“Food for Thought” by Dan Fitzgerald

Guess what? It’s the food post. Prepare your appetites because this blog post is about to be delicious. I have been thinking about Moroccan food more than usual as I vacation across Europe for Spring Break. France is known for their breads, cheeses, and wines; Germany is known for their beers and meats; but what’s the food Morocco is known for? Could it be tajins, full of vegetables and meat in small clay pots? Or could it simply be the large, bountiful fruit with every meal? These are all great contenders, however there is one food that means more to me than just taste satisfaction: couscous.

Let me start by saying: all couscous I’ve tried in the United States pales in comparison to the couscous I have in Morocco. Friends who previously studied in Morocco told me to prepare myself and my stomach for the weekly “Couscous Friday” lunches, but I never really understood the hype until I experienced it for myself.

It was a Friday like any other: my roommate Conner and I did our usual morning routine of showering, breakfast, and going to class. Our host mom Hajja reminded us to be home for lunch as she would be making couscous, but I didn’t think too much into it. Lunchtime rolled around- as we entered our home, a mysterious aroma of spices, meats, and vegetables hit our noses. We sat at the table and Hajja appeared with a giant clay plate the size of the table itself filled to the brim with couscous, various vegetables, and chicken. Hajja told us that it takes her over two hours to prepare this meal. She only makes it when they have host students, as this meal could seriously feed an army. Conner and I gave it the old college try to finish all the couscous, but it was just too much and too filling. Like all our Couscous Friday lunches, we ended by gathering some blankets, laying down to digest everything, and watching some Turkish soap operas that Hajja translated to French for me.

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While I adore couscous because it’s delicious and super filling, it’s now taken on a deeper meaning: not only does it represent my relationship with my host parents and roommate, but also Moroccan culture as a whole. An important part about the couscous dish is that it’s served and eaten all on one, shared clay plate between everyone. There aren’t any separate plates for yourself or silverware to use (unless Conner and I are making a mess and Hajja gives us silverware). It’s a community dish that brings everyone together to share this meal and, metaphorically, allows you to have a shared experience with others. That’s not something many Americans, including myself, experience back in the United States.

Now a lot of travelers to Morocco aren’t as fortunate enough as I am to stay with a host family, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t experience a Couscous Friday like this. One of the best types of restaurants Morocco offers are the living room restaurants. These places are as hole-in-the-wall as they come and can mainly be found in any city’s medina. They are small, one room places where the kitchen and the sitting area are joined together, and it is typically owned and operated by one or two women (typically a mother-daughter duo). These women will make you feel like you are a part of the family and cook you one of the most best meals you can find in Morocco. Again, it’s this shared sense of community and family around food that really brings you closer to Moroccan people. If food is for the soul, then Moroccan food is for the company.

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“Islam Led Me Back to My Religion” by Sofia Deak

In Morocco, religion is an undeniable part of daily life. On Fridays, for example, I see people leaving mosques in swarms, hurriedly tying their shoes in the street in order to get home to couscous meals with their families. At school, the call to prayer snaps me back to attention in the middle of a particularly long lecture. Phrases such as Alhamdulillah (Thank God) and Insha’allah (God willing) have snuck their way into my daily vernacular. Furthermore, my classes at AMIDEAST focus on matters of religion in political, historical, and social spheres of Morocco and the greater Middle East/ North Africa region.

Religion feels more visible to me here as well, perhaps because in Los Angeles diversity is the norm, and seeing people of all religions and dress is typical. Here, Islamic dress, particularly the hijab, are what is commonplace. Particularly in my Gender, Islam and Society class, we address all kinds of societal implications of religion and how that is reflected by our time in Morocco.

For the most part, I knew that in coming to Morocco I anticipated for there to be a greater emphasis on religion. I of course knew that Morocco does not have the same separation of church and state that is mandated in the United States. However, I was not expecting for this permeance of religion to have such an effect on me as it has.

