Category Archives: Cultural Feature

“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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Filed under 2017, Arabic, Beauty, Cultural Feature, Education Abroad, Food, Host Family, Introduction, Morocco, Music, Photography, Sofia Deak

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