Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I am getting to know the medina and discovering that being in the middle of it, which indeed I am, is actually really convenient. I’ve been out with various family members on a number of occasions and learned that our lane is actually just one other lane away from a fairly big thoroughfare, and another connecting street away from Blvd. Mohammed V, which extends throughout the medina.

So far this family is exactly what I hoped for. They take me everywhere – I’ve been along to observe an 18-year old girls’ night out,* a grown woman’s shopping trip, and an old woman’s trip to the traditional oven in town to bake cookies for ‘Eid.** I am learning a lot – there is so much to observe (yet so little time, as a result, to write it all down!).

Everyone is incredibly nice. The family clearly has a lot of fun together – there is a lot of laughing and loud voices. I hear them imitating people, and playing around with the sounds of their own language, repeating syllables, twisting them around, trying different accents – which is interesting to me, as someone who is here to get to know that language. These people are like a kaleidoscope, twisting and turning the language to bring all its difference facets into focus simultaneously. And they are close physically, something they are beginning to involve me in, which feels good – they stroke each other’s hair, adjust each other’s clothing, kiss each other. It’s like nesting, perhaps, and so it makes me feel at home. All this happens also between the male and female cousins, which is interesting, but I’ll write more about that later.

The only one I can’t really gauge is Manal. She does not exactly seem part of all this closeness, and she seems to have quite a temper. I get the impression that any little utterance can trigger anger in her – though maybe I’m wrong. Moroccans are loud in general, the entire family raises its voice constantly, and I don’t actually understand what she’s saying,*** but there’s something about her facial expression that makes me think she is actually angry. She doesn’t talk to me very much and sleeps a lot. I wonder if something is going on with her. I noticed the other day that she wears a ring on her left ring finger. Is there a love story here?

*This, apparently, involves strolling around, arms linked with a friend, window shopping, looking at shoes, stressing out over boyfriends and the latest SMS they sent (or didn’t…), simply HAVING to go over to where one’s boyfriend works to say hi and check up on him, and grabbing a snack. There is something universal about girl-culture…

**People have conventional ovens at home, but throughout the medina are little bakeries that have traditional ovens. They don’t sell their own baked goods; instead, Moroccans bring their own goodies over there to be baked, and pick them up when they’re done.

***Apart from a lot of “Hshouma!” which means something like ‘shameful’, or ‘shame on you’. It’s used a lot in Moroccan conversation – providing an interesting clue about the culture here.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Medina Bound

Day three, and yet another new location: the medina. The middle of it. And when I say the middle, I mean the middle. It was a five-minute walk over here from the school, and there were at least 5 different turns into winding alleys into what I think is the center of the old town. It will be fun figuring out how this little lane connects to the rest of the world…

But it’s a beautiful house. At the center lies a large courtyard whose open roof has – as is the case with most medina houses as far as I know – been covered with transparent plastic sheets, and three long rectangular rooms lead off it. One is furnished as a sitting room, with couches lining the walls, a TV cabinet on one end, and a moveable table as wide as the space between the couches to eat at. Another room is supposed to be a sitting room also but is now in disarray because it needs to be painted. Upstairs there is one other rectangular room. I was given a cabinet up there to put my stuff, and was told I can either sleep up there or downstairs in the sitting room. There are two bathrooms – one with a ‘Turkish’ toilet (as in, the kind you squat over), and one with a ‘western’ toilet. Neither bathroom has a shower, and neither bathroom has toilet paper. This is a situation I will have to figure out – but if these people manage, I’m sure I can, too. I just have to figure out how this works. I feel like a child that needs to be potty-trained.

The host family itself is great so far and promises to help me get to know women and learn as much as possible about women’s daily lives – and that’s exactly what I’m here for. The family consists of an old couple, Khadija and Lahcen, with 7 children (only two of which live at home). Lahcen seems much, much older than Khadija – he’s so old he can hardly walk anymore and spends the day in his own little room off the courtyard. He must be 80 at least. Because he is so absent, Khadija seems to be a true matriarch, the real center of the household. She spends the day mostly in the kitchen – even during Ramadan. Or maybe especially during Ramadan, we’ll see once it’s over.

