“Missing Morocco: The Home I Never Expected” by Sofia Deak

One week after leaving Morocco, I am still feeling an unsettling sensation of “homesickness” for a place that began to feel more like home than anywhere else I could go back to. I have not immediately returned to the United States from Rabat; I am spending the next three months teaching English to refugees in Greece. I feel like this has really compounded my longing for Morocco, because in leaving I was not met with any comforts of home but rather an entirely new and foreign environment. I blush when my accidental “shukran” is met with a confused stare from a coffeeshop barista, I make a mental note to not be outraged at how many Moroccan dirhams a dinner just cost, converting currencies automatically in my head. I am trying to replace the free-flowing Moroccan Darija in my brain with Syrian greetings instead. Mostly, I find myself falling silent, not wanting to annoy anyone by wistfully remarking, “In Morocco, here is how things are done. In Morocco, this item costs this much. In Morocco . . .”

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In Morocco, I was not a native of course, but I could read the signs and menus, I could chat with shopkeepers in Darija, I could find my way around Rabat and people recognized me in cafes and on the beach. Here in Greece, it’s almost like studying abroad again but without the  pre-existing cultural or language preparedness that I took with me to Morocco. I remind myself not to be shocked by a beach full of scantily clad sunbathers, that there’s no couscous Fridays or coconut slices sold on the road for 10 cents, that I probably shouldn’t start casual conversations with strangers out on the street.

In Morocco, I learned how different I am (or have become) from the once-familiar American/ European young person. I fully embraced my personality in Morocco and felt that there was not any sense of judgement for being myself. I now know what is meant by so many study abroad students who return to their home culture and are all of a sudden shocked or even revolted by things that were once accepted without question. I became much more contemplative and spiritual during my time in Morocco, so it is hard to be surrounded by other young people who I feel do not share my values or perspective. While I really respect the Europeans I have met thus far in Greece, I am confused by what I cannot describe as anything other than frivolity, wastefulness, and excess. For me, specific things I saw in Morocco have fundamentally changed the way I see the world: the sea of sand in the Sahara desert, starving or disabled children begging on the street, hundreds of men and women praying outside a mosque in 90 degree heat because there is no room left inside. These images are everyday Morocco. They also are unique in that they touched me in a way that I did not realize until I left the country, things that moved me to see the world in a new way.

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In the days leading up to my departure from Morocco, I could not really process what was happening, I did not feel sad saying goodbye to my host family or friends or teachers because I just could not quite believe that I would not just seem them again tomorrow. I am still amazed at how comfortable Morocco had become for me. As I sat on the plane, though, my nose was pressed against the window and I felt a weird urge to cry; I did not want to see the Moroccan shore line disappear from my view. It felt like I was losing something, something precious and important and something I would never get back. I hope that is not the case. When Moroccan friends and family urged me to stay, to not return to the US or go on the Greece, I usually smiled and replied, Insha’allah. It did not seem possible; I have so much to do in the US before travelling to Morocco seems possible again. But one thing I learned in Morocco is that our lives do not progress in the ways we think that they might. I would never have imagined to have grown or changed in the ways that I did over the past four months. I never expected to love going to the hammam with my host mother or to learn to surf or to feel a closer connection to quiet, traditional, hardworking life in rural Zaouiat Ahansal than the busy, modern, easy-going life in Los Angeles. I did not anticipate falling in love with Morocco and North Africa when I initially saw it as more of a stepping stone to improving my Arabic and eventually moving on to work and live in the Middle East. So it is with this knowledge now that I hope and believe that one day I will find myself back in Rabat, a place no matter how far I go or how long I am gone will always somehow feel like home.

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“Saying ‘I Learned a Lot’” by Quinn Stevenson

Since returning home, everyone has been asking me “How was study abroad?”

During our reflection session at the Dead Sea, our program talked as a whole about how to answer this question. We want to say something more than “it was good.” Instead, we want to seize the opportunity to share something relevant about our experience: about the lessons we learned, the people we met, and the country we tried to immerse ourselves in. I settled on the expression “I learned a lot.” While fairly general, whenever I say “I learned a lot” people are compelled to ask me what I learned. And that’s when I get to share.

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“My host family taught me how to live in the moment”

Throughout my study abroad experience, I learned the most from my home stay and host family. They taught me how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. At first, I felt uncomfortable in my home stay because I was so unsure of my surroundings. Everywhere I looked there would an unfamiliar language, unfamiliar people, and unfamiliar food. At first, it felt awkward and would make me homesick for my own house and family. With time though, I learned to embrace feeling uncomfortable. It would prove to be the best lesson I learned in all of Jordan.

Learning to embrace your own discomfort is elemental in another country. It turns every day into a learning opportunity or a unique moment. Instead of missing American food, I would try to learn the name of the Jordanian dish I was eating. Instead of missing Coloradan Mountains, I would marvel at the beauty of Amman and the desert. My host family taught me how to live in the moment and appreciate being uncomfortable because it meant something new, different, and special is occurring.

Another important lesson I learned abroad was about being proud of small successes. I’ve often discussed my struggles with Arabic. While it’s certainly possible to survive in Jordan with English, I wanted to do more than just ‘get by’ for 4 months. I wanted to learn as much Arabic as possible and to actually use it with Jordanians. This was a big challenge. Especially starting from the ground up in January with the alphabet. Forcing myself to use Arabic everyday with my host family, cab drivers, and shop owners, taught me to delight in small successes. As a college student, I’ve never faced a challenge or goal that will take years to accomplish. Trying to learn Arabic is my first attempt at a lifelong goal and I’m grateful to Jordan for giving me the right approach and optimistic attitude when faced with overwhelming challenges.

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“I’m grateful to Jordan for giving me the right approach and optimistic attitude when faced with overwhelming challenges.”

However, it wasn’t until that I returned to the US that I realized another important lesson. Living in Jordan taught me to appreciate the US more than I have had before. I talked once about the environmental conditions of Jordan where water is a precious resource. Different reports place Jordan as the third most water scarce country in the world. Coming home, the first thing I did was take a very long shower. While it felt amazing, it also highlighted my privilege in the US. I also have a greater appreciation for the small comforts of home. Pancakes and pork bacon was a wonderful luxury my first day back!

Altogether, I learned too many lessons than I could describe in this blog entry. In fact, I expect to learn more lessons from Jordan as I acclimate back to the US and recognize the small and big differences. From my Amideast courses to my daily Arabic use, living in Jordan taught me more than I ever anticipated. I now view the MENA region more personally and the US more critically having lived in both. How I approach uncomfortable situations and overwhelming challenges has completely changed due to my time in Jordan. I know I will take these lessons with me in my future travels, my last year of college, and my future career.

“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!

“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.

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.

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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.