“Tips for Being Mindful” by Mary Marston

Mary Marston is a senior at American University and currently interns with AMIDEAST’s Education Abroad Division. The first time she studied in Morocco was through the National Security Language Initiative for Youth in Marrakech. She returned to Morocco in Spring 2016 to Study Abroad with AMIDEAST in Rabat, Morocco.

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This is Mary, enjoying January in Rabat in the L’Ocean neighborhood

 

Having been fortunate enough to study abroad in Morocco twice, and finally reflecting upon these experiences, I realized that most “travel tips” will tell you: what to pack, where to go, what to eat… et cetera. However, the single most important thing you can pack is:

Mindfulness (adj): the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment.

… Otherwise defined as being aware of what you are doing, and how your presence, impacts your surroundings. “Surroundings” can be defined as your host family, AMIDEAST institution (including employees and faculty, neighborhood, etc.)

I know this is a really abstract concept. So, here are some tips on how to break down this concept of “mindfulness” and how to apply it to your study abroad experience.

Educate yourself on the history and culture of your host country

                In other words, look beyond the travel book. Taking classes relating to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and/or Arabic is a great place to start learning about the intersections of culture and history. If you don’t have access to these courses, or want to supplement them, reading local newspapers, watching television shows, and movies produced in and by the people of the country will both help develop your personal cultural competence and maybe, your language skills. Don’t worry; if you’re just beginning to learn Arabic or are a Francophone, there are plenty of locally-produced content in both English and French.

Understand that your host country isn’t your study abroad playground

Living, studying, and traveling, in a country that is not your own opens you up to a breadth of opportunities and new experiences. However, when exploring your host city or country, make sure to be cognizant about your actions and to respect local customs. Sometimes people feel “freer” to do whatever they want when living in an area short term because of a perceived lack of consequence, which causes some people to engage in not so well thought out decisions. Remember, what you do will impact locals’ perceptions of you, your study abroad group, and your host organization. By studying abroad, you are representing the United States, or your respective nation of origin. In other words, the way you act when studying abroad both reflects on you and your country of origin.

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Respecting local customs can take many forms. One way is to dress appropriately for different regions you will visit during your study abroad, such as these American students

 

 

Aim for cultural competence, not assimilation

Let’s be honest. You’ll never become “Jordanian” or “Moroccan”, especially if you are just living in a country for four months or so. Instead of assimilation, which is defined as:

“The process by which a person or persons acquire the social and psychological characteristics of a group,”

… It is better to aim for cultural competence:

“… having an awareness of one’s own cultural identity and views about difference, and the ability to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of students and their families.”

So, what are some ways to become culturally competent? As previously stated, educating yourself on the history and customs of your host country is a great place to start. In addition to this, you should aim to:

Invest yourself in experiencing your host country with your host family and local friends

It’s great to develop relationships with American and other foreign students in your program. In fact, it is a great idea to go on group trips with them. However, experiencing a country through neighborhoods and wandering about Old Medinas with locals that know them the best are truly the basis of a life changing experiences. In addition, spending quality time with your host family is one of the best ways to show them respect. Even the smallest acts such as watching television programs with them, helping your host family (or asking them for help) with homework, or hanging out with your host siblings outside of the home.

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Eating couscous with your host family on Fridays in Morocco is a great way to spend time with them, and enjoy Morocco’s national dish.

 

What tips do you have for being mindful while studying abroad?

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A Lifetime in Four Months

The following entry was submitted by Shante Fencl, a spring 2016 participant on AMIDEAST’s Area & Arabic Language Studies Program in Morocco. A student of International Studies at American University, Shante reflects on her highlights of Morocco and what first surprised her.

On a cold January morning before dawn, my mother and I packed up our car. I had already said my goodbyes to friends and family, and it was time to start the six hour drive to JFK airport from my small town outside of Cleveland, OH. That night I had a plane to catch that would take me to Morocco where I would spend the next four months of my life learning about the culture and language of the land. I felt as though I was saying goodbye to the people I loved for a lifetime, but I never expected that I would have the same emotions about new friends and new family once my semester abroad came to an end.

