Category Archives: 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!!!

Blog 8 Photo 1 - Shante Fencl

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

“Adventures in my “Hometown'” by Shante Fencl

As a young college student, one of the most exciting moments of my semester should be Spring Break, right? The only options for this long week of vacation should be traveling the cities of the world, or relaxing on a gorgeous beach? Wrong. I have spent this lovely week chasing my baby sister around our apartment, catching up on class work, and finding hidden gems in my adopted hometown of Rabat. This may not seem like the typical, picturesque vacation you would expect from a girl on her semester abroad, but you must first learn how this week of repose became one of the best weeks of my time abroad.

After a series of unfortunate events ruined my plans to travel to Madrid for the break, I decided not to make any new plans; instead, I waited to see what adventures would come my way. In the beginning, I caught up on some much needed sleep, finally took care of all my laundry, and even started my Arabic essay. On the third day of my vacation, I woke up to find my host mom scrambling around the house and calling all of her friends looking for a babysitter. I knew she had a doctor’s appointment that morning, and volunteered immediately to watch my one year old host sister, Raadia. A few hours alone with a baby can’t be that difficult, can it?

Raadia and I - Post 6 - Shante Fencl

My adorable baby sister, Raadia, and me posing for a selfie.

By the end of my host mother’s appointment, I learned why she is always so tired. I almost had a heart attack every minute Raadia escaped my sight. Normal everyday objects that I see around the house quickly started to look like dangerous weapons my baby sister could use to hurt herself. She found almost every bobby pin on my bedroom floor and attempted to eat each one of them. She hit me in the head with remotes, phones, and every other solid object she could find. By the time I got her to take a nap, I needed one too! The best part of that day with Raadia was that I really felt like I was watching my own sister. I finally became a part of the family. I finally felt like I was home.

Later on in the week, I got to spend time in Rabat with my Moroccan friends. We went to places that I never visited that were less than 10 minutes from my front door. I got to experience my city from a new perspective. I walked through the medina at night and saw it truly come to life. I took the city bus to a new side of town. I even learned how to play pool (even though I wouldn’t say I am good at it)! What’s most important is that I finally exited my bubble of an exchange student’s life. I didn’t think about planning a weekend trip, seeing monuments, or visiting a new city. I just lived. That’s what made this Spring Break so great: it was the first week of my exchange that I just lived.

Now that the break is coming to a close, I feel prepared to continue on with my semester. I will still plan weekend trips. I will still do some touristy things. But at least I know now that sometimes it’s okay to not travel. Sometimes you just need to spend your day living.

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

“Rabat: City of…” by Elyse Desrochers

They say that every city has a personality. New York is loud, crass, the city that never sleeps. Paris is romantic, nostalgic, the city of lights and love. Humans breathe life into a city and the city emanates the life its people have given to it. So what’s the personality of Rabat, my city? This question doesn’t have one clear answer. From what I observed in Rabat, there are at least four different personalities that have evolved and molded together to form the city as I know today.

There’s Chellah, an ancient roman city. This sight is the first remnant of civilization in Rabat. While today Chellah lies in ruins and the government has converted it into a historical site, its history is that which marks the debut of permanent settlement in the Rabat area. Walking around Chellah in present day, it’s hard not to imagine that a woman, or a child, or a Roman soldier has also walked along the same path centuries ago.

Blog 5 Chellah - Deroschers, Elyse

What I think of next when I think of Rabat is the Kasbah of the Udayas and the old medina. The Kasbah is a walled city that sits along the Atlantic Ocean. It was built during one of the first dynasties of Morocco. Walking through the Kasbah, with its pristine white and sea blue houses and the sound of waves crashing in the distance, it’s impossible not to think of the place as a sort of refuge to the people living during the dynasty’s reign. Walled to protect its people from war, pirates, and conflict, the Kasbah represents a tumultuous period of Rabat’s history. Like the Kasbah, the old medina of Rabat is a walled city. Upon entry, every product imaginable is at your fingertips, as long as you’re willing to haggle for it. Soaps, perfumes, clothes, carpets, lighting fixtures, leather products, and artisan goods are available at the shops of the medina. Street food is always beings sold, and the smell of roasting chick peas and chestnuts fills the air. The old medina is the heart of every city in Morocco- the point from which the rest of the city grows. It represents the evolution of this century old city and Morocco’s uncanny ability to safeguard its culture and tradition as it evolves over time.