Two daughters live with them – Alma and Manal. The final member of the household is Amma, an 18-year old grandchild, daughter of one of Khadija’s sons. He came by the house today, but I’m not sure where he lives, and why Amma lives here with her grandparents. Her mother lives in Spain apparently, so there might be a story there – which I haven’t been able to ask about yet.
There is another sister, Fatima, who lives in Salé with her husband and two sons: Yunus, who I think is about 13 or 14, and Mustafa, who is probably about 10. Fatima and her family were over today for ftour, the breaking of the fast. The word is actually the Arabic word for breakfast – a nice literal application of the term here, in other words.

And so far it’s been great. I’ve been far more able to communicate with them than I was ever able to on previous visits, so I feel like I have a chance at getting to know them, and helping them to get to know me.

There is one big and noticeable cultural difference. In Morocco, guest is king. But where I come from, I learned not to be too much of a burden. The result: my host family keeps offering things to eat, drink, do, and I try to hedge my answers, resulting in a lot of vague and probably confusing responses. If I don’t want to eat/drink/do something, I don’t want to be rude by saying no, but also don’t want to commit to something I don’t really want. If I do want to eat/drink/do something, I don’t want them to go out of their way for me, but also don’t want to say no – and be impolite, or pass on something everyone else is going to eat/drink/do. It’s all very confusing and frustrating. On top of that comes the language barrier. I’ve been able to communicate with this family much, much better than I ever could with my host father in Fes, but still there are occasional things I don’t really get. In those cases I hedge my answers because I’m simply not sure what the correct response would be.

At least with regard to eating it’s been fairly straightforward. They don’t eat, and so I know what I want to say whenever they offer me something: no. They seem really surprised and keep asking me, “tu fais le Ramadan?” and then I say, yes. I don’t want to eat if you don’t eat. It seems to me like it would be going way too far to ask someone who hasn’t been eating during the day for about a month now to make me something because I’m hungry, even though I ate more recently than they did. I think it went over well. Except that they wouldn’t hear of me waking up at 5 this morning to eat breakfast with them. I kept saying I wanted to do what they did, but they really were not having it. They told me they’d leave me something to eat for when I woke up. Because it was 3 by the time we all went to sleep, I didn’t wake up until 12.30. It felt wrong to eat that late, but it felt wrong too to not eat the things they had made ready for me. So I hedged again, and ate just a little. Perhaps I need to be more assertive, stop being so careful. But it’s so hard to shake that habit.

The schedule these people keep during Ramadan is ridiculous, by the way. They wake up at 5 to eat. Perhaps they go back to bed after, but at 8 o’clock, the school- or workday begins, and they work until about 3. Then they don’t get to eat until about 6.30. Once they break the fast, it’s an evening of sitting around, visiting others, or walking around the neighborhood at night (which as I noticed when we did that last night, seems a very popular option. All the stores are open, it’s as crowded as I’ve seen it during any ordinary day). Finally, at 1 am, there is a dinner, after which it’s finally time for 4 hours of sleep at most, before a new day starts all over again in the same way. I don’t understand how people still seem so sane and pleasant after a month of this. All I could think of when I got to lay down at 3 last night: I can’t believe I even tried to get over my jetlag. 3 am is like 10 pm Chicago time…

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Day 2: better. My body seriously hurts after lugging my behemoth of a bag from hotel in Casablanca to train to hotel in Rabat – and I have a serious bruise on my left arm to show for it – but after that it picked up. The familiarity of the city calmed me a little. I know my way around here and so I feel less alone, if that makes sense – it means I can move around without getting lost, the imaginary walls don’t close in that tightly. So I went out today, and I got everything done that I wanted to: found the school (so that I won’t have to search for it tomorrow, when I have my luggage in tow again), bought myself a map of the city, and got a SIM card and minutes, which means I am reachable again. I noticed the last two days how much of a security blanket (or a lifeline?) my phone really is to me. Despite my huge amount of luggage I’ve been empty somehow, like I’d forgotten something.

The school is located in the medina, on the north end close to the Kasbah that looks out over the Atlantic Ocean and the Bouregreg river. The school posts a map on its website, but I’d never been able before to find the appropriate entrance to the medina.* Today I had a taxi take me there, and once I’d found that, everything else was easy. Two turns down narrow medina lanes that were lined with women begging. This might be a misperception, but I have the sense that there are more beggars on the street than I had ever seen here before, and I wonder if it has anything to do with Ramadan. It is, after all, supposed to be a month of charity and compassion. The whole point of fasting, if I understand correctly, is to become aware of the plight of those who are less fortunate in life.

