Humility

Its easy to find adjectives to describe Morocco. She’s colorful, she’s hot, she’s windy. She’s traditional and vibrant, imperial and simple. Morocco is easy to fall in love with.  She has a certain air about her–and I don’t mean the pungent odor you find in the souq–I mean she’s regal and comfortable and inviting. 

Morocco is also humbling. Its been four weeks since I landed at the airport in Tangier, and upon reflection, a major theme of the first half of this trip is humility. I’ve spend 28 days soaking up sights, sounds, and feels from Tangier, Asilah, Tetuan, Fez, and Meknes. I’ve been to a few beaches, some Roman ruins, and I’ve seen a lot of countryside (a few mountains, too).  I’ve been complimented and catcalled on the streets, I’ve been cheated at the market and I’ve been chased down by a shopkeeper because he realized he forgot to give me my change. I’ve seen heartbreaking poverty and watched brand-new Mercedes-Benz cruise through roundabouts in the center of Tangier.  I think a fair summary of four weeks in Morocco is this: Humility. 

I was humbled when I went to the literacy class at the American Legation Museum a few weeks ago. Every week about 40 women gather in the museum to practice reading and writing in formal spoken Arabic. Most of the women are over the age of 50, and their just beginning to put their letters in order. All of them have families and children and grandchildren. All of them are strong leaders and dedicated members of their family and society. I stepped into the room and realized that I, a woman with most of a college education, was the most ignorant individual in the room. 

When I took a seat in the classroom, I made conversation with the young lady in the seat next to me. She was maybe 7 years old and wearing pink and cheetah print from head to toe. She tapped me on the shoulder and said, in perfect English, “You’re American. Do you know Rihanna?” She was disappointed with my answer (“no”) but impressed with my desire to learn Arabic. “See, this isn’t too hard”–pointing to the papers from the day’s lesson–“even you can read it. Just try. And if its not good the first time, I’ll help you. That’s how I learned English, you know. I just tried. And watched movies.” Morocco humbled me when a 7 year-old reminded me how to conjugate verbs. 

And then I went to Asilah. And Meknes. And Fez. And there are no public restrooms in these cities. In the US, we are very comfortable with our free public bathrooms. We might criticize them for being dirty, or inconveniently located in department stores, but at the end of the day we’re thankful for their existence because they save us from some pretty uncomfortable alternatives. Like squat toilets. Squat toilets might work for men, who can use them standing up. But they’re not made for women. I can attest to that after several attempts that resulted in near death experiences. I learned its all about the strategy–placement of hands for balance, muscle control, and ability to juggle purse, long skirt, and toilet paper. And in the middle of a five hour road trip between Meknes and Tangier, there are no alternatives to squat toilets–so you march into the stall, pretend it doesn’t smell, and you squat. Somewhere between realizing that the water on the floor wasn’t water and nearly soaking the edge of my maxi skirt in it, I was humbled. 

Morocco is noisy–Tangier is home for 700,000 people and I can attest that at 1 or 2 am, all of them are in the streets, celebrating the Iftaar (breaking of the fast of Ramadan). Even during the day, its impossible to find silence when the radio is on, people are chattering, and every restaurant is buzzing with people. Walking through Tangier, even at dusk or dark, I’m pretty confident. I know where I live, where the sweets shop is, and which tomato stand has the best deals at the souq. Its not North Branch, but I’m able to navigate about a 10 block radius.  There’s only one thing–I don’t speak enough Arabic to understand the news word-for-word, my Darija isn’t functional enough to understand music on the radio, and I certainly have no idea what the sports announcers are saying when Barca plays Madrid. This sounds normal at first–of course, I study a foreign language and I can’t learn everything at once. Its okay to miss the meaning of love songs or weather reports–and watching a soccer game comes with a live picture of the game–so I know that it was Barca that just scored the goal. But here’s the thing–if it were in English, I’d know exactly what was happening, just like all the other people in the cafe, or on the street, or in the taxi cab. I’d know more than just the headlines of the newspapers I read, or the restaurant menus I peruse, or the snippets I overhear from corner store radios. If all this information were in English, I’d be complacent about it. But its in Arabic, and I’m humbled. 

