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.
Disclaimer: this was meant to be published a week ago. Internet issues posed a small problem, but at long last...
"You're Moroccan now."
My host brother, Oussama, has said this to me on several occasions. The first time he said it, I had just helped to clear the dinner table and wipe it down the same way I'd watched my host mother do several times - using a wet sponge to push the crumbs into a small plate at the edge of the table. More recently, he said it in the context of eating. As I scraped chicken off of the bone with a fork so that I could grab it easier it with my pieces of bread, I heard my host father say my name. I looked over to him, a little caught off guard by the sound of my name coming from his mouth. We've spoken a handful of times, always in brief, and we occasionally exchange smiles when one of my sisters does something laughable or ridiculous, but hearing him say my name is a rarity. In general, he's a quiet man that keeps to himself. I looked over at him and watched as he took the chicken wing in his hands and peeled the skin off with his fingers. He said something to me that I couldn't understand, but the family chuckled around me and Oussama stepped in to explain.
"Eat with your hands,' he said, still smiling. "You're Moroccan now."
I immediately obeyed , too embarrassed not to.
Moments like this happen all the time, but I try not to let them get to me. Three weeks can feel a lot like six weeks when very few days go by without some aspect of daily life forcing you to feel total frustration, embarrassment, or sheer excitement. Last week, a group of us were hanging out in a CCCL conference room working when Kea, a fellow MOJ student, looked up and said, "there probably hasn't been a day that's gone by that we haven't experienced something new." I hadn't considered it until that moment, but she was right. At first, it was one big thing after the next: showering with a bucket next to a hole in the wall, eating meals entirely with scraps of bread as edible utensils, being dropped into a family and instantly assuming the role of big sister. But even with nearly a month behind us, we're guaranteed a share of new experiences almost every day that might pale in comparison to the big things, yet still shape our experience here in the medina: learning to to say 'orange' in darija (liimoon), eating fish for the first time (and enjoying it), ordering a coffee in Arabic at a downtown cafe. In three weeks, I've adjusted to the fast pace of the medina and the slow, relaxed pace of life at home. Maybe maybe most impressively, I've learned how to navigate my way from one end of Mohammed V to the other with relative ease, weaving among the shoppers with the experience and precision of a Moroccan. Or you know, as close as I could ever get to that.
After a week or two of a relatively chaotic beginning to the semester, routine found a way back into my life. I've reluctantly adjusted to the 7 a.m. alarm that rings every weekday, and eating dinner as late as 10 p.m. has become somewhat normal for me. I'm fortunate in that my mom here is an incredible cook, so every meal is worth the wait. I've eaten certain things here that I'd have never considered eating at home, namely several different kinds of fish. I've learned to accept the fact that I won't understand every detail of a conversation that happens around me, and embraced the fact that every meal is an opportunity to be taught something new. It can get overwhelming when conversation flies around you, and all you can do is sit there and listen. I most value the moments when I catch just enough of what is going on to laugh along with the rest of the family... especially the moments when I am the butt of the joke. It happens pretty regularly, but being able to laugh at myself is something I've gotten pretty good at this semester.
As is generally the case in my life, routine is temporary. Life always finds a way to step in and break it. On Sunday morning, all 18 American journalism students will leave their new homes in the medina and board a tour bus with Badrdine -- more appropriately known by the J-Squad (his name for us) as "Badrdad." Our journey will begin in Fez and continue on to Merzouga (into the Sahara) with stops in Azrou, Ouarzazate, Marrakech and Essaouira. Our week will end in El-Jadida, "the new city," for a quick lunch before we hit the road home to Rabat. Exhausting as it all sounds - bus rides, hotel rooms and tours - my bags are packed and I'm prepared to temporarily play the role of tourist in Morocco. Basslama, Rabat.