As soon as I landed in the airport in Casablanca, the realization of being in a foreign land hit me. As I walked outside I could see the sun rising through the palm trees (a sight I could never see in Ohio!) The only thing I knew about Casablanca was from the black and white Humphrey Bogart film, and the vivid colors of the landscape took me by surprise. My driver took me to the city where I would be living and studying during my semester abroad with AMIDEAST: Rabat. Not knowing the language and being an ocean away from anyone I have ever known made me feel so alone. After our first week of orientation with AMIDEAST, all of the students were placed into our host families. I met my new roommate, my new family, and moved into my new home within a matter of hours. I can remember thinking that these new people and places would never become normal to me. I could not imagine getting used to life in Morocco, but I am happy I was proven wrong.

Within a few short weeks of being in the country, I learned basic phrases for survival in Arabic and could express myself in simple words to have conversations with locals. I made amazing friends both in the AMIDEAST program and in Rabat and I began to travel the country I called home for the semester. As each week passed, I began to feel more comfortable in this new place. The sights I saw everyday were now commonplace, the people I came to know and love were now an important part of my life. By the very end of the program, I had experienced a lifetime in only four months. I started to appreciate and understand the new culture I was living in. I began to see the similarities and differences between my country and Morocco and I was so thankful for being able to experience life in both places. Most importantly, I fell in love with a new place away from home.

Sand in Hair

Immediately after leaving Morocco, I was heartbroken. The only thing I wanted to do was go back to that first day when I got off the plane in Casablanca. I wanted to do it all over again. Now that I knew the country, the people, and could communicate in the language, I knew I could make the most of my time if I could just go back and start over again. But I couldn’t start over. My semester was done. As I sat there in my home thinking about my time in Morocco, I realized how fortunate I was to have had even four months in the country. I learned so much not only about the culture and language, but also about myself. I learned to be proud of where I came from, but to find the beauty in other places as well. I learned to challenge myself and do things I never dreamed of doing before. I guess you can say that I learned to live, and I will always be grateful to Morocco for teaching me that.

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Learning is a Two Way Street

The following entry was submitted by Becky Rawle, an academic year 2015-16 participant on AMIDEAST’s Area & Arabic Language Studies Program in Jordan. A student of Middle East Studies at Dickinson College, Becky reflects on her MENA 390: Community-Based Learning class with AMIDEAST during her Spring 2016 term.

Reflecting back on my semester, I have a lot I wish to talk about. Despite all the amazing experiences I have had, I will focus on just one aspect, my community based learning. This semester I had the unique opportunity of getting out into a different Jordanian community than I was able to experience last semester. After I completed my Fall semester I wanted to find a way to experience more of Jordan, so I decided to take the Community-Based Learning (CBL) class. Through the class I had the opportunity to work at the Collateral Repair Project (CRP). CRP is committed to helping refugees, CRP’s website states that they “seek to restore dignity and community among displaced urban refugees as well as to ensure that their basic food and housing needs are met.” CRP offers many programs, one of which is an after school program for the children in the community in East Amman, where CRP’s headquarters are situated. This is the program I participated in.

When my fellow AMIDEAST peers and I arrived at CRP, we were tasked with teaching the children English and math. The children were very quick learners and extremely bright, but learning another language is tricky for almost anyone. The children could sing the alphabet song and recite the letters in order, but they did not understand the value of each individual letter. For example, if you pointed to a random letter they often could not tell you which one it was. Despite this constant struggle, by the end of my time at CRP I did see a difference. Once again, we were going over the alphabet and when a random letter was pointed out, we got a resounding correct answer from most of the children. It was a very satisfying moment because it showed that the frustration of feeling like we could not get our lesson through to them had been overcome.

Our lessons were done almost completely in Arabic because the children spoke almost no English. This proved quite challenging for me because I only started learning Arabic last semester. However, one of the perks of my placement was that it forced me to practice my Arabic. I believe that it actually helped me improve my Arabic. The children were very forgiving when I made mistakes speaking Arabic. They allowed me to make mistakes in a nonjudgmental setting, which made it easier for me to speak Arabic to adults. The more I spoke Arabic the more confident I became and the more I learned. In other words, it was not just me teaching them English, but them teaching me Arabic.

A Sunny Day in Salt

A sunny day in Al-Salt.