I’m from a long line of good cooks. My mom makes a living as a dietitian, and my Grandma makes a mean apple pie. Before her was Grandma Maymie–and I’m sure before her was a strong woman who knew how to make merangue and homemade bread and every other recipe I find in my mom’s Mennonite cookbooks. I’m confident that someday I’ll live up to the cooking heritage I have–right after I figure out how to avoid mixing up lard and cream cheese. When I stayed with my host family in Tangier, I was shocked most by the kitchen. It was a third of the size of my mom’s kitchen; it had two bunson burners, no oven, no dishwasher, and about three square feet of counter space. But oh, the delicious things that originated from those three square feet. My host mom whipped up fish tagine, hot bread, and omlettes without breaking a sweat. Where does she keep enough plates and dishes to cook? I don’t know. I munched on sweets and fresh fruit and pondered the fact that I can’t even get my sweet potatoes to taste right, and I’ve got four burners and gas stove to do it with. And a machine to wash the dishes afterward. Somewhere between the third and fourth cup of tea she served me, I was humbled.  

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Our group took an “Imperial City” trip to Fez and Meknes this weekend. Among the things we saw were the city gates, famous mosques, and a ridiculous amount of donkeys. Fez is one of the oldest cities in Morocco–and she smells like it. We stopped by a tailor shop, a pottery shop, and a tannery.

I spent a lot of time in Fez and Meknes noticing the juxtaposition of old things and new things–Moroccan culture is paradoxical in a way. Beautiful cities smell awful, cold wind makes a 100 degree day feel chilly, and colored paint is chipped and cracked. Moroccan culture is also very traditional–the shoes in the upper picture are traditionally worn by both men and women in many colors. Especially as Ramadan approaches (month of Fasting), traditional food and dress start to appear more frequently.

During our trip, we also stopped at the ruins of Volubulis (“Malili” in Arabic). It was 100 degrees out, and there was no breeze, but we made a fun morning of it. I’ve never been to Europe (unless you count the airports in Frankfort and Barca) but it sure felt like Rome to me. I felt pretty much at home in the entrance of the “parliament” area of the city–my Poli Sci Profs would be proud!

This week was also the Fourth of July (Eiid Istiqlaal) and we celebrated by having barbeque and going to the beach. The BBQ lacked hamburgers, potato salad and Coke, but it was still a tasty treat. I snapped a few pictures of some friends on the beach–the wind was outrageous but it was still a nice break from homework.

Adventures in Fez and Meknes

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Reflections on Asilah: “Pharmacy”

        Conversations between people who don’t speak the same language are difficult. First, one person might try talking slower–hoping the other person will somehow understand their words if there’s more space between them. Then, they try using simpler terms–saying “help” instead of “I think I just caused a hairline fracture in my left kneecap.” After that, the person starts miming the information they need to communicate, and before long a simple conversation has degenerated into a game of charades. Sometimes, this works–things like “bathroom,” “sunglasses,” and “fish” can all be mimed. During my trip to Asilah I discovered that some things are better spoken and not mimed.

         I stood in front of the resturant after lunch, chatting with some classmates about our morning. We had just finished eating freshly-caught fish after touring the Old Medina and viewing the beautiful murals that decorate the city walls. We were weighing our options for the afternoon–beach, camel-riding, and mumkin (maybe) ice cream. I was chatting with Tyler and Kelsey when I started to overhear a hurrid conversation behind me. I say “started to overhear” because initially I didn’t understand what was going on. I could only hear part of the conversation (my back was turned and I couldn’t see the miming). I’d been out for several hours with our group and had settled into the groove of thinking and speaking in Arabic–and the conversation I began to hear was in English. English is my first language, but when I’m thinking in Arabic, English kind of sounds nonsensical, especially after speaking Arabic for a long time.  After a few seconds of listening, I suddenly understood what was happening and turned around.

         There was an American woman having a conversation with our waiter from the resturaunt. Well, she was trying to have a conversation–the situation had been reduced to miming. The problem was, she needed to find a pharmacy. How do you mime “pharmacy?” She didn’t know, and neither did the waiter. He was looking at her with a furrowed brow, and every time she would say, “Pharmacy…you know, toothpaste? Medicine?” He would say, “Asif, no English. No English. Espanol? Frances?” This situation is common in Morocco–many people speak three, four, or five languages fluently, but English is rarely one of them. I’m constantly asked at the souq to speak French or Spanish, and men on the street typically holler comments in Spanish. I’m up to three marriage proposals–but I say no to anyone who calls me “chicka.”

