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.
I’m reluctant to write this post because it feels like a formal admittance that my time in Morocco has come to an end. And it came fast.
Last Sunday evening, we moved out of our apartment in Bab el-Had and into Hotel Darna, the same place where our semester began four months ago – making it all the more official that our study abroad experience had come full circle. The difference between then and now, however, is that in January, I moved into Darna anxious and uncertain – terrified that I’d never find myself at home here in Rabat and uneasy about everything from the homestay experience, to the independent study that would come at the end. All of those worries were coupled with the fact that I knew I’d be hit with culture shock, and that I’d be hit hard. Well, I was hit with a decent dose of shock – I was right about that much. I distinctly remember the first few sleepless nights, the awkward hallway conversations in the dark, depressing hallways of Darna, and the breakfasts of bread, bread and other kinds of bread. I didn’t realize at the time that it was all of these things that would bring us together – the culture shock, the fears, and all the unanswered questions. But this week had an entirely different feel to it; instead of the awkward hellos, I worried about the uncomfortable goodbyes. I also realized this week that the worry was for nothing. Yes, studying abroad in Morocco was a challenge and some days were harder than others, but it wasn’t a challenge that I couldn't handle. I was ready for it, whether I realized it or not on that snowy January day in Boston, waiting for my plane that would take me to Paris first, and then to Rabat.
The journalism program wasn't perfect -- I do have my issues with regard to certain aspects of it. That said, I learned more this semester than I ever expected to learn in fifteen weeks – about myself, Morocco and of course, what it’s like to be a freelance reporter abroad – but I’m also left with plenty of unanswered questions. I suppose, however, that given all that I've learned, it's what's to be expected. After all, one of the very first things I learned about this country – and have heard from several Moroccans since – is that the more you know about Morocco, the less you understand. Suffice to say there are plenty of things I don’t understand.
Before I get to that, however, I have some catching up to do – but if you don’t care to know how I spent the last five weeks, feel free fast forward to the last few paragraphs.* The independent study period (ISJ) of the semester flew by. The first week passed by relatively slow and with each week that passed, the time between Monday and Friday grew shorter and shorter. There were days when I had interviews and meetings with my Moroccan journalism partner, Oualid; there were days when I camped out at coffee shops (read: Arab Café) to do research or write, and there were days when I didn’t get out of my pajamas. We called ourselves ‘young professionals’ in the apartment on days that we had designated for ourselves as ‘work days.’ We had no schedule to keep but the one we made for ourselves, so if that meant taking a spontaneous over night trip to Marrakesh to visit Julia (12 hours before her flight back to Scotland) that's what I did.
I called the NGO worker again that night and asked – in very specific terms – for a family where the wife and child had their residency cards and the father did not. After a lot of calls and “insheallah’s,” (God willing) he promised me an interview on Saturday – the day before our deadline – with a family in Tamesna, nearly an hour away from Rabat. I put my new pitch by the wayside and did just what Mary said: I held tight, I crossed my fingers and hoped that this family fit the profile. I may or may not have also sent her an email accepting my fate of being next semester’s horror story of what not to do, which I later found out amused Mary quite a bit; well, Mary, I wasn’t making a joke. The interview went well and it turned into a family profile that I could use for my story -- the only catch was that the father wasn’t present for the interview… because he lived in Rabat. Given that it wasn’t a phone call I could make, I gave Oualid the questions I wanted to ask and he conducted the phone interview for me that night. We were able to meet in person with him a few days later (after my final presentation) for a follow up interview and to get photographs. Nothing about the situation was perfect – in fact, for a few days I was pretty much a mess. But in retrospect, that week probably contained enough lessons to last me the entire semester. I’m no longer bitter about the interview with the first family; it was a chance to hear the story of a refugee family trying to find a life in Morocco -- a chance I wouldn’t have had if everything went as planned.
When I wasn’t interviewing or researching (or lounging in pajamas), I went to cafés and clubs with our new Moroccan friends, organized and played soccer games on the beach, went to the movies (and yes, I watched Fast & Furious 7 in French without subtitles) or walked up and down the medina market. An attempt to visit the new museum of contemporary art for Marguerite's birthday turned into a visit to the Bank of Morocco – an old bank renovated into an art and money museum. When I needed to exercise and the idea of running on streets where I’d be at the receiving end of endless catcalls seemed too exhausting, I used our huge terrace to dance. Those were the days I was especially grateful for that terrace – the freedom to dance whenever I wanted to. I made tea nearly every day: I had an unexplainable desire to keep tea time alive in our apartment and I knew I’d miss Moroccan tea if I wasn’t at least trying to make it myself. It was a process that unfortunately required boiling water in a pan before transferring it to the tea pot because we didn’t have a kettle for the stove. I hit the mark a few times, and when I didn’t, all it really took was tossing in another cube of sugar. Or two. We ate dinner together most nights, and it was usually planned and bought for an hour before we sat down for the meal.
Nights out were always interesting. There was Upstairs, of course, the local Irish bar where I found Bailey’s in Morocco for the first time – I asked for it on ice and it was served like a milkshake. No complaints there, really. We had our Moroccan friends, Khaoula and her sister Chyma, introduce us to the club scene. Dressed in short dresses and leather jackets that covered bare shoulders, they deemed it our night of “hshuma,” (‘shame’ in darija). A taste of other smaller clubs that followed made it pretty clear that they definitely spoiled us that first night, bringing us to one of the nicer clubs in Rabat, Sens – clean, spacious, good service – so we did pay a pretty penny just to get in the door. We got there early (midnight), which meant we were one of the firsts to arrive. This obviously wasn’t my scene, though, so it took quite a bit of convincing to get me on the dance floor. But when I did, midnight very quickly became 5 a.m. Cue the pajama day that followed.
