Thursday, November 20, 2008

18-Year Old Treadmill

Amma is eighteen, and in her last year of public high school. If she passes her final exams, she will have obtained her ‘Bac’, the high school diploma needed to go to university. In Morocco, high school students specialize in one of a few directions of study, much like the ‘profielen’ chosen by Dutch high school students. Amma’s is “Sciences de la Vie et de la Terre” (natural sciences), mostly abbreviated to “SVT.” She wants to be an engineer. When she finishes high school, she is going to spend a year studying Spanish, and then, “insha’ llah,” is going to reunite with her mother and brother in Spain, to study there.* She wants to study in Spain, she says, because it’s easier. A particular study,** Amma said, proved that Moroccan universities are the most difficult and demanding in the world. Because, she explained, you don’t learn only what you need to know, but also all the background. If you are studying Moroccan politics, for example, universities here will also require you to know all about American politics, European politics, African politics, Middle Eastern politics, and so on. Remembering my conversation with Ilyas about the language barrier for universities, I asked her if the difficulty had anything to do with language. That too, she said, that makes it hard for many people. But that was not why she was going to Spain, she added…

Her schedule is intense. Just like Yunus, Mustafa, and I think all other Moroccan students, she has class six days a week, from Monday to Saturday. Her days start as early as 8, and sometimes end as late as 6. In addition to a total of 13 hours devoted to science and math (including advanced calculus, from the looks of it), she also has four hours of French, an additional two hours of translation (between French and Arabic, but also English sometimes), 3 hours of English, 2 hours of Arabic, 2 hours each of philosophy and Islamic education, and two hours of sports. Her school is in Agdal, which means a 30-minute walk, four times a day. She wakes up at the last minute: 7.15 or so, usually. In those 15 minutes, she gets dressed, puts on the tan short-sleeved coat that all Moroccan public school students wear (the color varies – I also see a lot of white, and Mustafa’s is blue), looks in the mirror to make sure her hair looks decent, brushes her teeth, and leaves the house to go and pick up her friend Asma, who goes to the same school.

At about 12.30 she comes back and crashes down on her bed to listen to her music in peace for about fifteen minutes, until Khadija calls us both to the kitchen for lunch. We eat, sometimes silently, sometimes chatting about small nothings, and then we clear the table. At 1.30 most days, Amma has to be out the door again to make it back to school on time.

She comes home late in the afternoons; she either has class until six, or goes to visit her father, Noureddine, who lives in Agdal. Once home in the medina, there is family time again: coffee around six thirty, and then errands have to be run, or friends have to be seen. There is generally little, in terms of actual outings. As far as I know, Amma does not go to movies,*** coffee shops, or restaurants. I think that for many Moroccan high school students, there is neither money nor time to spend on such leisure activities, with such an intense schedule of schoolwork and not much family money to spare. Amma strolls around with her friend Asma on occasion, or goes out running errands with her grandmother, and often goes to Kenitra on the weekend (36 kilometers north east of Rabat), where her mother’s family lives.**** The consciousness of appearance that she seems to lack in the mornings comes back at these after-school moments, though never to an extreme. She tries on an outfit or two, puts her hair up and then down, and sprays on a large amount of perfumed deodorant, but that is it. There is no makeup, no scrutiny of her own figure, no crises about having nothing to wear.

It is not until after dinner, around 9.30, that Amma sits down to do the massive loads of homework she has. She does not do it all. She says she would go crazy if she actually tried to finish the several hours of science-homework she has, in addition to the work for every other class. Her grades are not the best; on a scale of one to twenty her average is a 13. She spoke with admiration of a friend who had a perfect 20 – and I wonder how this friend manages to get her work done. Because apart from simply ‘going crazy’ if you do it all, where would a Moroccan high school student find the time, the quiet, or the concentration? There is something going on at all hours of the day, and there is no place to retreat from all this social interaction. Amma at least has our room upstairs, which may not provide refuge from the sound but at least separates one from the other people at home. Yunus and Mustafa do not even have that. I have seen them try to take a stab at their homework, but have yet to see them work with concentration and determination for more than five minutes.

Amma does perhaps an hour and a half of homework each night. At 11 o’clock, she simply closes up her notebooks, lays down, pulls a blanket over her head, and falls asleep to the beats of the music in her phone – to get up and do it all over again at 7 the next morning.

I wonder, does Amma do more homework at her father’s house? And does he supervise her? Here, there is no one who seems to be interested in what she does at school or about her studies. Granted, I do not understand everything that is said between the members of my family, but I never hear anyone talk to Amma about her schoolwork – other than the one time, when we were all wishing on Zem zem water, that she mentioned she really hoped she’d pass her final exams.

In general I am often curious about Amma’s relationship with her father. Because I hardly ever see them together, because she lives with us rather than with him, and because no one else in the family really seems to play a parental role for Amma (in the sense of supervision, advice, some kind of rule-setting), I wonder what the dynamic is between them. How large is his authority over her, and how, if at all, does he exercise it? How does she fit into his new family in Agdal?***** How does he take care of Amma, apart from – I assume – financially? I am assuming that there is some kind of relationship of care, parentage, and authority. I just don’t see it, and it makes me curious. Who does she talk to when she has problems? Who does she go to when she needs something? The fact that these questions aren’t automatically answerable is interesting to me. There is no identifiable ‘parent’ in her life. She seems highly independent and is treated no different from the other adults in the house. She is one of the women, with the same rights and responsibilities, even if she calls the others ‘grandma’ and ‘aunt’. I had expected a lot more control of school-age girls by their families, and a lot more behavioral differentiation between generations. This is visible at Fatima’s house to some extent (because Yunus and Mustafa are still so young, perhaps), but even there, there is a lack of authority that I find interesting. There is no supervision, not even a general sense of attention that is paid to the children. Yunus is always out with his friends, and no one ever wonders where he goes. Mustafa, who is 10, will be told to go to bed around 11 PM, but no one will accompany him to make sure he brushes his teeth, to tuck him in, to say good night. Is this common?

* I learned recently that Amma has a full brother, two years her junior, who lives with her mother in Spain. She showed me pictures of their departure, which means that happened fairly recently – a few years ago, from the looks of it. Amma did not go with them, she explained, because she did not have her papers at that time. I wonder, how did her brother manage to get papers, if she did not?
** I would like to know more about this study. Who conducted it? What universities were compared? And according to what criteria?
*** And why go to movies when you can buy a pirated DVD on the street for 8 Dirhams? Everything and anything is available, from American to Egyptian to Bollywood: Quantum of Solace is already for sale, for instance. Numbers one and two on Amma’s list of movies to see are 27 Dresses, and Sex and the City.
**** A cousin of hers is getting married, I believe, and so there have been engagement parties and the like.
***** And how does this new family fit into the one here in the medina? Because as often as Noureddine comes to the house, he has never brought along his new wife or second daughter – and we have never gone over to his house.

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