        I interjected into the conversation with a question–“Ma hiya al-mushkila?” What’s the problem? The man looked at me with relief, and he replied with, “Praise be to God, its Arabic!” The woman immediately looked at me and said, “I need to get to a pharmacy–do you know where one is?” I turned to the man and asked him in Arabic. His response: “Ohhh, that’s easy! There’s one on this street!”  I quickly asked where (how close? On the left or the right?) and thanked him for his help. I explained the directions to the woman, and she rushed off–clearly in distress.

       Our group started walking to the beach a few minutes later, and I forgot about the incident and rushed into the ocean. It was only on the bus on the way home (after my seatmate fell asleep) that I took a few minutes to think about the experience. It wasn’t anything fancy or complicated–I had simply translated a question and an answer. It wasn’t a fancy conversation, and I may have made a few grammar mistakes, but it was functional. It was communication at really basic level, in a situation I consider “low-risk” because of all the exposure I’ve had recently to Arabic.   

      All in all, my experience with the city of Asilah was wonderful–the beach, the camels, the art, the Old Medina, the delicious food–but the most memorable part of the day was a fleeting conversation I had with an American tourist and a Moroccan waiter.

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Asilah is an old Portuguese city by the Mediterranean. Its known for its cleanliness, its tourism, and its beautiful art. Asilah is home to several art festivals every year, and in the meantime, artists display their work in the form of murals on city’s walls. I snapped a few photos of the artwork and architecture I loved. The wind was ridiculous on the beach, but that didn’t stop me from riding a camel! It was a little scary at first, but after he stood up, it was just like riding a horse. All in all, an excellent day in a gorgeous city.

A Trip to Asilah

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Thought 10: What do you mean, “There will be a test tomorrow if God wills it?!”

Whenever my professor announces the schedule for tomorrow’s class, she says “Inshallah,” even if that schedule involves an exam.  On the first day of class, she asked me where my name came from, and I explained that I’m named for my Grandmother (my father’s mother) who passed away many years ago. She replied with “Allah-ya-HamuHa.” When any of my classmates sneeze, the whole class says, “Hamdulillah” before turning our attention back to the teacher. I discussed my graduation plans with our resident director the other day, and he commented “MaShah-Allah” to my plan to graduate in December.

In just two short weeks in Morocco, I can see that the Arabic language is intertwined with both the geography of place and the anthropology of religion in the Arab world. At the vary least, its important to keep in mind the importance of respect for culture, language, and religion. I’ve found that its easiest to understand a culture if you first understand the language. In understanding the language, colloquial phrases are as important as verb conjugations, especially when both religion and language are tied together. The Arabic language and the religion of Islam have a long history both together and apart, and this is reflected by the way Arabic speakers use phrases like “Inshallah,” in everyday speech.

If you talk with an Arabic-speaker long enough, you’ll start to notice patterns with the use of common expressions. In general, Muslim and non-Muslim speakers of Arabic use all of these phrases. There are some phrases that exist specifically within certain religions–there are Arabic-speaking Christians, Muslims, and Jews all living in the same cities in Morocco. For non-native speakers of Arabic (like myself), it can be helpful to have a short tutorial on the meaning and usage of common expressions–for example:

  • “In-shah-Allah”: It means “If God wills it.” Use this when talking about the future–making plans, scheduling things, or hoping that things turn out all right. Example: Inshallah my sister comes to visit me. Inshallah we will get coffee at three pm. Inshallah she feels better because she has been sick.
  • “Al-Hamdulillah”: It means “Praise be to God.” Use this literally–Hamdulillah I did well on the test. Hamdullilah the train was on time.
  • “Allah-ya-Haneek”/”Tareq Salaama”: It literally means something along the lines of “God guide you and keep you safe;” or “Through peace,” it would be best translated to “Godspeed” in English. Use it when someone is going to be traveling.
  • “Salamu-Alay-kuum,” (Response: “Waa alay-kuu-mu-Salaam”: This means, “Gods peace onto you” and doesn’t really have a direct translation to English.  I think the only time I’ve encountered it is in Sunday School–there’s a passage somewhere where Jesus sends out his disciples and tells them to go into a house and if they are welcomed, to say, “Peace onto this House”. In my Arabic translation of the Bible, it literally says, “Salamu-Alay-Kuum,” which I imagine reflects that a similar phrase exists in Hebrew. People nowadays use this greeting to say hello and goodbye, and to express well wishes to friends and family. It is formal and can be used with elders or professors, and also among friends and family.
  • “Ma-shah-Allah”: Means something along the lines of, “Praise God that you have been blessed but I’m not jealous of your blessing and I wish you the best.” There is no direct translation to English–maybe something like “Congratulations,” but that doesn’t quite cover it. You use it when a baby is born, you use it when someone achieves something special (like graduation), or when someone exhibits a talent.
  • “Allah-ya-HamuHa”: means “May she rest in peace.” Its appropriate to use this when someone mentions that a family member or friend has passed away.  Some people will begin stories or memories by saying, “My Grandmother, Allah-ya-HamuHa.” It is sometimes applied to things that have been broken beyond repair (like a car, a bike, or a refrigerator), but that’s less frequent.
  • “Maa-Salaama!”: This one’s easy–it means goodbye. Literally translated, it means, “With Peace.” Its used the same way we use “goodbye” in English.

