Passover

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to a Passover seder from the wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, who is friends with my teacher. I was honored by the gesture. Before studying abroad, I figured it’d be difficult to practice Judaism, let alone celebrate Passover, while I would be here. So to be included in such an event was unexpected, yes, but also a wonderful surprise.

This was my experience:

I arrived early.

Unsure of the precise location, I put all things navigation in the hands of a taxi driver who I was more than willing to trust after being turned down by six other cabs. I desperately blurted in broken French where I wanted to go. He told me to hop in and, 10 minutes later, stopped outside the gated entrance of the U.S. Embassy.

I was escorted to the Ambassador’s residence, a blocky three-story villa sheltered by high-reaching metal walls and hugged close by tall trees. An American flag flew from the roof, probably one of the few in Rabat. Finely trimmed shrubbery and a swimming pool informed the outdoor decoration. Having lived for two months in the old medina, where hundreds of small homes rub against one another in scant alleyways and behind busy market streets, this calm, scenic locale was certainly a departure from what I’m used to.

The Ambassador’s wife greeted me at the door. Just around the corner in a grand hall, the Ambassador himself approached me, extending his hand as he looked me in the eyes and smiled. Just minutes after meeting the two, I could tell that they really work as a team. Both unfailingly kind (like many Moroccans), they joked together and finished each other’s stories. It was great to see this other side of U.S. diplomacy.

Others entered, mostly family members and friends. Moroccan Jews and Israelis were also on the guest list, as were three other students around my age. For half an hour, there were a lot of introductions and reunited greetings made among the well-dressed crowd, but aside from the silky suits and fancy dresses, the night didn’t feel too formal. Everyone received me as though I were family or a close friend. This pre-seder mingling reminded me of my family’s holiday gatherings, where it typically takes hours to get the proceedings started because we simply can’t stop talking to each other.

Soon the Ambassador steered his way through the standing crowd with a box of kippahs in hand, distributing one to each of the men. This was the signal to make our way to the dinning room, which comprised a long, elegant table and an equally elegant Passover display. It was all there: the seder plate, glasses of Manischewitz, covered stacks of matzoth, well-worn Haggadahs on every chair. So far, nothing seemed too different than the stateside seders I’ve been to.

As the leader, the Ambassador thanked everyone for coming and announced that this was the second seder he and his wife had hosted in Morocco (They’d arrived in 2009 but will be leaving May this year). We all introduced ourselves then got down to business and opened our Haggadahs to page one.

What followed was a beautiful seder, one in which everyone participated, sang, ate, joked and talked some more, all the while celebrating the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. The casual atmosphere, again reminded me of my family’s seders.

Then, during mealtime, the Ambassador did something I didn’t expect. He asked everyone to share a story of a special Passover seder they’d been to, and explain what it meant to them. Someone talked about a seder in Tunisia, another an interreligious seder in London where Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists were in attendance. Others reflected on early childhood memories of the holiday. As these stories were told, there was much affirmative head-nodding and encouraging smiling radiating from the group, as if we were all in a complete understanding of one another’s Jewish experiences. To hear these stories and see reactions from the crowd was to be reminded of the power a seder has in connecting individuals. It’s a beautiful thing when people from different walks of life, separate corners of the globe and of all ages can come together and sing the same melodies and recite the same prayers that have been around for centuries.

As the final stage of the seder came to a close, the guests said their last goodbyes and slowly filtered out of the villa. I stayed behind for a bit longer, talking to one of the students. He said that, fifty years from now, if he’s asked to recall a memorable seder, he couldn’t imagine not choosing this one.

I thanked my hosts and exited the villa, past the shrubbery and out the metal gate into the dark streets. I walked to where I could flag down a taxi. This time, the first one let me in.

Rural Rhythms

Something special happened last night.

On the final day of our rural village homestay (a week-long excursion during which we moved in with families on their compounds and assisted with day-to-day subsistence activities), my 25-year old host brother walked my friend and me a mile up the soupy dirt road extending past his house at dusk, just as we were digesting late afternoon tea and bread. He speaks the Moroccan Arabic dialect and French and we couldn’t understand where he meant to take us. We also didn’t grab our coats because we assumed it’d be a quick trip to a friend’s house or the café around the corner. As our trio walked up the road, its rain puddles and divots increasingly obscured, our brother tried explaining to us in mishmashed French and Arabic the purpose of our chilly evening stroll. Listening closely, we picked out a few words we’d learned in Arabic class plus some French cognates and came to the ill-informed conclusion that we were collecting supplies from a friend to fix a door. This was but one of the many instances during the village stay that we were forced to really put our language skills to the test.

