Hostess, friend, and language partner

Nejlae is an incredible woman. She holds a degree in English from the University of Rabat, she speaks flawless English and Arabic, and she’s been a phenomenal friend the last eight weeks. I’m going to miss her and her spunky attitude–but hopefully she’ll be able to enroll in a Masters Program in the states in the future. If not, I’ll have to come back to Morocco to visit her soon!

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Hostess, friend, and language partner

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Unwinding and winding down

In seven days, I’ll be on a 747 zooming across the Atlantic Ocean. Its crazy to think that eight weeks have already passed and I’m about to say goodbye to Tangier, Morocco, and everything I’ve come to love about them. This morning our resident director conducted what was called a “re-entry” workshop. We talked for almost three hours about strategies to combat culture shock and re-entry difficulties as we head towards home. The journey home after an intense program like CLS isn’t just about making my connecting flights on time–its also about figuring out how to share stories, keep up with my Arabic, and re-adjust to life in the US. During our workshop, we brainstormed things that we miss about the US, and anticipated things that we will miss about Morocco. Here’s the list I came up with:

Note: Friends and Family go without saying–I can’t wait for hugs and kisses from them all! 

1. I miss cooking. Not just the food (mashed potatoes, hamballs, macaroni salad, and chocolate brownies) but the feeling of the kitchen(s) I’m familiar with. What I miss is the fact that I know where everything is in my apartment at school, the way my Grandma organizes her cupboards, and the fact that my mom never runs out of flour, butter, or sugar.  

2. I miss time. 8 weeks in Morocco made me realize just how important time is in American culture–and how unimportant it is elsewhere. I miss knowing just how long everything is going to take–it takes 6 minutes to drive from my house to the grocery store. It takes 9 minutes to walk from the Pentacrest to my apartment. Morocco is “ala al-aks” (just the opposite) in that it could take 6 minutes to get to the souq–and an hour to find everything you need. Finding food, buying gifts for family back home, and even taking a taxi somewhere is unpredictable to me because I don’t know the system. I don’t speak the language fluently, and I haven’t acquired enough experience with Moroccan culture to anticipate the way that things fit together in a city of 700,000 occupants. I’ve definitely come a long way in understanding Morocco–but its a vast culture that would take years to integrate myself into. 

3. I miss Henry–he’s my family’s energetic black lab and my favorite running buddy. Speaking of–I miss exercise. Specifically, I miss running down long stretches of dirt road with him. 

4. I miss the radio. I really miss knowing what the popular hits are right now–I’d appreciate some KDWB or K102! Even further, I miss reading the headlines of the Des Moines Register and the Daily Iowan–I read the newspaper here, but I genuinely miss easily accessible media. 

5. I miss phone conversations. I have a Moroccan cell phone, but I rarely use it to communicate with people–most of my friends live at the American School and they’re a shout away. Texting is really popular with my Moroccan friends–and its cheaper–so its my preferred method of communication with them as well. 

My last week is going to be bittersweet. Its going to be busy with exams and final group activities. I’m going to say goodbye (and thank you) to some phenomenal professors and teaching assistants. I’m going to plan for one more semester of Arabic class, purchase gifts for friends, and photograph everything I don’t want to forget. I’m looking forward to hugging and kissing friends and family I haven’t seen in eight weeks. At the same time, I’m sad to leave behind the beauty and hospitality of Morocco. She and all of her people have been incredible hosts, teachers, and influences on my summer. 

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Al-Kitaab, the ocean, and a cup of mint tea. This is Morocco in a nutshell–I’m constantly balancing studying and sightseeing, vocabulary practice and conversation, healthy-eating and helaweat (sweets). This picture is an attempt at balance–a small group of us lugged our textbooks to the ocean to study one afternoon. Turns out study abroad can be done with vocabulary drills and adventures.

Balance

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Language Partners

One of my favorite parts of this program: A Moroccan girl named Nejlaa. She’s 21, a college graduate (English), and gifted with a bubbly and warm personality. We meet twice a week for a total of three hours to speak Arabic. We usually talk about politics or culture, differences between the US and Morocco (she’s never been to the USA), and all of the Ramadan sweets. She’s served as a sounding-board for some of my most jumbled thoughts this summer–I’ve appreciated her conversation, encouragement, and dedication. This picture was taken at a carnival just outside of Tangier–a few of us hopped in a taxi and spent an afternoon wandering around.

Language Partners

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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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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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