Blog 5 Kasbah of the Udayas - Elyse Deroschers

The Ville Nouvelle, or the new city is yet another part of Rabat that forms its personality. The Ville Nouvelle was built as a separate entity to the city by the French during colonization. It’s wide streets and terraces mark a change from the winding streets of the old medina, but it nevertheless has become a part of the city itself. The Ville Nouvelle reflects the values of a European city- shops with mannequins displayed in the windows and clothes being sold at fixed prices from European and American brands, cafes with large terraces ripe for people-watching. French is the language of menus and billboards. Walking around the Ville Nouvelle, it’s hard not to think about the impact of colonization on the country and the way in which it continues to impact the city during the postcolonial era.

The Ville Nouvelle was built as a separate entity from the medina of Rabat, destined to be a place exclusively for French citizens that came to live in Morocco during colonialization. However, since independence, Moroccans have reclaimed this neighborhood as their own and continue to expand the city around it. This reclamation of a place once built to exclude them is a huge part of how I see the personality of Rabat and other Moroccan cities. Morocco is place where cultures collide- African, Arab, Mediterranean, European. These identities express themselves in different parts of Rabat- Chellah, the Kasbah, the Old Medina, the Ville Nouvelle, and the growth of the city since independence. It’s the ability of Rabat to claim each of these identities as its own, to mold them and form them in its own way, that culminates in a multi-faceted Rabat personality.

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

“From Snow Fall to Waterfall” by Shante Fencl

Over the past two weeks, I have experienced the diversity that Moroccan climate has to offer. Last weekend, I went to the city of Azrou just under 100 kilometers south of Fez. This town nestled between the Middle and High Atlas Mountains seemed like the perfect getaway after a long school week. I was promised beautiful hiking, monkeys in the cedar forest, and even snow (something a girl from Ohio could do without)! After the four hour bus ride from Rabat to Azrou, my friends and I made our way to our hostel for the night. We had no clue what the next few days had in store for us.

The very night we arrived, the weather forecast changed from “light snow showers” to “blizzard warning,” and the hostel owner informed us that the heating advertised online was a gas heater only to be used for an hour at a time if we didn’t want the smell a gas to make us sick! The eight of us spent the night together in a blanket fort we built to beat the cold. The next morning, we layered up our winter clothes and tried to venture out in the snow storm. We quickly realized just how horrible the weather was when we found out the only road out of town was blocked until the snow cleared. After five long days stuck in Azrou and missing classes, the sun came out and we made our way back to Rabat. We later found out that the snow storm made national news. Basically, I survived the Moroccan Snowpocalypse.

Less than a week later, two of my dearest friends and I visited the city of Chefchaouen. In the Rif Mountain region, Chefchaouen is one of Morocco’s hidden gems. The blue and white medina walls were lined with artwork and hand woven rugs, and the village of Akchour, about an hour outside of the city, is where I hiked to my first waterfall! The warm temperature and sunny days in this region were such a contrast from my blizzard days in Azrou that I could hardly believe I was in the same country.

Blog 5 Photo 1 - Shante Fencl

Me with my friends Josh and Sam after reaching the top of the Akchour waterfall.

I thought it was important to write about the diversity of Morocco because I can remember back to how little I knew the weeks before leaving the US for this semester. I didn’t even believe I would need a light jacket, let alone snow boots! I will admit, when I thought of Morocco, I thought of heat. I thought of the desert. I thought of long hot days and cool nights. I did not think of snow storms. But after my experiences over the past two weeks, I have come to appreciate just how beautiful this country is. Two people who have lived their whole lives in Morocco could have very different experiences living less than three hours away from each other.

With midterms going on this week at AMIDEAST, I am realizing my semester here in Morocco is inching closer to the halfway mark. I know that each day I am here, I will continue to learn from this unique country. Let’s hope the last half of the semester is as great as the first!

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