We turned onto a side road and came to a barbershop where a friend of our host brother’s was cleaning up. Still unsure of the evening’s plans, my friend and I sat with them for 45 minutes, silently nodding off on while they conversed in Arabic. At this point, our irritation was rising and we wanted to go home and warm up, not guess for another hour what it was we were going to do, if anything.

Then he motioned for us to go outside. Making our way back to the main road, our eyes immediately shot up to the sky, now a brilliant black glittered with hundreds upon hundreds of stars. Having lived near a big city all my life, I’d never seen such illumination; for me, it was a scene to cherish.

There we stood in the dark for 15 more minutes, shivering and moving about and stuffing our hands in our pockets to keep from catching cold. I figured then that something must’ve been in store if our host brother were to subject himself and us to such discomfort.

Suddenly, five young men, each equipped with a sizable drum, trickled out of a building down the road. They just stood there for a few minutes, chattering and individually tuning their instruments. Our host brother didn’t say a word until the musicians came our way and signaled for us to follow them across the muddy road, over a rain-made creek and onto a vast field of tall grass, which, in the dark, looked like a silent seabed, slowly shifting in the cold wind.

They continued to talk and pound on the drums a bit. A few other guys passing by on the road joined our stationary entourage, now 10 or 12 people.

Then, music.

With no count-ins to hear of, they gradually launched into a jam. A bass drum keeping the beat; the higher register ones providing off-kilter percussion; wailing singing from anyone who knew the words; elongated, imposing brass trumpets sporadically tooting notes. All of it a whirlwind of rhythm that would catch anyone’s attention and induce some serious foot-tapping. Right then, I didn’t feel cold anymore.

The only light came from the moon (merely a sliver), the stars, a lone streetlight some 50 meters away and the cell phone screens illuminated by those present, shining on the musicians and dancers. We couldn’t see anyone for miles and, though the music was loud and certainly reached the ears of the entire village, it seemed like we were the only people on the planet aware that it was being made.

After six or seven songs and an hour of dancing and shooting the breeze with these local Moroccan villagers, we left for home. The music didn’t stop; as we walked away, our bodies well warmed up, drums and singing continued as lively as ever. I looked at my host brother, walking beside me, and thanked him. He managed a smile.

Looking back on last night, I’m glad we didn’t know what was going on all that time. The surprise of music made the experience all the more special.

Down South

This week, our SIT journalism group packed it up for an excursion to the south of Morocco, visiting villages and soaking in sites far removed from the busy old medina and urban atmosphere of Rabat. The Sahara desert and Marrakech were just some of the scheduled stops for the 5-day trip on which we logged over 20 hours driving in a bus. We rode through the Atlas Mountains (a North African mountain range bordering the desert) and passed by many rural communities along the way. Seeing these southern villages was to come face to face with rural Moroccan society, a part of the country we hadn’t been exposed to yet.

What follows is stop-by-stop rundown of our excursion, interspersed with personal highlights and informational tidbits of what I found to be an incredible experience.

Fes

Fes (not Fez) was our first stop. The former capital of Morocco, Fes is also the religious hub of the country and hosts the oldest medina in North Africa, dating back to the late 8th century. Our bus stopped near the king’s gorgeous royal palace (one of over 30 in Morocco), which we couldn’t enter but could take photos of. Taking pictures of the imposing officials standing in front of the palace was also a no-no, as a member of our group found out after one of the gun-holding gentlemen blew his whistle and ordered her to delete the photo she’d snapped of him from 30 meters away. The palace’s exterior was stunning, with intricately designed wall patterns and wooden doors that stood 10 feet high. I think it’s safe to say that the king lives a pretty good life.

Right around the corner was the Jewish quarter. Jews have a long and rich history in Morocco, coexisting with Muslims for centuries and comprising a sizeable chunk of the population at many points in time (only 3,000 or so Jews live in Morocco today, as most left for Israel when it became a state in 1948). Many synagogues remain and Jewish cemeteries are preserved. The Fes quarter, now a residential area and market where no Jews live, is emblematic of the sophisticated buildings that Jewish Moroccans constructed to, as our Fes tour guide explained, express their beauty on the outside. As a Jew, I felt comforted knowing that Jewish people lived like they did in Fes, existing peacefully aside Muslims and thriving in the community. The history of Jewish-Muslims relations in Morocco, I think, can be used as example for dialogue between Jews and Muslims in the world today.