I was raised in a Catholic family, and while I was religious and very spiritual as a child, I definitely drifted away from my faith as I got older, and had all but abandoned it by the time I decided to study abroad in Morocco. Entry 5- Photo 2.JPG    I was hovering somewhere between agnosticism and atheism when I came to Rabat six weeks ago. However, something that I could never have foreseen has slowly been happening, thanks to the prevalence of Islam here — I am experiencing a new understanding and appreciation for my religion.

While I was first very shocked to feel myself being drawn back to my religion, I have come up with a few possible influences. The first is Islam itself, and its relevance in Moroccan society. I have been really moved by the way many Moroccans have a deep and visible love for their religion, and the sense of peace, happiness, and comfort it brings to many Moroccans I have met. I realized that I missed those feelings that my religion once brought me. The second reason I’ve considered returning to religion has been my class on Gender and Islam. One of the main reasons I became disenchanted with my own faith was my perception that Christianity is incompatible with feminism, a movement I care about deeply. However, through our study of Islamic feminism and all the different ways to personalize and internalize religion, I realized that there is not necessarily one “Christianity” just as there is not one “Islam.” This gave me great comfort. I have really loved learning about the ways women in Morocco and the rest of the world have pointed to feminist elements and interpretations of Islam, and it has inspired me to look to do the same in my own religion.

Places such as the Al Quarawain University, the oldest university and religious school in the world, and the Bou Inania Madrassa, both in Fez, sparked wonder in me. They reminded me that the tenets of faiths like Islam and Christianity are more than the the cultures that have come to represent these religions today. They are deeply connected to scholarship, architecture, spirituality, and philosophy — all academic topics that I value greatly.

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Ultimately, I believe religion is a deeply personal thing, and being religious or not is equally as personal of a decision. I just have been happy that my perceptions about my religion, which I frankly thought was no longer important, has been challenged by living in a society more dominated by religion than my own. Honestly, I would have expected my disdain for religion to be reinforced here rather than scrutinized and struck down.

Of course I am still grappling with many aspects of faith and religiosity. However, I am inspired by the Muslims that I have met here or that I have learned about that have showed me that I can reclaim my religion, maintain my personal convictions, and benefit from being a part of a religious community once again.

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Morocco, Sofia Deak

“You Had Me at Mountains” by Dan Fitzgerald

Have you ever been to a wave pool at a water park? It starts out like a normal pool where you stand comfortably with the water around you. But then a machine generates waves and they get bigger and bigger until the next thing you know a wave hit you and you’re under water. That’s what it felt like when culture shock took its effect on me this past week.

I was missing the little conveniences at home like access to a Chipotle and Target, a guarantee that if I walk into a bathroom there would be toilet paper, etc. I felt like I was missing so many important moments in my friends’ lives back home, and I was beginning to tire of bartering in almost every transaction I had in Rabat. My individualistic viewpoint of the world and comfort with convenience I was accustomed too in America was in conflict. I was not alone though in these feelings as my friends also felt stuck in a continuation of annoyance and conflict, and the fast pace stress of the city wasn’t helping. I knew I needed a cure and fast.

“Why don’t we go to Ouzoud?” my friend asked me. “It’s deep in the mountains far from the city and tourists.” I responded, “You had me at mountains.” I packed a backpack worth of clothes, some toiletries, a book, and some snacks for the journey ahead.

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Ouzoud is this small, rural town in central Morocco known for its cascading waterfalls, mountain hiking, and monkeys. The town itself was full of construction sites for new hotels and buildings when I arrived, but it was still secluded and calm with just locals. I must admit, I never really enjoyed or preferred nature or scenic beauty back in the United States just because I thought it was boring. I’m a fast-paced kind of guy that craves constant stimulation and activity, and I always wanted city life. But this time was different.

I stood on the edge of the cascading waterfalls, looking at the mist covered canyon below. The water flowing out from the streams was a soft red as the earth around Ouzoud was mostly clay, and the sunlight hitting the falling water created a brilliant rainbow across the canyon. Monkeys near the cliff climbed on my shoulders and played with my hair and I was happy to let it happen as my stress started to drift away. The world seemed to get bigger as I got smaller. Now here I am, writing this blog post on my iPhone as I sit on top of a rock mountain, watching the last glimpses of light from the setting sun hit the adjacent mountain sides.

