Category Archives: Morocco

“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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Filed under Education Abroad, Morocco, Sofia Deak, Spring 2017

“Shukran Morocco” by Dan Fitzgerald

Know where you’re going, and know how to get back. For some reason, I couldn’t get this saying out of my head during my 29-hour flight travel from Rabat to Pittsburgh. Granted, this phrase is used to describe returning home to the United States and technically this is true for me, since my real family is in Pittsburgh. Yet the more I pondered on this saying, I realized that I wasn’t thinking about my family in the United States. I was thinking about my host family I left behind. I was thinking about the daily beach sunsets. I was thinking about Morocco. I’m dedicating this final blog to two groups of people that I will carry in my heart forever.

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For those of you who know me personally, I am not a very emotional person when it comes to goodbyes, and I certainly don’t cry. This all changed on May 13th as I stood in my host family’s apartment with my luggage and bags beside me. I had already hugged and cheek kissed my Hajji and Hajjah several times and made promises to call each other from time to time. Suddenly, as I stood there in the silence of the apartment, all the memories I shared with my Moroccan parents over these four months came flooding into my head, and I began to cry. Hajji and Hajjah started to cry, which only made me cry even worse and soon I was a complete disaster. I would like to apologize to my taxi driver that took me to the airport that day, I promise I’m not always a hot mess.

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“Conner, Hajji, Hajjah, and I”

My host parents taught me kindness and patience, as they certainly needed both when speaking with me in French in Arabic. They taught me to life when life throws something your way, as Hajjah will never let me forget the time I got my pants wet after I got hit by a wave… in January. Lastly, they gave me the ultimate gift anyone can receive on study abroad: a loving home and family. Shukran Hajji and Hajjah.

The other group I need to recognize is my Rabat Beach friends. I going to be honest here, Rabat Beach is not the best beach in the country, and it certainly isn’t the cleanest, but it by far one of my favorite places in Morocco because of one reason: the people. Never in my life have I found a group of people who adopted me into their friend group so quickly and accepted me as one of their own, especially my friend Afif. I met Afif playing beach volleyball two weeks before I left Morocco and that didn’t stop us from becoming brothers to each other. We went to the beach almost every day to either play beach tennis, beach volleyball, swim in the ocean, or just hang out on our towels.

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“Afif and I’s final good bye”

He taught me French and Arabic (including some swears) and I taught him English, a fair trade off in my book. He taught me what life was really like for a young Moroccan. But above all, he taught me loyalty and true friendship. You think I’m exaggerating this? This guy drove all the way to the airport to say good bye to me one last time. If that isn’t true friendship, I don’t know what is.

My study aboard in Morocco is finally “saffi” and it is time for a new group of students. If I can one piece of advice for you, it is this: take risks and put yourself out there. You will be surprised at what you find. Now, if you need me, I’ll be on my next adventure: Senegal!

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Filed under 2017, Dan Fitzgerald, Morocco

“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

“On the Marrakesh Express” by Dan Fitzgerald

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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Filed under 2017, Adventure, Beauty, Dan Fitzgerald, Education Abroad, Introduction, Morocco

“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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Filed under 2016, Introduction, Morocco, Spring 2016

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.

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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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Filed under 2016, Morocco

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