The old medina was our next visit. We rode up to a peak overlooking the huge cluster of centuries-old buildings and market streets and then drove down and entered. Located between the two Moroccan mountain ranges, the Rif and Atlas, the medina is the reason why Fes is the handicraft capital of the country. Rugs and metalwork shops are located at every corner of the market, sitting aside food stands, shoe tents and clothing outlets. We visited a leather shop and tannery, which reeked of tanned sheep, camel, cow and goat skin. The multicolored display of shoes, belts, handbags, wallets and leather-bound drums in the shop struck the visual sense as well:

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I tried on a black leather jacket that was so silky and so smooth it was like fitting on air. Around the corner was a cotton shop full of scarves and dresses and caftans and other fabric products that we stopped in. A cotton device sat in the back of the store, with criss-crossing lines and wooden beams that looked like the inside of a piano. We also went to a Berber pharmacy and jewelry shop before peeking into the oldest university in the world, now a working mosque. Like the king’s palace, the architecture was meticulously designed with intricate mosaics and striking calligraphy:IMG_0312

Another highlight was the metalworking corner, where guys welded metal products with rocks and rudimentary tools, preserving practices of first generation Fes artisans. Their rhythmic pounding demanded the attention of passersby and was impossible not to tap your feet to. Ultimately, walking in the Fes medina was like being transported back in time one thousand years. The architecture, much of it Moorish in style, was incredibly well-preserved and a beauty to look at. The market was crowded and hectic and colorful and full of exotic scents and sounds. Like every market in Morocco I’m realizing, it was also easy to get lost in.

We left for Azrou, a small town just south of Fes where we would stay for night one of our excursion. On our way, we passed through the town of Ifran and the northern stretch of the Atlas Mountains, a show-stopping sight that was our first introduction to the ecological diversity of Morocco.

Azrou

Sitting in the mid-Atlas mountains and surrounded by a cedar forest, Azrou is small community know for its Berber heritage including music, food and folklore and for hosting the first college in the Berber region. The Berbers are the first inhabitants of Morocco, and most Moroccans claim at least some Berber ancestry.

Because we were only in Azrou for one night, we didn’t have much time to explore, save for a brief trip to the downtown market. At night, the barely visible outline of the mountains looked like an imposing creature, waiting to attack but never leaving its position in the dark. That view complemented our dinner at the hotel, a scrumptious mix of vegetable salad and beef tajine that was the perfect way to round off the busy day.

At 5:30 a.m., I woke up to run with three fellow students. Our aim was to witness the sunrise over the mountains, and did we ever.

Rissani

Though long, our drive from Azrou to the desert town of Rissani was filled with visual highlights. The snow-capped Atlas Mountains in the distance beyond the long stretches of arid farmland, where abandoned buildings and shacks and kasbahs (fortressed communities) popped up every half mile or so, was something to see. The desolateness of the desert combined with the enormity of the mountains provided what I thought was a stark contrast in ecology. Though both the desert and mountains are more or less uninhabited, they each comprise huge amounts of area in Morocco.

After driving up and down winding mountain pass roads and through a palm, olive and almond tree oasis, we came to Rissani. I noticed two things right away: bikes are the main means of transportation and the town looks like one you’d see in a old Western film, dirt roads and tumbleweeds and all. Rissani is at the crossroads between north and south, one of the last major towns before miles and miles of desert directly south, so it was fitting that we came here before our night in the desert.

We were treated to lunch in a hotel: Moroccan pizza, a calzone-style breading stuffed with beef and onions (but no tomato sauce). We also purchased sarawis, headscarves that desert dwellers don to protect their head from the sun. To top it off, we split up into three small groups and climbed into Land Rovers, in which our drivers, decked out in traditional Berber garb, rocked Berber music on the radio, whose muggy rhythms and wailing calls provided the perfect soundtrack for our drive into the Sahara.

Merzouga/Sahara Desert

We stopped in Merzouga, a tiny but thriving community. Thriving because it is home to an association that educates local women, providing them with opportunities to learn to read and write Arabic, embroider and get started on agriculture projects, some of which are funded by the government. It’s one of many such centers in Sahraha communities. We had the pleasure of walking in on an in-session class, where women from all walks of life sat, clearly happy to be in a learning environment and proud of their status as students. For some women who go through the association, we were told, their receiving of an education is often seen as shameful by others in their home communities, so they hide their books under their dresses when walking to classes. It was inspiring to see their beautiful embroidery on display, proof of their determination to learn and make better lives for themselves.