The relationship I had with the children at CRP allowed me to see a different part of Amman and meet different people living in Jordan. The program is in Eastern Amman which is economically disadvantaged especially compared to the bubble of wealth I lived in in Shmeisani. It let me see another way of life in Amman, which helped me develop a clearer picture of the various communities that make up Jordan. However, most importantly for me, my CBL placement allowed me to work with children which I love to do. The children were all wonderful and super excited to learn. They were always vying to answer the questions and their insatiable appetite for knowledge was very inspiring. If it was not for the CBL class offered at AMIDEAST, I would not have been able to grow as an Arabic speaker and engage with a different community in Amman.

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Connection to the Global Community in Morocco

This entry features a submission by former AMIDEAST Education Abroad student, Everest Robinson. Everest participated in the AMIDEAST Morocco Regional Studies in French program during the Fall 2015 term. From Macalester College in Minnesota, Everest is a student of Psychology and Religious Studies. We hope you enjoy his reflection on his experience in Morocco!

It’s very hard to sum up four months of my life in Morocco, to extract a single lesson or even a single story. There are so many stories so many ways that my life has been altered by Morocco.

The place I would start with to describe my time in Morocco is not a location or an experience, but the people, for people always make a place. The people of Morocco have taught me so much. As a tourist, I sometimes found myself in situations where it would’ve been very easy to take advantage of me. However, this rarely happened. By and large, Moroccan people were not only helpful but they went above and beyond just extending courtesy and aid; they treated me as a family member and showed genuine interest and investment in my well-being. In a similar vein, I noticed community solidarity every day whether it was four people jumping at the chance to help a mother get her stroller on the bus or a stranger watching someone’s kids as the parents went into a shop. I will never forget this community solidarity which has become a part of my identity, and I will never forget that many times I was vulnerable in an unfamiliar place where if not for the assistance of strangers I could’ve encountered trouble.

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Buying a rug from villagers on the Zawiya Ahansal excursion.

Overall, I found my experience abroad to be simultaneously challenging and illuminating. During my time abroad, I was forced to use muscles that I had rarely used before. I confronted myself just as much I confronted the socio-cultural obstacles. In general, I tend to be more of a follower/people-pleaser. I rarely drive the plans or the conversation within a social group. When I stay at someone’s house I try to be invisible and rarely express my needs. While I was abroad, I learned very quickly that they are times when it is necessary to advocate for yourself and be assertive. I could’ve let the semester move along with my various discomforts and had regrets at the end, but instead I learned to confront people with my desires and I even made a trip by myself to Chefchaouen when no one wanted to go the particular weekend I had available. There were so many experiences that became available with me at the small price of asserting myself. Because of this perspective-shift I was able to leave Morocco with zero regrets and with an increased ability to assert myself which is quite a useful skill to have in adulthood.

Another hugely important thing I take with me back to the states is an increased awareness of the global community. By going to Morocco I was exposed to viewpoints that simply aren’t available in the United States in my upper-class liberal arts bubble. I learned far more about Islam than I could’ve learned in any textbook or web search. Greater than the French I learned was the shockingly simple revelation that other people use all sorts of languages all around the world and that this language in turn influences their perceptions. Furthermore, many things cannot be translated into words. I learned a great deal about wealth disparity from living with a middle class Moroccan family and teaching English to refugees from many Sub-Saharan nations. Finally, I learned that there are so many different ways to live life on planet earth in community and that although I may be more comfortable living one way, that does not mean that the others are less correct on a universal level. After being abroad, I feel a greater connection to the global community.

I can’t put a price or any sort of measure on what my semester abroad has meant to me. It is invaluable. It is part of me. It has shaped me irreversibly. I strongly believe this opportunity should exist for every person on this wonderful planet, and I’m immensely grateful to have had this opportunity.

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Filed under 2015, Adventure, French, Morocco

Highlights of Morocco Fall 2015

This entry was shared by Sarah Donaldson, a participant on AMIDEAST’s Fall 2015 Area & Arabic Language Studies Program in Rabat, Morocco. Sarah, a student of Political Science at the University of Kentucky, shares the highlights of her semester experience in Morocco.

