A Semester in Morocco
From January to May 2015, I lived in Rabat, Morocco's capital city, studying Arabic and journalism at the Center for Cross-Cultural Learning.
The week and a half leading up to our second excursion was a change of pace, both at the homestay and at school. In other words, just as things began to pick up at the CCCL – Arabic exams and oral presentations, story pitches and assignments – everything quieted down at home. Literally. A week after I arrived home from the southern excursion, everyone except my brother left for Marrakech to visit their grandmother, my host mother’s mother, in the hospital. I was under the impression they’d be back the following afternoon, but they arrived home the following Friday — a week later. From what I’ve been told by my host brother, their grandmother has been sick and after the death of her brother (my host mother’s uncle), my family wanted to see and spend some time with her. With my home now only occupied by myself and my brother (at least as far as immediate family goes), the house was much quieter. I never thought I’d miss the noise and constant distraction of the girls after school, or the sound of my host mom calling up to me when dinner is ready, as much as I did. Everyday after school was a bit of a guessing game... would I walk into an empty house, or would it be another day of just my host brother and I?
In the absence of my host family, though, I was able to spend a little more time with the other people who live in my home here. Until now, they'd mostly just been strangers -- people I greeted at the door, but had no real interaction with otherwise (unless you count the inevitable bumping into one another hanging laundry on the terrace). For one, there's Fatiha from upstairs, a young Moroccan women who prepared food for us in my host family's absence and who offered to do henna for me one night after dinner. She's small and quiet, but nearly always has a wide, contagious smile on her face. There's Fernando, the scruffy, guitar-playing, jewelry-making Peruvian, and there's Ervee, or "RV," the 30-something French man who seems to be a professional traveler with a special hatred for the city of Paris. He jumps at the chance for conversation, and as Paris noted, he's very understanding of our work-in-progress French. On Sunday night, he offered to make dinner for me, my host brother and Paris. The way he made it out to be, we all thought we'd be eating an "early" dinner. I thought that for the first time in six weeks, I'd eat before 9 p.m. Three hours of preparation went by, and then another 20 minutes. Fifteen minutes later, and then another fifteen minutes, and then 30 minutes, and then 10 minutes later (and it continued), the rice and chicken casserole was served. At midnight. Once all was said and done, there was a little confusion as to HOW we would eat it -- RV refused the Moroccan style of bread for utensils and a casserole dish for eating from.. He scoffed at the initial plates we'd brought to the table -- small and really only there to catch food if it dropped from our bread. Otherwise, we'd eat from the serving dish itself. RV had his own plate, a knife and fork, as did Paris and I once he'd sent us back for larger ones- though we also had our share of bread. It was good, maybe not worth the more than four hours we waited for it, but at least I had food in my stomach.
When we finished, RV invited Fernando downstairs to finish up the rest of the meal. I don't think Fernando saw it this way, but it seemed like an uncomfortable invitation -- he was technically an afterthought, one that only occurred because we had some scraps left over for him to finish. But Fernando was visibly grateful for whatever we offered him. Between playing guitar on the street and making jewelry in his room upstairs, he mostly keeps to himself on the terrace, and I've noticed that he seems genuinely grateful for any human interaction that comes his way. Language barriers don't seem to bother him in the slightest; with minimal Arabic and English, he finds ways to communicate with the family and all the visitors who pass through. He sat down in RV's now vacant seat, grabbed RV's knife and fork and dug in. RV wasn't having it -- he pushed a clean fork and plate toward him, insisting he didn't use the dirty ones. Fernando laughed at him, "Why? You have Ebola?" he said in a combination of Spanish and French. We all laughed too; RV, for all the time he has spent in Morocco, he was only acutely aware of how culturally ignorant he sounded. In my opinion, he disregarded the communal culture of Morocco, the culture where hospitality and sharing come before everything else. The culture where we don't all need huge plates in front of us to eat individually from. By the end of the meal I was exhausted and a little peeved at how late it was, but it was actually a cool experience. Between the five of us, four languages were represented: French, Arabic, English and Spanish. There were definitely a few moments when something was lost in translation, but in general, we were able to communicate in a way that got the message across. In a way, our small table represented the language diversity that is truly apart of Morocco's culture.
I also learned to make tea - and believe me, it took more than boiling a pot of water and tossing in a Tetley tea bag. In fact, there were two stages of boiling water, although that might be unique to my host family. Once the larger of the two pot's sang, I transferred the water into a smaller tea pot, which was where I added the dried tea leaves that came from a box of Sultan Tea. Once those had absorbed the water and took the shape of leaves, I added the fresh mint leaves that we had picked from their stems. Once all that was added, I waited a few minutes before adding four -- yes, four -- large sticks of sugar to the tea pot. I no longer have to wonder what makes their tea so sweet, that much has become pretty self-explanatory. The whole process, from start to finish, probably took about 30 minutes and ended with an obligatory, "you are Moroccan now," from Oussama. And I make a dang good pot of tea.
At the end of the two weeks between excursions, the 'rents came to visit. After more than a week of traveling, they stopped by Rabat for about a day and a half. I had my priorities in order, though-- I broke open the bag of Cadbury eggs they brought me, after which I took full advantage of the shower in their hotel room. They can mock me all they want (and they did), but the 20 minutes I spent under the high pressure, hot water shower head were my personal equivalent to the Moroccan hammam. It was the deep clean I needed before leaving for the village stay where, well, showering before our trip to the hot spring at the end of the week would be an unlikely option. After I cleaned myself up, we walked pretty aimlessly around the downtown area in search of a place for dinner. Given that all my food is covered in Rabat (one of the many beauties of the homestay accommodation), I haven't actually explored the food scene here, so I didn't really have much to offer for advice on where to eat. We ended up in a smoke-filled bar and restaurant. Dad, a perpetual complainer for all things not Irish (sorry dad, but it's the truth), was actually impressed with the chicken tagine he was served; mom filled me in on the last week of traveling they had done. I took them for tea and dessert at a cafe/patisserie I'd only been in once before to use their restroom. We were a bit on the rushed side -- apparently it was near closing time -- but we managed to each down our individual pots of tea and the three slices of cake we'd ordered to share - one with lemon, one with strawberry and the other with an assortment of nuts. They walked me back to my home in the medina and we planned to meet for lunch the next day. I wanted my families to meet, but given that my host family wasn't going to be home from Marrakech until after mom and dad had left the city, it made more sense for me to meet them downtown and take them somewhere we could get couscous. When we placed the order, I thought we were ordering a single serving dish for the three of us, but in actuality, I ordered three individual plates of couscous, which had enough to serve far more than one person each. The couscous was made with lamb, steamed veggies and topped with my favorite -- tfalya sauce, a sugary, cinnamon sauce that gives the dish an extra sweet taste. They had to head out around 4 to catch a train back to Casablanca for the night, so with the few hours I had, I tried to fill them in as much as I could on my last two and half months here. Saying goodbye sucked, but I'm glad I got to see them while they were here.