A half mile away from the association, further into the desert, we were treated to an on-hands presentation by one of its founders (who, I came to realize, is an amazing individual) about the tradition irrigation system that Merzouga families use. How it works is ingenious: water from sand dunes is channeled to where people are by flowing it on a downward angle, essentially a way to control the water in the desert. In Merzouga, that water is put to use in an oasis where palm trees and plant plots crowd together, making up a sort of community garden in which families contribute equal amounts of time and work. Despite this well-thought-out and prosperous system, water is becoming increasingly scarce here, a result of desertification. Poverty, too, is prevalent: I was affected when three young boys, no older than 18, rushed to kneel down at the end of the oasis as our group walked out, quickly unraveling key chains and trinkets from dirty cloths and putting them on display with the hopes that we’d buy them. I made eye-contact with one boy, and the look on his face was one of desperation and sadness.

We boarded our SUVs again and took a fast and bumpy ride away from Merzouga, over sand dunes and on pre-tired tracks. On either side, the desert stretched as far as we could see. Our driver cranked up the Berber radio, rolled down the windows and would speed up whenever we went over a dune.

Finally, there it was, slowly coming into view: a hotel. Or, as it’s often called, the Hotel of 1,000 Stars, a place where outdoor tents serve as rooms and, if you’re lucky, where you can see nearly every star in the sky (we didn’t have that fortune; it was a foggy night). Surrounding the stylish building were Winnebagos and trailers in which tourists stayed, dining tables on top of sand dunes and camels on which we rode out into the desert the minute we arrived. We rode a good half mile away from the hotel, and to be out there was like wading in the middle of a vast, still ocean. As the sun set on our returning camel entourage, we could feel the chill of the thin desert air.

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Dinner was extraordinary. The buffet, which included beef, chicken, fish, potatoes, tomatoes, rice, pasta, many traditional Berber dishes that I didn’t know the name of and oranges, bananas and dates for desert, was overwhelmingly delicious. A food-lover, I’ve been consistently pleased and impressed with Moroccan gastronomy.

What followed was one of those special things you know will never happen to you again, one of those things that you know you’ll never forget. Even though we were informed before the excursion that we’d be treated to a private, nighttime performance by a gnawa music group in the desert, the impact of those words didn’t hit me until the band struck their first chord. Gnawa is deeply religious musical tradition from West and North Africa. The music is associated with Sufism, Islam’s mysticism, whose adherents work in mediation with saints and prophets to come closer to God. Performing gnawa is one way to do that, and gnawa players often repeat in song the names of prophets so as to invoke their presence. The instruments used by the musicians are traditional and highly symbolic. Castenants, heavy iron percussion objects, represent (and look like) the shackles worn by West and North African slaves centuries ago. Three-string guitars, know as gimbris or sintirs, symbolize the end of an era of slavery and the beginning of an era of freedom. Drums keep the rhythm alive and the drummer is the leader of the group. These instruments have been used by generations of gnawa musicians, as they are part of the cultural heritage of their people. Hence, the role of gnawa players is to preserve and keep the music authentic just as their ancestors did, in turn transmitting what they learned to their own children. The six-member band that performed for us played those traditional instruments, and the music that came out of them was remarkable and absolutely stirring, unlike anything I’d ever heard. Seeing them perform was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life.

Describing their music is difficult, but I’ll try: skeletal two-step rhythms of handclaps and bass drums, with the added clanking of castenants, twangy plucking of guitar, and wailing, impassioned vocals make up a given song. Here are two photos I took that, I hope, complement my description:

Nathan Evans photo

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We slept outside in the tents, where the temperature was cool but not too biting. Rising in the morning and overlooking the Sahara desert was a to view a picturesque scene straight out of a movie.

A final, much slower ride through the sand dunes (a “morning massage,” as our driver called it) put us back on the road to Rissani, where we caught our bus and set off for our next destination.

Tinghir

Our stay in Tinghir was brief, but it merits mention. We stopped in this medium-sized village, tucked away in the high Atlas Mountains and full of irrigation channels and abandoned kasbahs, plus a long, flowing river, for lunch. We ate in yet another hotel, this one located in a sort of valley-gorge, similar to national parks in the Western U.S. With mountain structures rising above and all around us, the scene was sort of like the downtown of a big city, where impressive skyscrapers shrink all walkers down below.