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Before I came to Morocco, I was so obsessed with doing as much as possible and constantly over spreading myself as I always did back in the United States. I assumed that since the world moves fast, I too need to move just as fast. But since arriving in Morocco and visiting places like Ouzoud, I’ve realized that life will keep going on no matter how fast or slow you move. It’s okay to slow down sometimes and just enjoy the world around you.

I haven’t read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s works since high school, but a quote from him couldn’t be more fitting. “Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them?” For me, these mountains and waves and skies of Morocco signify that time may pass and things may come and go, but the world will still stay relatively the same as long as you accept it that way.

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How is Morocco different from the US? by Sofia Deak

As my first month in Morocco comes to an end, I am starting to be accustomed to life here. I feel more comfortable with the food, am able to have an entire conversation in Darija with my host mom (albeit with many mistakes, I am sure!), and easily know my way around Rabat. As I talk to my friends and family from home, I am constantly posed with the question of “How is Morocco different from the US?”

Initially, I brushed this question off as way too broad to even begin to tackle. “In many ways they are the same!” I usually reply. Mothers walk their kids to school, taxi drivers honk in the streets, couples stroll together by the beach. I am very accustomed to looking for ways in which I am the same as other people; it is in my nature and part of my personal philosophy to focus on shared values and traits rather than the things that divide people.

However, as I have thought more about this question, the more I have come to realize that it needs to be answered. Many friends and family members expressed their shock and worry when I told them I was planning to study abroad in Morocco — a response that baffled me, as all I felt was excitement and some nerves. A cousin asked me if I would be forced to wear a veil while in Rabat, and my doctor asked me why I was not studying in a “safer” and “more Western” country. These questions, I have realized, come from the lack of an answer to that greater, vaguer, question of how Morocco and the United States differ. Even highly educated Americans might be confused about life in a Muslim-majority country and what that life might look like for a twenty-year-old American college student with a Christian upbringing.

So, with only a few weeks experience to draw on, here are a few special moments that strike me as distinctly Moroccan:

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Each Friday, my host family gathers with cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents for a couscous feast, chatting for hours before the meal without the distractions of cell phones or television. This is pretty foreign to me, because my family is spread out all over the US and only gathers like this for major holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving. I was amazed and touched by the closeness of Moroccan families. My family loves to dance, and oftentimes my host sister Fatima Ezzahra plays music on the TV so she, her cousins, parents, aunts and uncles can all dance and sing together in the living room . . .

One late Sunday night, I arrived at the train station with friends, returning to Rabat from a weekend trip to Essaouira. It was dark out and pouring rain; a woman sitting in our train compartment insisted on driving us home, making sure we got inside safely, and invited us to share a meal with her family. She even gave us her daughter’s phone number so we could meet some Moroccans our own age (Rim is a university student in Rabat, like us) . . .

Upon seeing my friends and I walking around in the rain, a woman rushed out of her shop selling wood crafts and dragged us indoors. She pulled a large plastic tarp from a back room, cut it into five equal pieces, and made a hole in the middle of each — homemade ponchos for us all! She gave us tea, saying we reminded us of her daughter, and sent us on our way . . .

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These are just three examples of the Moroccan values of hospitality, friendship, and family that the people here seem to really exemplify in their day to day life. I feel very lucky to be studying in such a welcoming, friendly country, and want everyone reading my blog to know that these outward acts of kindness are just one of many things that makes Morocco so special!

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On the Marrakesh Express by Dan Fitzgerald

I love trains. Actually, I’m obsessed with trains. As a kid, I always played with and watched Thomas the Tank Engine, I read piles of books about different kinds of trains, and when I was three years old I dressed as a train for Halloween. It’s one of the earliest forms of industrialized transportation dating back to the early 19th century, and even now I can still feel a certain magic about riding in one.  If you haven’t guessed already, I’m a nerd for trains. Putting my obsession aside, you would love trains too if you rode one in Moroccan. Many tourists typically don’t use the train system in Morocco and instead use planes, but I am about to tell you a train is the best “off the beaten path” experience.