The school, in any case, was closed, but there it was, not hard to find at all. Incidentally, the taxi driver who drove me there asked for my nationality and proceeded to tell me that he had lived in the Netherlands, long ago. He spoke an impressive amount of Dutch and told me all about his time there – he even had a picture in his glove compartment of him with two very Dutch-looking men, clearly taken some time in the seventies. His brother, he told me, still lives in Holland; he is married to a Dutch woman and his children also all married Dutch people. It’s a beautiful country, he told me, and raved about all aspects of its society. He never went back because it was ‘too difficult’. I didn’t ask (seemed too sensitive a question), but wondered what he might have meant by that. Did he mean politically? Was he referring to the draught of tolerance that plagues the Netherlands these days? It is by no means easy for Moroccans in Holland. It never has been, but the situation has polarized in recent years. Or maybe his reasons were different, simpler – financial, family obligations, something like that. I did think that he presented a remarkably positive example of the guest-worker program in the Netherlands.** He told me that he and a few others had been part of a ‘Moroccan club’ that had organized Dutch lessons a few hours a week – something that was not systematically encouraged (in fact, it was discouraged – because these migrants were going back home, anyway) or subsidized by the Dutch government for a long time. And the fact that his brother married a Dutch woman, and is old enough now to have grand children. This means he married a non-Moroccan at a time when this was a huge, huge exception – it still is. It must have been difficult. But this – the fact that there are men like this, who have experienced life in Holland in this way – is a positive sign. It makes me think that everything will work out, in terms of integration. And it makes me think: this is so ultimately what I want to focus on. Moroccans in the Netherlands, issues of change, hybrid identities. But before I can really research that, I need to know much more about their home culture. Which brings me back to my research here…

*The ‘medina’ refers to the medieval part of any Moroccan town, and is surrounded by walls/ramparts that have a series of portals to the city. It is characterized by narrow, winding alleys that all look alike and together form more of a maze than a city plan, complete with dead ends and lanes that go in circles. This means that you have to know your way around, or be content with getting lost. ‘Medina’ is the Arabic word for ‘city’. It’s a recognizable part of every Moroccan town because the French, when they colonized the country, left them in tact and simply built their own cities alongside the old Moroccan ones. Every Moroccan city therefore consists of a medieval quarter surrounded by ramparts, and a newer part in Southern-European style with wide boulevards and whitewashed apartment buildings.

**During the 1960s and 70s, the Dutch economic boom compelled the government to recruit labor forces from abroad. Pretty soon after implementing the program, the Netherlands established contracts with Morocco and Turkey, who became the primary source of migration to the Netherlands in the decades to follow. Guest-workers were initially supposed to return to their home country, but many did not. Second-generation Moroccans (the children of these guest-workers, who were born in the Netherlands) struggle to define themselves, and figure at the center of political debate about minority integration.

Friday, September 26, 2008


*Disclaimer: I’m actually posting this first one a few days after the fact. I realize it’s a little melancholic – but I promise, it gets better after day one…*

I am sitting in my hotel room in Casablanca. It’s almost eight, I’m exhausted, but I’m here, and so it’s time for my first notes.

My trip went well – apart from some slow lines for checking in at Royal Air Maroc, it went really well. No delays, no turbulence, no annoying neighbors, no luggage issues. My bags were too heavy, really, to handle on my own, but I got help, and so I made it from airport to train, and from train to hotel – two endeavors I had dreaded – with everything in tow.