On our way to Ouazazate (“were-za-zet”), where we would spend the night, we went by countless stone and adobe kasbahs, some of which were in ruins and some of which were restored. The kasbahs in this part of Morocco have a deep-seated cultural heritage, as they were used by families and full communities to protect themselves and their possessions from outsiders. Like the Fes medina and many other sites on this trip, seeing these edifices was like going back in time.

Ouarzazate

Ouarzazate is the most important city in the south of Morocco, a strategically located center of activity that stands as the gateway to the north, south, east and west. It also boasts the title of “Morocco’s Hollywood,” as many filmmakers have sought out its stark desert scenery and exceptional kasbahs (Lawrence of Arabia, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven and Babel are just some of the films shot there). Some small movie studios are still in use.

We stopped and unloaded at Association Tishkah, an all-girls school for students living in and around Ouarzazate that offers a variety of vocational programs. Before having dinner with some of the students, we split up and explored the city for a few hours. To get the best sense of my new surroundings, I took a run through the streets and let myself get lost. I found Ouarzazate to be like a hillier and more urban Rissani, with mountain ranges providing a wonderful backdrop in the distance.

Back at Tishkah, we met with 70 or so students and staff of the association. Speaking with these girls made me realize that youth social dynamics are far different in Moroccan than in the U.S. They asked me personal questions from the get-go, openly expressed their desire to be Facebook friends and took photos with me no less than an hour after meeting. I felt welcome and was flattered by their reception but, as a guy, felt a little out of place and uncomfortable.

The next morning was a real treat. Still driving along the high Atlas Mountain range, we came to the highest of passes, hurrying up and up curving roads until we were half a mile above sea level. Unlike the other mountain passes we drove through, this one was covered in snow. Scanning the mountains range from such a high peak was the equivalent of looking at a black-and-white photograph, a still image of a never-ending white landscape with dark, silhouetted trees and shrubbery occasionally popping up to interrupt the paleness. It was quite the sight.

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Marrakech

As the third largest city in Morocco (behind Casablanca and Rabat), Marrakech certainly has a lot to offer. Its history of Sufism and association with spirituality, not to mention its famed Jemaa el-Fnaa market square, the busiest in Africa, has made it the most popular tourist destination in Morocco for decades. Marrakech was by far the most urban of our stops, a bustling affair of sprawl and spending. But, admittedly, I wasn’t too thrilled with it.

We stopped at our hotel for a pleasant lunch, after which we took to the Marrakech streets, armed only with a plan to find Jemaa el-Fnaa. Getting lost happens a lot in Morocco, and that held true for us in Marrakech. Eventually, we stumbled upon the square, which is inside the old medina, and, as we shoved our way through the huge masses of people, we feasted our eyes on snake charmers, physically disabled individuals on display, crowds circling around street performers to watch and snap photos and hundreds upon hundreds of vendors who were never shy to get in tourists’ faces and lure them in to their money spending lair. It was overwhelming to say the least, and by the time we exited the square to catch our breath, only to lose our way in the medina streets trying to get out, we’d had enough. So, naturally, we went to McDonalds for dinner to relax. I ordered a McChicken sandwich and it tasted great.

Unsure of our plans for the evening, our group split up after getting our McDonalds fix. Four friends and I heard word on a café nearby and found our way there in half an hour. It was a hip, cozy little place in the upstairs of a hotel, replete with a used bookstore full of English-language literature and nonfiction, plus some French novellas. The mostly young customers were plugged into their laptops, writing away and hanging out and listening to classic rock on the radio. We exchanged pleasantries with the café owner, a New Yorker who taught English in Morocco for three years and settled in Marrakech with her Moroccan husband after she finished her tenure. It was great experience just sipping some tea, reminiscing and browsing the bookstore, getting a taste of hip Morocco nightlife in the process.

I have mixed feelings about Marrakech after our visit. On one hand, I appreciated the big city atmosphere and loved that café we went to. But the unashamedly tourist part was very off-putting. As a foreigner, I didn’t feel nearly as welcome or comfortable here as I have in other Moroccan cities.