My goal since I arrived in Morocco has been to meet with real Moroccans and experience Morocco alongside them. Tourists can easily afford to ride première classe in a train, but not many locals ride in that compartment. If I wanted to truly live like a Moroccan and talk to locals, I had to go where the locals would be. Let me tell you, deuxième classe is where the fun is. The best way to describe deuxième classe is like a game of tetras, where you see how many passengers and baggage can fit into a train car since trains are always over-booked and seats are a on first come, first serve basis. Not convinced yet to brave this journey? You will be after I tell you about my trip from Marrakesh to Rabat.

 

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It was a windy afternoon at le Gare de Marrakesh when my friends and I were literally running to catch our train back to Rabat as it is just departing. The train is a rustic style from its design in the 1920s-1930s with vibrant tan and orange patterns along its side. We were the last ones on the train that was clearly overbooked and we knew that we would never get a seat. Carrying our bags in the hot and crowded spaces, we walk through the first car with no luck finding seats. Second car, still no seats. By the fourth car, I gave up. I put my bags down at the end of the car by the train doors and sat on the floor. Best decision I’ve made in Morocco.

A Moroccan man sitting across from me propped the door with his foot while the train was moving and this gust of fresh wind hit my face. “C’est d’accord si la porte est ouverte?” he asks (“Is it okay if the door is open”). I responded with a cheerful yes as I watched the country pass before my very eyes. I saw patches of cactuses and the steep Atlas Mountains, roaming goat and sheep herders who waved to me, children playing soccer on dirt fields, secluded mosque towers in the middle of expansive fields of crops. I sat by this open door with the wind blowing on my face and the smell of the Moroccan man’s cigarette on me.

 

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Soon other passengers joined us as they too realized there were no more seats on this train. For the rest of the train ride I talked to an elderly couple from Casablanca about their life in Morocco and how excited they were that “a foreigner wanted to learn Darija”, and I played peak-a-boo with a small Moroccan girl from Mohammedia who shared her cookies with me. After a weekend in Marrakesh filled with tourists and classic tourist sites like the Jemaa el-Fnaa square, it was amazing to see and learn so much about Morocco just on this train. If you want adventure and to truly see Morocco, take the Marrakesh Express.

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Dan Dan Fitzgerald, Morocco, Rabat

“Morocco’s Blue Pearl” by Sofia Deak

A few hours into a jostling bus ride through the Rif mountains in the north of the country, our destination came into view: Chefchaouen, the “blue pearl” of Morocco. I had seen some photos of the city before I came to Morocco, but they did not prepare me for the truly breathtaking beauty that my friends and I encountered on our arrival. The entire city is painted white and varying shades of blue, and thanks to our visit being during the off-season for tourists, we were able to fully enjoy and experience the quiet, simple life that is lived there.

As we wandered through the streets, marveling at the painted doors and glimpses of the surrounding mountains, a man approached us, asking us to take a photo of his shop down a side street. My friends and I hesitated — we had been warned about pushy vendors in Moroccan cities that attract many foreign tourists. A quick look toward his shop, however, quickly changed our minds; this was something worth seeing. Outside hung lanterns and screens of every color, woven from silk or wool, and decoratentry-2-photo-1-deaked with equally colorful tassels. The shop was aptly named “A Colorful Life,” and stepping inside was mesmerizing. Every inch of the small room, including the ceiling and floor, was draped with vivid carpets. Along the entire back wall, towers of neatly folded rugs and blankets reached toward the ceiling, and another wall was filled with shelves of herbs, silver teapots, and elaborately decorated clay pots, all framed by more carpets.

The shopkeeper, who introduced himself to us as Ibrahim, brought us tea and seated us on poufs in the little room, saying there are not many visitors around this time of year. He was impressed by our Arabic (or pretended to be!) but he is fluent in English, French, and Spanish along with Arabic, and began talking to us in our own language, as his English was much better than our Arabic. My friends and I were actually interested in buying rugs in Chefchaouen, because the location of the city in the mountains means that wool is a local commodity and rug-making is a big business in the region.