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Within our first week in Morocco, we were welcomed with the Rabat Challenge. After a few days of being shown around the city for orientation week and what not, it was time to put what we learned to the lest. We were required to find everyday things that we would need like ATMs, places to get food, Hannuts (little stores) and certain buildings around AMIDEAST and near the areas our host families lived, the place that we would soon call home for the next 4 months, as well as navigate the medina the best way that we could. It is funny looking back and remembering how much we struggled on this challenge. First of all, we went to the wrong train station, and then we thought we made it to the medina and it turned out that we were far from the old city. I’m sure the cabs we took all were about double the cost of what they should have been and we were still strangers to each other at this point so it was just overall very awkward. We were just so new and clueless and looking back on this adventure shows us just how far we came in our experience studying abroad. I loved this experience because it gave us some independence and a task of navigating through the city in a more relaxing mindset. This challenge also brought me close to the two people that I would later call some of my best friends. Now at the end of this program, I can confidently say that I can easy accomplish this challenge in half of the time they gave us to complete it.

Photo 2

Zawayat Ahnsal was easily the most important excursion that we took while on this program. Before leaving for this small village in Morocco, everyone was concerned; no one had heard of it and it sounded like there was not a lot to do, and everyone wanted to spend there week doing something “more fun”. Then what happened was we came and taught some of the most adorable, most intelligent kids English who were so driven to learn. We had dinner at the Sheikh’s house, with traditional music where the whole town came and sung and danced with us. The girls were given Jlabbas to wear during the celebration and they offered food and tea and woman were there to give everyone henna. To everyone’s surprise we had the most fun on this excursion than any other. We got to see the most breath-taking views of the village and we really got to connect with individuals there in ways that you can’t do when you are in a big city. The reason why this was so important is because a lot of Morocco is made up of small villages like this one and we got to see and experience a huge part of Moroccan culture that we would not have seen or known about if we continued to visit the big popular cities that we all planned to see.

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It would be a disservice to write this piece and not include a picture of my host family. It was great because no matter what they always tried to be engaging with us and really invited us into their home. It was good to be with a host family like this because it forced us to learn and use the language and they also got to show us their culture. There is something to be said for getting to experience a culture first hand and it is an experience that I wouldn’t have gotten with out this family. They were there to help us with homework, and to give us love when we were feeling especially home sick. It truly felt like having another family while you were in Morocco. Which at first, sounds almost exhausting to constantly be with other people all the time, but to have people there to care about you and to look out for you while experiencing a culture so different makes all the difference.

 

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MENA 101: Making Friends in Your Host City

We hope you enjoy another installment from the MENA 101 series. This is a series of featured articles about living in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), including MENA history and culture, as well as advice for students preparing for travel to the MENA region. The entry below was crafted by Education Abroad interns and former participants Grayce McGregor and Rachel Durning. We welcome submissions from alumni of AMIDEAST Education Abroad Programs—please send your articles and photos to DocsEdAbroad@AMIDEAST.org!

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A group of friends in Rabat, Morocco.

So, you have arrived and settled into your new living arrangements in your new host city. Whether with a host family or in an apartment, you are ready to go and start experiencing all the city has to offer. Just one issue – who can you call to adventure with you?

There is nothing wrong with some solo exploring, but it can be intimidating and possibly even unsafe in an unfamiliar city. Making friends is one of the most fun ways to immerse yourself in your host country’s culture! It can be difficult, however, to make the move from meeting someone to forming a real friendship. Here are five tips to help jumpstart those relationships when staying in the Middle East.

  1. Don’t be afraid to make plans, and keep them.

How many times have you suggested “Let’s hang out sometime” to an acquaintance, only to lose touch for months? Take responsibility here, and follow up with real plans. Mostly likely, people will be flattered that you think they are worth your time, especially if you already seem to have a bit in common. This can be as simple as inviting them to do something you planned on already, or asking where their favorite coffee shop is and meeting there sometime. Visitors should be aware of local social norms in which inviting members of the opposite gender to a solo coffee date may be taboo; usually, group activities are a safe bet. And plan to be flexible on the timing; you will need to adjust to the local attitude about time, which is generally less strict than the typical Western focus on punctuality.