Essaouira

The excursion ended on a high note in Essaouira, a port city west of Marrakech. Departing immediately after breakfast, we took a relatively short drive there, with one stop on the way at a female co-op specializing in making products with oil, which in turn comes from Argan trees. Such foliage is only found in Morocco, and it produces Argan fruits that are in turn grounded up and made into oil for medicinal and cosmetic products, in addition to food. We received a tour of the compound, witnessing women workers as they produced oil from the fruits by hand (in what was a flattering greeting, they busted out into song when our group entered). I purchased a bottle of Argan oil-infused honey, which is delectable.

Like Marrakech, Essaouira is a hot spot for tourists, but it’s much, much smaller. A number of famous people visited there, mostly musicians, including Jimi Hendrix and Louis Armstrong. Jews have a remarkable history there; during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they comprised nearly half of the city’s population. Of all the towns and villages and sites we saw, Essaouira, I think, was the most beautiful. It is home to a pleasant community and, sitting on the Atlantic Ocean, encompasses breathtaking scenery.

Lunch was served at a seafood restaurant on the dock, where a fantastic view of the ocean made me forget that I rode camels in the desert, miles away from a body of water, just two days ago. The dock was ringing with nautical sounds: seagulls calling, clinking vessels, longshoremen shouting, waves crashing rhythmically on the side and a brisk coastal breeze, all supplemented by a strong aroma of freshly caught fish. The restaurant was appropriately sea-like, too, with bottled wooden ships and artwork of barges and Moroccan sailors, plus jazz 78s and a barrelhouse piano. Chefs plopped fish on the awning outside and seagulls flocked to eat the delicacies. For lunch: tuna salad, sardines and marlin – quite different from other meals we’ve had in Morocco.

We made our to the beach that afternoon for a game of soccer against students in another SIT program (we won, despite protests by our opponents). A game of ultimate Frisbee and dinner at a nearby hotel (in which photos of Orson Wells and his movie posters decorated every room) rounded of the day’s activities.

We woke up and packed our bags one last time and ate breakfast and boarded the bus and drove home to Rabat.

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On a personal note, this trip couldn’t have been half the success it was had it not for the nine other individuals in my program. Spending time with them on the bus, where we swapped stories, joked and got to know each other better, kicking a soccer ball around and playing Frisbee during our rest stops, hanging out at night in hotels and travelling these Moroccan cities with them was truly a pleasure. If travel is best experienced with a compassionate, kind, exciting and bold group of people, I had the time of my life. With just over two months left in Morocco, I can say with confidence that I’ll be having many more great experiences knowing these folks will be by my side.

Home Life

“Nathan! Nathan!”

My host mom calls my name, her accented voice sending sounds up the stairs, past the bathroom and into my room where I lie in bed. I mumble a response. It’s 7:30 a.m. in Rabat.

Crusty-eyed, I come to life and sit up. I shed my heavy sleep gear that I wear to bed to stay warm during those frigid Moroccan winter nights; the house has no heating system. Slipping on a sweater and a pair of jeans, I push open my thin wooden door and step outside and scan the medina skyline. A sea of eighteenth century buildings, each topped with one or more rusted satellite dishes and jagged wires, stretches as far as I can see. The view greets me with a reminder that I’m living in a foreign country.

Making my way downstairs, I hear the hubbub of my host mom readying her three children for school. The sisters, all under 10, walk through the market to their undersized learning center every weekday morning, passing by cloaked Muslim men holding homebound Qur’ans, dodging early motorcyclists and resisting whatever tempting pastries vendors try to sell them for breakfast. The medina is all they know.

I sit on the couch. Mom slips in a “good morning” in between hollering reminders to brush teeth and tie shoes. Across the room, a spottily stained and bread crumb-drizzled table sits untended. An elegant silver pot filled with mint tea emits circling steam, its handle coated with a dry washcloth so as to prevent burns when pouring.

She sends them on their way and closes the door and sits down and lets out a sigh in the now quiet, dimly lit, living room. I ask if she wants tea and bread but she refuses and tells me she doesn’t feel well. “I need to rest,” she says in Spanish, the language in which we communicate. For her part, she is nearly fluent and regularly drops words and phrases that I struggle to unearth from my once-ripe Spanish memory box from high school. Still, we usually understand each other and find the words to say what needs to be said.

I can tell she’s stressed. Day after day, she cooks in a cramped kitchen the size of a closet and cleans every corner of the house, maybe finding some time to chat with her friends who live down the alleyway. On top of this, she’s pursuing a college degree for which she has exams every month. But she keeps her head up; not out of necessity but because she loves her family and does everything she can to make sure they live a good life and are happy. Undoubtedly, she’s the star of the show, the glue that keeps them together. But for all her astounding abilities to keep a house running and five people on their feet, she does have moments of distress, like this morning when I see her silently staring at the floor. I can only imagine what’s on her mind.