Sipping on hot mint tea, we admired the rugs Ibrahim unrolled for us, passing them around and using them as blankets. While I knew that part of this whole production was meant to encourage us to make a purchase, I was still thoroughly enjoying myself. Ibrahim proved to be quite funny, and had us all laughing as he described the different herbs he had in his shop and telling us about his family. My roommate Nazish found a rug she liked, and decided to practice her bartering skills with Ibrahim, which we learned this week in our Darija classes.

“Name your price!” Ibrahim beams. It is clear he is energized by these exchanges.

“I will give you 300 dirhams,” Nazish replied ($30 USD).

Ibrahim scoffed, pretending to be offended. “But this is such high quality! It is worth at least 450 dirhams!”
I nudged Nazish and told her to raise her price a bit, but she stood firm, saying “All I can give you is 300 dirhams.”

Ibrahim stood still for a second before reaching out his hand for a handshake. Grinning, he rolled up the rug and handed it over to Nazish, giving us all free herbs (I took a bag of lavender; my friends all took various types of tea) to take home with us. He insisted I take a photo of him with my roommate, since we “brought him good luck” as his first customers of the day.

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As we all shook hands with Ibrahim and promised to join his family for couscous next time we were in Chefchaouen, we left his shop smiling. It had me thinking about how different shopping is in Morocco— it is more social and more personal, and certainly more fun! My friends and I don’t know if Nazish overpaid for the rug or not, but either way, we all agreed that the experience itself was priceless.

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“Oh-Hana Means Family” by Daniel Fitzgerald

The meaning of family is one of the hardest words to define in the English language. To one person “family” might mean blood relatives, and to another it may mean wherever one lives.  As a kid, I always watched the classic Disney movie Lilo and Stich, the one about an alien creature named Stich that was designed to be evil but ends up becoming good and becomes the glue to Lilo’s broken family after her parents’ deaths. There is a memorable line from this movie that I keep thinking about here in Morocco and it’s “Oh-hana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind.” It has been a few weeks since I arrived in Morocco and I have found my Oh-hana.

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On a late Wednesday morning, myself and the other students were excited and anxious as we gathered into an AMIDEAST room to meet our new host families. Where do they live? Do they have any kids? I hope the mom is a good cook. And the most important question: will they like me?

That’s when my roommate Conner and I’s names were called out to meet our new host mom. She was wearing a long cloak and a patterned head scarf as she introduced herself as Hajja with one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen. She simply said a “Bonjour” and “Salaam” to the both of us and told us that our new home was only a ten-minute walk from AMIDEAST. I don’t know if you have ever experienced a moment when you are so nervous you forget how to talk, but I was. It seemed like it would be a silent walk to the house when suddenly we encountered a lot of traffic with cars honking incessantly. Hajja said something to us in Arabic and noticed that we didn’t understand what she was saying. Instead of giving up like I certainly would, she turned to both of us again and said with a smile “beep, beep.”

It clicked for us almost immediately. She was talking about the car horns and traffic. All our faces were beaming with joy from this shared understanding and knew that maybe our communication would work after all. Let me tell you blog reader that a determined attitude and great charades skills are one of the most important lessons I learned from my Hajj and Hajja thus far.

One night, my roommate Connor and I were practicing Darija phrases to use in a café in our dining area and we honestly didn’t sound that great. Instead of just practicing the words with us for pure memorization, Hajj and Hajja acted out a café scenario with us in our dining area and made some tea, coffee, and sugar cookies for the scene. I will admit, there was a lot of saying words over and over until we said them right (try saying half and half coffee in Darija and you will understand our struggle). However, that entire night was full of laughing at our mistakes, improving our Darija, and drinking some of the best mint tea.

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Connor, Hajj, and Hajja practicing Darija

No matter how many guide books I read about Moroccan culture and how to interact with other Moroccans daily, the best way to learn about Morocco is in the home with those who truly care about you.

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