About two weeks before the end of ISJ, Paris and I decided that we had to escape the confines of our apartment and the city of Rabat. She had heard about Jazzablanca months ago, a weeklong jazz festival in Casablanca with different performers each night. I honestly couldn’t even tell you who performed the night we went, because we didn’t end up watching his show – and not because we showed up 30 minutes late after a cab ride that we thought might never get us to the concert. As it turned out, we had tickets in our hands for the after party, not the concert itself. Neither of us had eaten since breakfast, so when we were turned away from the concert, we sought out the food and drink vendor. There was nothing but brownies and muffins left – so we took one of each. We found stools outside the concert venue and although we could just barely see into the concert, we had no trouble hearing it. We waited it out and in the process, made friends with one of the Inwi telephone company employees, Adnane, who ended up being instrumental in getting us safely back to the hotel that night. About two hours later, we made our way into the after party. It was a club; we found ourselves in a giant club. With the exception of a few other college students we met on the floor, we figured we were a solid 20 years younger than the average age of the party-goer that night. There was live music (nearly all in English), an open bar and more than a hundred people dancing with drinks in their hands, grabbing at the snack platters as they weaved through the crowds. As is generally the case in public venues in Morocco, smoke filled the air. The bartender had our drinks memorized after one round, although I still don’t know who this says more about, us or him. We got back to our hotel room around 2 a.m. and after a check-in call from Adnane to make sure we got home safely, we said safi (Moroccan for that's enough). For all the trouble we went through that night, Jazzablanca turned into one of the best nights we'd had out in awhile.
We celebrated the end of the semester with jazz music and drinks with our advisor, Aida Alami, at Le Pietri -- a classy hotel bar downtown. Nearly everyone in the group showed up at some point in the night, so we all crowded around a single table and shifted one way or another as people came and went. We finished the night -- as we normally seemed to do -- at McDonalds, embracing one of our last opportunities for what Badrdine liked to refer to as "ethnic food." I guess you can't really get much more American than greasy burgers and fries.
I turned 21 this week, but it didn't really feel like it. I went out the night before for drinks with Paris, Emma, Sofie and their friend Sarah, and Paris’ friend Badr joined us a little later. We weren’t at the bar, a small smoke-filled joint with an upstairs lounge, for very long – but it was enough to call it a birthday celebration before we all went back to Darna to pack. We had lunch together the next day and Khaoula and I had dinner together that evening. It was a bittersweet 24 hours of celebration – everyone was dealing with the emotions of going home and the stress of getting there, myself included. I did, however, get back to my room after dinner with Khaoula to find a slice of chocolate cake waiting for me on my bed – shukran bezzaf, Paris; that girl knows me so well.
*I spent my last day in the city with my host family, and I couldn’t have imagined a more appropriate way to spend it. In some ways, it was like I'd never left: Oussama tried to play it cool, the girls jumped all over me and when I pulled the music up on my phone, they sang and danced their hearts out to Gangnam Style and C'est La Vie. I filled them in on some of the things I did since I last saw them and I told them about some of my future plans. "This is your home," my host mom repeated over and over again, insisting that I come back again one day to visit them. After another sad goodbye to the family, I finished up some shopping in the medina and treated myself to one last Moroccan dinner of herrara soup and Moroccan salad. This morning, I made one last purchase (and dealt with one more creepy sales person) before making my way to the airport. I fought back a lot of tears in the last 48 hours as I said my goodbyes – goodbyes to friends and family, goodbye to Badrdine (Badrdad, as far as I'm concerned), goodbye to the medina that amazed me some days and drove me crazy on others, and goodbye to Darna, the dark and dreary hotel that first housed me in Rabat. A call from Badrdine after I arrived to the airport -- checking to see that the cab he ordered for me got me there safely -- really made it all sink in that this was it -- I was leaving Morocco.
And now, I’m sitting at gate 2 of the Rabat-Sale airport and in absolute awe of where the last fifteen weeks went. Suffice to say the most important things I learned this semester happened outside the classroom. Through interactions with family, people in the souk and cab drivers, I gained more confidence in Arabic and French. I learned about a different culture simply by becoming a part of it. Interactions with Moroccan friends allowed for a culture exchange; this was just as much an opportunity for them to understand our life in the U.S as it was for us to understand their life in Morocco. As Michael, the old Irish man we met in the medina one evening, said to me (in reference to Morocco), “There aren’t bad things, there are just things we don’t like.” He maybe over simplifying things just a bit (is there anything good to be said about things like street harassment?), but I understand what he means. Sometimes, there's more than one way of accomplishing the same task -- so who's to say which way is the "right" way to do it? Take peeing, for example. I'm still a pretty big fan of the Western toilet, but if I'm being honest there’s something positive to be said for the practicality of the Turkish toilet – all it takes is a little balance.
I thought for awhile I might regret spending my ISJ in Rabat when I had the opportunity to live almost anywhere else in Morocco, but it turned out to be the best decision I could have made. Rabat might not be the most happening city in the country, but the extra five weeks here made the city feel more like home and less like a place I was passing through. There are things I'll miss about the life I had in Rabat and things I'm ready to say goodbye to, but you were good to me, Morocco, and I’m going to miss you bezzaf. I’ll be back soon, insha’allah.