At 8:15, I make the seven-minute walk to school. Arabic in the morning precedes lectures by a Moroccan academic on the subject of national identity and a journalist about why the press is not free in Morocco. We retire for lunch and return to class for an hour. I walk to a café with my friends to study, then walk home where a pre-dinner snack awaits: more bread and tea, this time with some fresh chocolate pastires. The TV is on when I come in and it stays on the rest of the night. Soap operas and soccer coverage and news inform the evening schedule. My host father enters during a dramatic moment in what I’m told is a crucial episode in a romantic saga, a favorite program of the girls’. After dropping off his leftover cell phone supplies from work and making sure we’re all doing well, he heeds the call to prayer and exits to the local mosque.

During commercials, I teach the sisters simple English phrases and they return the favor by helping me with Arabic. They laugh when I mispronounce something but urgently correct me. We play tic tac toe and draw. One sister asks to play the game on my cheap Samsung phone which I bought my first week in Rabat, throwing her hands in the air and letting out a victorious yelp after beating each level. When I first moved in, I felt like an awkward intruder struggling to adapt to their lifestyle; now I feel like a welcomed student, a family member crashing for a few months who builds a stronger relationship with my relatives every day.

I go upstairs to read the news and get some writing done on my laptop. The house has no Internet connection, so I plug in my pay-by-the-month device that slowly fires up the Web. Even with this tool, the connection drudges and lags. I’m certainly less wired here than in the States and, as a result, don’t feel compelled to keep my computer on all day. It’s there if I need it, but I don’t need it too often.

I’m called downstairs for dinner a little after 10 p.m. Every time we have dinner, I think how ridiculous it is that Moroccans eat such a big meal at this time of day. That is, until I sit down and realize how hungry I am, consenting that their eating schedule makes at least some sense. The TV remains on as we eat a steaming chicken tajine and chilled bananas. Mom and the girls laugh at the ridiculous situations that the characters in a Turkish sitcom get themselves into and dad tells what I can only guess is a story about his day at work, gesturing to make his points clearer and laughing with his wife and kids when he gets to a funny part. I sit silently, enjoying my meal and observing how happy they are. The family shares moments like these everyday at dinnertime, never failing to end the day on a good note. Sure, mom scolds the girls during the day and has moments of distress, and the sisters yell and yell at each other sometimes. They struggle, like any family would. But those meals, when they all come together, serve to close any wounds that might’ve opened earlier in the day. Their happiness rubs off on me and I realize there’s little that holds them back from thriving as a loving family in Morocco.

I say goodnight and walk upstairs, their laughs fading as I approach my room. I put on my nightclothes and shut out the light and fall asleep.

Moroccan Good Time

My first few days in Morocco have been like meeting someone you’ve never seen before and immediately bonding after shaking hands. I’ve done so much this week of program orientation, enjoying every minute. No doubt this will be an amazingly rewarding and eye-opening couple of months.

In an effort to spare you paragraph after paragraph of unorganized jibber-jabber, I’ve provided a user-friendly list of exciting things I’ve done so far:

  • Witnessed a bar full of men and boys erupt when the Moroccan national soccer team scored a goal against South Africa in a semi-final game of the biannual African Cup (the game ended in a 2-2 tie, insufficient for Morocco to advance)
  • Heard Louis Armstrong’s “Mack the Knife” on a restaurant radio
  • Heard Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” the next day
  • Kicked a soccer ball around with some kids in the street
  • Spent a lot of time strolling through the old medina market in Rabat, where vendors occupy every corner and people flood the streets at all hours of the day (it’s like a maze of countless colors and smells – a great place to explore and get lost in)
  • Got lost twice in the market walking back to the hotel
  • Shook off jetlag quicker than I anticipated
  • Honked on some blues harp over the school terrace
  • Visited the largest cemetery I’ve ever seen
  • Drank mint tea at pretty much every meal
  • Realized that mint tea is addictive
  • Decided that mint tea is my favorite drink ever
  • Watched poorly dubbed Turkish soap operas
  • Ran along the Atlantic coast as the morning sun rose (which, along with the backdrop of the medina, is a stunning sight)
  • Attended orientation seminars on social and cultural issues in Morocco, including health, sexual harrassment, immigration and, my favorite, how to bargain
  • Froze when I heard the call to prayer for the first time because it was so beautiful
  • Browsed a vendor’s collection of bootlegged jazz CDs (but didn’t buy any for fear that they would be blank)
  • In a cruel but fun exercise, was dropped off by the program staff far from the medina and left to my own devices to trek back in 90 minutes
  • Danced to a traditional drum band’s performance
  • Acted like a shameful tourist the first two days, snapping photos everywhere I went, including this one:IMG_0056
  • Sat with three gossiping Moroccan women for an hour, not understanding a word
  • Learned some Arabic and French words, most of them appropriate
  • Got lost again
  • Met and moved in with my host family
  • Remembered everyone’s name on my program

