invitation and ran upstairs to tell my program director so that she could tell me all the things I needed to do in preparation for this extravagant event.

I was told I needed a takcheta, traditional Moroccan formal dress, and extremely high heels. Moroccan weddings are a time to go to the extreme with makeup, hair, and all other beauty treatments. No one at the entire wedding spoke English, so it was both helpful for my language and extremely tiring for my brain. Once I arrived, I realized that I was going to be a part of the wedding party. I went with the bride’s entourage to the nagh3fa, the hair and makeup artists for all brides, to get ready for the long night. In the car on the way back to the wedding location, we drove less than 10 miles per hour beeping the horn and singing loudly to alert the whole neighborhood of the wedding. This wedding took place in a tent on top of the roof of the bride’s apartment. The wedding didn’t actually start until around 11pm. The bride entered with the groom and was then placed onto the a3mmeria, a throne that is carried by four men around the room to show the bride to the wedding guests.

The bride changed her takcheta about five or six times while at the wedding. She was not present most of the time because she was constantly getting new hair, makeup, and dress. All through the night, we danced to a live band singing traditional wedding songs. Before I knew it, the time was 7am and the wedding was over.

I am so thankful that I was invited to this unique event that I may not have the opportunity to experience ever again. It has shown me that I truly appreciate how rich the culture and traditions are in this beautiful country. Respecting the wishes of the bride, I have not included any photos of her or her wedding; however, I do have one of me in my takcheta!!!

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My borrowed takcheta from a dear friend for the wedding

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Morocco, Rabat, Shante Fencl

“Finding the corner of the world in Zaouiat Ahansal” by Elyse Desrochers

In Arabic, the word for corner is zaouiat, so when I arrived at the tiny Amazigh village Zaouia Ahansal in the High Atlas Mountains, it’s no surprise that I felt as though I had discovered a little corner of the world. The remoteness of the place that surrounded me, which takes over four hours by bus on narrow, winding passes through the mountains to reach, was something I had never before experienced in my lifetime. It was a place touched by so few that though every step I took kicked up a cloud of dirt and dust on the unpaved roads, it felt clean, vibrant, and refreshing.

AMIDEAST had brought us to this tiny mountain village for two days of learning about life in Morocco in a way that we, cosmopolitan city-dwellers, had never before experienced. Throughout the excursion, we lived in the sheikh’s (the political leader) house, explored the mountains and important religious sites of the region, and assisted with English activities at a local NGO. The slow-paced life of the village felt a universe away from the crowds of people pushing their way through the Rabat medina and the sound of petit taxi’s horns echoing throughout the city.

Zaouiat Ahansal is an Amazigh village first settled in the 12th or 13th century by Sidi Said Ahansal, an Islamic scholar. As legend goes, Sidi Said Ahansal was sent by his teacher to create a religious center wherever his cat jumped off his mule as they were travelling throughout the country. After his death, the village became an important religious pilgrimage site and grew as a result of the trade caravans that would stop in the village on their way to delivering goods in the north of Morocco. While the trade caravans no longer pass through the village, it remains an important pilgrimage site that Moroccans choose to visit during the months of August and September in order to honor the life of the scholar.

Post 8 Photo 1 Pano ZAH- Elyse D.

The village is small, hidden away in a valley surrounded by high peaks with snow still visible. A river runs through it, lush fields are staggered along the riverbed, and stone houses require some climbing to reach. It was only three years ago that electricity was brought to the village, and 3G networks became available last year. The people of Zaouiat Ahansal do not have much, but make do with what they have and are welcoming and hospitable to guests in spite of their lack of resources.

The experience of living in the village at the sheikh’s house and immersing myself in the Amazigh culture was one I will likely never again experience in my life. It provided me opportunity to learn more about the rich culture of diversity of Morocco, the daily life of people living in rural areas in Morocco, the challenges that they face, and a couple of words of Tamazight, the local Amazigh language.

Staying in Zaouiat Ahansal for two days, one thing shocked me most. Despite the lack of modern technology, events, and places to go, life had never felt fuller.

Post 8 photo 2 River ZAH- Elyse D

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Filed under Elyse Desrochers, Morocco, Rabat, Regional Studies in French

“Relearning Table Etiquette” by Elyse Desrochers

Food. Like dance or song, its ability to unify extends beyond the limits of border or language. Good food is good food, no matter if you’re American or Moroccan, English speaking or Arabic speaking. B’neen. Delicious.

But there is one thing that gets in the way of food’s mystifying power of unity: table etiquette. Just as food brings people together, table etiquette rips us apart. I often feel confused or at loss for how to properly navigate different situations involving food, so I’ve decided to piece together some of the most puzzling table etiquette situations that I’ve experienced so far.

  1. Explaining food allergies

Ahh Morocco, the land where food allergies rarely exist. Food is fresh, all-natural, and organic, without the hassle of going through the certification process to prove it and the soaring cost. Without all preservatives in food (and I am sure lots of other scientific reasons that are above my understanding of the immune system), few Moroccans have allergies and many don’t understand what it means. A typical conversation with a Moroccan who is offering me food that has nuts in it goes like this:

-Here, please, take some

-Oh, thank you very much, but I’m all set.

As they hand you the food with nuts, “No, just take some, no problem.”

-Thank you but I can’t, I have an allergy. I can’t eat nuts.

They stare blankly at me and wait for me to explain.

-It closes my throat. I can’t eat nuts, or I have to go the hospital. I could die.