But I’m exhausted, and the trip was difficult, emotionally. This is what I wrote down during my first flight, from Chicago to Amsterdam: “I’ve been in the air for about thirty minutes, and have to boost my spirits a little. Leaving was difficult. The moment I walked through the gate toward the plane in Chicago was the worst; I could not hold back my tears. As though that moment represented everything that makes this trip so difficult. I’ve tried to figure out in the past 30 minutes what this feeling really is and where it’s coming from. It’s different from the first time I traveled to Morocco, nearly four years ago. Back then, it was all nerves. This feeling I have now is heavier, deeper. I think it comes down to the fact that I’m not ready for an adventure yet. This summer – the summer I had so counted on for a little much-needed relaxation and a recharging of my batteries – was not what I had hoped. It was stressful, personally as well as professionally, and caused a fair amount of upheaval in my vision of the future. I was starting to get back on my feet, but I’m just not ready to leave yet. I haven’t recharged enough yet, I’m not ready to be so alone in such a persistently alien country, leaving behind everything that is comfortable and familiar. But if that’s what this feeling is, that also means I’ll be ok. I had to go, and in all honesty I don’t think I’d ever be completely ready for Morocco and its foreignness. I know from my previous visits that it always retains a frustrating and exhausting element of mystery for which it is impossible to be completely prepared. And at the same time I also know that I’ll find my way here after a little while, like I did before. It is good that I went, and the adventure itself is going to be a good one, too. I have nothing to prove to anyone and can do everything in my own time. I am free to make this into whatever I want it to be. I can relax and recharge here in Morocco. Everything will be ok; I just have to accept all this and let it – Morocco itself, but also my feelings, my sadness – wash over me. I am proud of myself for doing this, and it’s going to be great.”

I spent about 4 hours in Amsterdam on my layover. They were four awkward hours – I was in the city that I grew up in, but could not leave the airport. I tried, as well as I could, to get in touch with the city, the familiar feelings, and went through customs to search for it in the stores on Schiphol plaza, the airport’s main entrance hall. There is a Hema there now – a Dutch chain I can only compare to Target, but way, way cooler. It was there, and it looked like Hema, but it wasn’t. Not quite – it was a Hema adapted to an international zone, situated in that no man’s land that is an international airport. Being at an airport never truly counts as a real visit to a country, precisely because it is part of the country only in a very superficial, ambassadorial way. It’s like a preview of the place. It’s a tease, an invite or a portal – it’s meant to invite you in, and it was frustrating today to be lured by the appearance of all familiarity without really being able to taste it. I think it may have only added to my sense of alone-ness – that sense of floating in no-man’s land with nothing ‘real’ or familiar to grab hold of.

So I headed back upstairs to check back in, and turned my focus from Amsterdam to Casablanca.

Casablanca, by the way, has a new arrivals hall – or at least it was new to me. Instead of the dark, narrow, brown and gray halls, I was met by light, airy whites, tans and sleek chromes in wide walkways lined by massive windows and clearly marked with signage. In a striking artful symmetry, the new hall featured series of modernist paintings along the wall where the old one had had traditional Moroccan craft artifacts on display. It set a different tone and in some sense it made me feel better, I think – the anticipation of the darkness of the old hall had been part of my dreaded feeling of arrival.

And really, even though I broke down in tears once I had my parents on the phone, and even though my voice didn’t seem to work all day and only came out in the merest whisper every time I tried to speak, things really did look up once I made it to that new arrivals hall. For instance, one big difference from the first time I arrived in this city: I was able to communicate in French. To actually communicate, and for the first time in my life I was not nervous about it, not worried about being misunderstood or making mistakes. I simply spoke, I didn’t care. And another difference: I was not taken aback by people trying to make contact with me. I was expecting it, and so I could answer – in my whispery faltering voice, but I could answer. I could explain: I’m here to study Arabic, this is my third visit to Morocco, my bag is so heavy because I’m here for three months, no I don’t need a taxi because my hotel is right there across the plaza.

And once I had settled in, dried my tears, and gone downstairs to find something to eat, the sight of that thick harira being ladled into a bowl actually filled me with a hopeful, comforting warmth. Something Moroccan is rubbing off on me, perhaps. Harira, by the way, is a very thick tomato soup with chickpeas, vegetables, and various other fillings. It has a distinct taste that I had to get used to four years ago, but apparently have come to appreciate. It was served tonight because it is still Ramadan, for another 4 days more or less, and this is what Moroccans eat (drink?) to break their fast. It was exactly what I needed. And it did the trick. Its warmth made me feel a little stronger, and its Moroccanness and my familiarity with it made me feel a little more confident about my ability to navigate and further get to know this world.

But now I’m back in my hotel room and momentarily halting that endeavor: I’m watching a re-run of last night’s presidential debate on CNN. I’m going to brush my teeth, wash my face, get into bed and surrender to my exhaustion. Tomorrow I’m off to Rabat.