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…

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