Often, this same conversation happens two or three times. Eventually, they stop trying to serve me and decide that no matter what, I am not going to eat what they are serving me. This is the most common miscommunication I have experienced in Morocco. It is partly because Moroccans are so hospitable and do often serve me food. It is also because allergies are not common here and many people don’t know what they are. I don’t blame the people here who don’t know why I can’t eat nuts. On the contrary, I am often scared of offending the person offering me food. They often seem offended that I won’t even just try a little of what there offering me. I gladly would, if that wouldn’t mean heading to the hospital on a regular basis.

  1. When and where to eat on a shared plate

Traditionally, Moroccans share meals from the same large plate or platter. The group gathers around the table, and each person eats the portion directly in front of them with bread from their right hand. This is something you learn at the beginning of orientation.

Blog 7 Photos 1 - Tanjia - Stella Cooper (permission to use on Elyses blog)

This is Tanjia, slow cooked lamb. It’s a tradition dish in Morocco. Photo Credit: Stella Cooper.

If I am home for lunch, I eat with my family in this way. Typically, lunch is the most filling meal of the day, and we often eat couscous, tagine, or kefta. Couscous is small grains cooked in a delicious broth, typically with chicken and vegetables layered on top. Tagine is typically meat and vegetables slow-cooked in a sauce, while kefta is meatballs cooked in a sauce. These foods are all eaten from the same platter.

The first time I ate with them, I still had so many questions. I know you’re supposed to eat with your right hand, but I’m a lefty. I made a very big point of saying “I’m a lefty” during the meal so they would excuse me from eating solely with my right hand. I also wasn’t quite sure how to go about dividing up the portions. You eat what is in front of you, but do you leave a little bit of food in between your section and the next person’s section? How did my host mom so skillfully get the meat off the bone with a piece of bread? I tried and it took me 5 minutes.

Blog 7 Photos 2 - Couscous- Dorian Cupero (permission to use on Elyses blog)

This is Tanjia, slow cooked lamb. It’s a tradition dish in Morocco. Photo Credit: Stella Cooper.

I have gotten more skillful at eating in this style. It only takes me three minutes to get meat off the bone with a piece of bread, you don’t really leave food in between your section and the next person’s, and as long as I wash my hands before dinner, I don’t feel the need to constantly remind everyone that I’m a lefty.

That’s not to say that I’m sure of everything when it comes to table etiquette. Today, my host mother had set aside my dinner because I had told her that I was coming home late after finishing up some work. I go to sit and eat and look at my plate. It’s a normal dinner, plus one big addition. An entire artichoke. I looked at the artichoke unsure. While artichokes are eaten in the US, I had never seen a full one.  People always talk about artichoke hearts, so I was guessing what I had to eat was in the middle. But how would I get there?

I start to eat the rest of my dinner, too hungry to think about my artichoke problem. Finally, I’m about halfway through my meal. I decide now is the right time to ask. I head to the living room, get my host mom’s attention, and ask her to show me how to eat it. She laughs and has me bring it over. She and her sister show me to put the leaves in my mouth and scrape the part you eat off with your teeth. I head back to the table, and start scraping away. But, not wanting to make her think I wasted any of the good part, I slowly and carefully scrape each leaf.

A long time passes. She comes in to the kitchen, and to her surprise, sees me with my artichoke.

Elyse, you haven’t finished yet?! She asks in disbelief.

-It takes a long time!

-Elyse, you have to take a bunch of leaves at a time! Well, it’s fine, just put it on the counter.

Her voice carries the hint of exasperation.

The best way to handle miscommunication concerning table etiquette, from my experience, has been careful observation and asking when necessary. But, as in the case of the artichokes, even that can backfire.

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Filed under Elyse Desrochers, Morocco, Rabat, Regional Studies in French

“Trams and Donkeys” by Elyse Desrochers

My two month anniversary in Morocco has officially passed. That, and the fact that I have traveled for three days straight across the Moroccan countryside during my spring break, has given me plenty of time to reflect on everything that I have experienced in the country thus far. However, I am happily aware of the fact that two months is not enough for me to fully understand what is going on around me. That may take two years. Or twenty. Or a lifetime.

Talking with Moroccans and learning more about the history and culture of the country has helped me most in understanding my perceptions of the country and having these perceptions evolve. It has confirmed something I have suspected for a long time: that within even smaller countries, regions, and cities, there is always a diversity of people, of ways to live, and of ways to be “modern”, whatever that means.

When I first told people about my plans to come to Morocco, I found that most people, understandably, had mostly basic knowledge about the country and had many over-generalizations. They thought that Morocco was filled with women wearing veils, donkeys carrying goods around the medina, and they often worried about the safety of the country. And in some ways they’re not wrong. Some women do choose to wear veils here. I do see donkeys carrying goods through the medina. Safety is a concern here. But, that is not THE Morocco. Manly women don’t veil here, and some of the ones that do are also the fiercest feminists. Donkeys walk alongside a tram nicer and more reliable than the DC metro. I feel safer waking home in Rabat than I do on my college campus. The story of Morocco cannot be shown by one picture.

The past three days, I have traveled through snow, mountains, deserts, and lush valleys all within the confines of the country. And Moroccans are as diverse as the scenery that surrounds them. The young women working long hours at a hospital and taking English by night so that one day she can work in the US, the man who grew up as a nomad in the Sahara desert, the people who may never leave the area they were born, and others who jet set across the globe regularly are all equally Moroccan and all equally modern.

We often give diversity the benefit of the doubt when it comes to differences in our own culture, but have trouble acknowledging it as it exists in other parts of the world. I hope to never make that mistake again.

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Filed under Elyse Desrochers, Morocco, Rabat, Regional Studies in French, Uncategorized