And with that, I say, Maa Salama and Inshallah you have enjoyed my post today!

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Thought 9: Family

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to stay overnight with a Moroccan family and experience traditional Moroccan hospitality. It was incredible. Below are some things I noticed–a “compare-contrast” to American hospitality. 

1. Relationship matters more than time. Native Moroccans use the phrase “maybe” all the time–“maybe” I’ll pick you up at 8pm, “maybe” we’ll go to the beach tomorrow, “maybe” there will be a wedding party tomorrow night. My host mom said she would come at 8pm to pick me up–she showed up around 9:30 because someone in her family had gotten married and the party lasted longer than she thought it would. This is normal for Moroccans–relationship matters more than time of day and if your friend needs you at an absurd hour of the night, then you answer your phone and help him out. 

2. Family means sharing everything. The family I stayed with had three kids–in a two bedroom apartment. Everyone shared the same closet, the same bathroom, the same gigantic plate of food at dinner, and the same tv. There was nothing that belonged to only one person–it was about one unit of people doing life together. While American families are still units of people, by my observation, we do things just a little bit differently. For example, in my family, everyone has their own closet. My sister and I never shared a bedroom, and at dinner, we all ate off of our own plates. American culture contrasts with Moroccan culture simply because Americans value individualism and honor associated with personal actions. Moroccan culture values family honor and collective deeds over individual honor. 

3. Trust is important. On Saturday morning, my host mom charged me and the three other American girls to take two of her kids to the beach. We crossed a main highway and went swimming in the ocean with her kids–she had only met us the day before. She trusted us, as new members of her community, to take care of her kids, because she had other fish to fry. Literally–we had some amazing fish tagine for lunch when we got home from the beach. 

4. Greetings are important. This goes for Moroccan culture in general–its important to greet everyone you meet. I don’t mean walking down the street–but I do mean that every person greets every person that enters their home. When the four of us arrived, each child greeted us with three kisses on the cheek and a warm smile. When they returned me to school the next day, we said goodbye the same way. Throughout the weekend, we would all greet the doorkeeper, family visitors, and old friends we ran into on the beach the same way. The way you greet someone shows the respect you have for them. 

5. Some things are the same, no matter the culture. While Yousef and Nasser-al-Din may fight over who gets the last fig (just like Sophia and I fight over who gets the last oreo) they still need each other to play a proper game of tag. These two brothers showed no mercy to each other when all of us played UNO (Sophia can confirm that mercy in UNO is a weakness), but at the end of the evening, they still hugged goodnight. My host mom opened up her home, cooked a delicious meal, and went out of her way to understand our lives and studies. This reminded me of my own mom–a woman who often fed whoever I brought home from school with me, a woman who still cares a lot about how well Sophia and I do in college. 

This weekend was humbling because it showed me how far I still have to come in learning Arabic and understanding Morocco. This weekend was a blessing because I needed some time away from my textbooks to relax on the beach. This weekend was a challenge because I didn’t always know how to accurately communicate my thoughts. This weekend was informative because I had the opportunity to experience Moroccan family, hospitality, and culture in a new way.  

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I decided to use my weekend off to get to know Tangier by staying with a family who lives not too far from where I go to school. We spent the day today at the beach (my first time ever at the ocean), eating fish tagine, and playing UNO. It was a great day–I was reminded of my own family back in Minnesota. The water was colder than I expected but warmer than Lake Superior, and I collected a bunch of shells from the beach. There was a ton of wind and everything smelled of salt water and faintly of fish. Three of my classmates (Tam, Nadirah, and Eliza) came with and we spent the night hanging out with this family after they had just returned from a traditional Moroccan wedding. All in all,  it was an incredibly eye-opening experience and I hope to be able to stay with this family again

before the summer is over!

Homestay in Tangier

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