  1. Latch on.

No one likes feeling like they are being clingy, but the most surefire way to make lots of new friends is to be persistent, especially in the early stages of meeting someone. Past alumni have found success in asking one friend to introduce all their friends. You could also start by hanging out with your host siblings’ friends and working from there. Just be consistent and clear that you are interested in a friendship by getting in touch regularly, every week or so. Soon you will have a group of new friends.

  1. Break the language barrier.

The language barrier is aptly named, as it can act as a wall between you and potential friends–but it will just take a little effort to break through it. A great icebreaker in new groups is card games. A deck of cards is a really simple thing to carry everywhere, and if you and your new friends know different games, teach them to each other! Games may seem a bit forced at first, but they are a good way to get conversation started and make you forget about feeling awkward, which can make the language barrier seem insurmountable.

  1. Always get phone numbers.

This is a no-brainer. If you like the person and want to stay in touch, say so and ask for their number! If Facebook seems more acceptable, that is also a good way to chat with new friends. It is always good to have people you can ask language or culture questions, or a buddy to explore with. Remember—once you have someone’s contact information, make sure to follow up and make plans.

  1. Remember: If you don’t reach out, no one will.

Take the initiative! You will be waiting forever for your new friends to make plans with you—they have friend groups and social lives already established. Local students may not be thinking of inviting a foreigner into their world, until you make them a part of your world. So, assume that nobody is going to do the planning, unless you do. It takes effort, but you won’t regret it.

Once you’ve made these friends, make sure to read our post about the different expectations for friendships in the Middle East.  Social relationships are different in every culture, so be sure you are aware of these differences and make sure not to accidentally offend anyone in your new host country!

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MENA 101: The Oud

MENA 101 is a series of featured articles about living in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). These posts include MENA history and culture, as well as advice for students preparing for travel to the MENA region. We welcome submissions from alumni of AMIDEAST Education Abroad Programs. Please send your articles and photos to DocsEdAbroad@AMIDEAST.org!

Looking at the oud from another angle.

Looking at the oud from another angle.

If you do not know much about the Middle East or you are not a musician, you may not know about the oud. The oud is said to pre-date the lute and guitar. It is a stringed, gourd-shaped, instrument with four to six pairs of strings tuned to the same note. There are several regional styles in which the oud is played, among these are Syrian, Turkish, Egyptian, and Iranian. These styles are much like Arabian dialects; indiscernible to the foreigner, but to an expert, they tell stories about where the player is from. Since the oud has pairs of strings which are played together instead of individual strings like the guitar, the tone has a unique echoing sound which sets it apart from other stringed instruments.

The neck of the oud has no frets, so it is played completely by ear. It can be a quite a task for one learning how to play, especially when tuning the oud. The lack of frets also allows for more fluidity in the Middle Eastern scales than Western ears are used to. In Middle Eastern music, they have quarter tones. They sit between a note and its flat or sharp. To a Westerner, it may sound off-key. Played in context as a scale or song, the note has a unique sound that creates a step between the moods of major and minor keys.

Music in the Middle East is said to have gone through a ‘dark age’, during the time of the Ottomans and the British/French mandates (spanning around 700 years). This has not been helped by the fact that history in the region tends to be passed down orally. As a result, much of the traditional music history has been lost, although the songs have not. The most famous oud players have made their names in the past 100 years, unlike the great Western musicians, such as Bach, Mozart, and others. A few famous oud players are Nasseer Shamma, Farid al-Atrash, Mohamed al-Qasabgi, Riyad al-Sunbati, and Munir Bashir. Despite these expert oud players, there are many songs that are very old, but are not attributed to a particular artist.

The cultural role the oud plays is similar to a piano, as the music played on the oud tends to be considered more traditional whether or not the musical piece is old. You can find the oud in ensembles, but often if you stumble across a cafe or restaurant with an oud player, it will be played solo. As a traveler to the Middle East, you will likely see ouds, whether they are being played by a musician in a cafe, or hanging from the ceiling in the tourist shop. If you get a chance to visit a Bedouin camp overnight, they will often play music and dance around a campfire in the evening. Especially for the musically inclined, it is a definite treat to see an oud in action.

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Filed under Cultural Feature, MENA 101