“Jerusalem: Clarifying Palestinian and Israeli Identity” by Maureen Lincke

This past week, I had the privilege to travel to Jerusalem over fall break. For the first time, one of the central conflicts of this region was given a physical place and my understanding of the conflict was clarified, which then subtly changed my perception of this place politically defined as the Middle East. The first day, we took a tour with a group based in Hebron called Youth Against Settlements who are against illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. We were shown through one of the more volatile checkpoints into the city center, where Palestinian families and business owners have been pushed out by the IDF forces there to protect Israeli settlers. Our tour guide was a Palestinian sports journalist who guided us through the politics shaping the violence, and explained the unjust treatment of Palestinians by the IDF forces in Hebron.

The tour was important on a level that is difficult to describe to one not familiar with life in Hebron or the West Bank, but it can be related to the necessity of hearing underrepresented stories. Although I loved Jerusalem, the Jewish story was very accessible and I was given a picture of the conflict that was heavily weighted towards the state of Israel. In order to understand the occupation and ongoing struggle of the Palestinians to be recognized as autonomous people, this tour was a necessary part of my visit. The group I toured with was friendly and peaceful and very open to holding conversations with us about their lives and the reality of life as a Palestinian in Hebron, for which I was enormously grateful. They cared about our safety and well-being and I would highly recommend this tour to anyone visiting Bethlehem or Jerusalem.

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Despite the politics, and my own guilt that my Jordanian and Palestinian friends from Amman can’t visit Jerusalem, the city was very beautiful. The history is tangible, especially in the old city, where we spent hours walking through hundreds of small shops that have been there for generations. At Razzouk Tattoo, the Razzouk family has been tattooing in the same small parlor since the year 1300 and we saw design blocks that were just as old. Although the rest of our trip was wonderful and we were collectively enchanted by Jerusalem, I was struck by how isolated the Israeli cities are from cities in the West Bank, which furthered the importance of our visit to Hebron. Jerusalem is only an hour away from Hebron, but the stark difference in infrastructure and dress makes Jerusalem seem almost European, and it becomes clear what story has been historically emphasized to tourists in Israel.

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My time in Jerusalem changed my understanding of what it means to be Palestinian. Because the Palestinians are denied many rights, including claim to a physical country of their own with cohesive infrastructure, it can be difficult to grasp who the Palestinians are, as an ethnicity as well as body with a unique and common nationality. In the face of an ill-defined border, bureaucracy surrounding citizenship and rights to travel are determined by much more arbitrary rules that easily become racist and exclusionary in nature when applied by the IDF. Despite my limited knowledge of the conflict, my time in Hebron made it clear that an institutional change was necessary to ease the tension that permeates every part of the city that I visited. No city that lives under such violent pressure will be able to culturally thrive, and it becomes necessary to work with local groups such as Youth Against Settlement to find a path to creating a livable environment.

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“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.

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.

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.