Other Observations:

  • Nearly every meal I eat is frighteningly well-balanced (seriously, I can’t recall a day when a food group wasn’t represented), so I can say with confidence that I’ll be living healthily for the next few months, hopefully carrying over my eating habits to the States.
  • On that note, food here is delicious.
  • Stray cats are everywhere (and adorable).
  • Anything you can think of – anything – is sold in the market.
  • Moroccans like to eat bread.
  • They’re also, in my experience, unfailingly kind and hospitable.
  • Taxis are blue, not yellow.
  • Doors are expectedly exotic: IMG_0075
  • Streets criss-cross and angle and loop all over the place.
  • Guys cruise on motorbikes down the street where hundreds of people are walking without a care in the world.
  • Photos of the Moroccan king decorate walls and windows everywhere.
  • Only men hang out in cafes.
  • I’m more aware that I’m American here than anywhere I’ve been before.
  • I’ve also never been more aware of poverty and its effect on people.
  • Women, Moroccan and non-Moroccan, are often harassed on the street by men.
  • Palm trees are cool.
  • Roosters crow. Every frickin’ day.

Classes start Monday. Until next time, besslama! (Moroccan Arabic for goodbye)

The Scoop

Morocco!

That’s where I’m headed on Jan. 26 to study abroad for the semester. During my final week in the States (and final week of this oddball Chicago winter), I’m visiting with family, saying last goodbyes and getting everything packed before making that drive to O’Hare. It’s been a long haul, but I’m even more excited now than when I applied for my program.

While I’m away, I’ll use this blog to post about my experiences, keep you updated about what I’m learning and ultimately provide a window into the world of this fascinating North African country (it should be an especially interesting time considering what’s been going on recently in Mali and neighboring Algeria ). Plus it lets my family know I’m doing OK.

My study abroad program is affiliated with the School for International Training (SIT). SIT offers experiential and field-study based programs around the globe, with each concentrating on a specific topic or area of study. The programs are anthropological in nature, as students travel on educational excursions in the host country, interact daily with locals and immerse themselves in the culture through fieldwork, language classes and urban and rural homestays. Each semester culminates with an independent study project, where students choose a topic, direct their own studies and conduct original research. Bottom line, it’s an incredibly unique experience.

For most of my time abroad, I’ll be staying in Rabat, Morocco’s capital. Rabat sits on the Atlantic and is the country’s second largest city behind Casablanca. It’s one of the major political hubs of North Africa and, like much of today’s Morocco (and Africa in general), is at the crossroads between ancient and modern.

The focus of my program, newly launched last year, is journalism and media, my chosen career. The 10 other students and I will sharpen our journalism skills with ongoing reporting assignments about Moroccan social, cultural and political happenings while taking a course that contextualizes journalism in the country, where the press is not completely free. We’ll also study Arabic (or French) and learn how to conduct field research in Morocco. Classes are conducted at the Center for Cross Cultural Learning, a private cultural institution, but much of our learning will be done outside the classroom. My first homestay, which will be for eight weeks, is in the medina, or old city, of Rabat and the second, only for a few days, is in a southern village in the Sahara desert. In between the two homestays we’ll travel to other cities and sites. Read more about what I’ll be doing here (Forty-odd students are participating in two other Rabat SIT program this semester about migration and national identity, and I’m told there’s another group studying there through an organization called IES).

I chose this program because of its content and also because I wanted to go to a country I’ve never been to before. I love to learn and have always been fascinated by different cultures, and Morocco seemed like the perfect fit for me to challenge my conception of the world and grow as a student and a person (and eat some great food along the way).

Check for posts every two weeks or so. When I can, I’ll include cool accompanying pictures. I’ll also try to upload photo albums on Facebook frequently.

See you in May.