Anyway, enough of my blathering, let’s get on to the weekend, shall we? The first day, at least, is rather straightforward. The program I went on, Morocco Exchange, is not directly affiliated with my school, although it does advertise at school. As a result, a large number of my classmates did not go on this trip (most decided that it was not worth the rather steep price tag). Two did, however, Sarah and Alice, so we were able to travel by bus together to Algeciras, a port city on the southern tip of Spain. Our ferry to Morocco left at 8:00 in the morning, so we rode down the night before and stayed in a hostel. After 3 hours in a freezing bus (the bus driver had the AC on! In December!! What is that??), we made it to Algeciras, and then found our hostel soon after. The hostel was less than palatial – the ticking light that sounded like a bomb, stained sheets, and dirty floors were a less than warm welcome to Algeciras. But it was only for 1 night, so we just turned the lights out and went to sleep. Almost anything is survivable for one night :).
Friday morning, bright and early, we got on the ferry and made our way to Tangier, Morocco….Africa!!! Even before we every got to the city, I was struck by how close the two countries are. Of course it looks close on a globe, but it’s not until you stand on one coast and realize that you can clearly see the shore of the other coast that you fully grasp how close these 2 countries are geographically – and it’s not until you live in both of them that you realize how shockingly far apart they are economically, socially, politically, and religiously.
Anyway, our first stop on Friday once in Morocco was at the DARNA women’s center. DARNA means our home in Arabic, and that’s exactly what it is. They offer class of all sorts to Islamic women to help them better their lives – sewing (both modern and traditional), language, computer skills, cooking, and more. We were given a tour of the facilities by Hajar, Hafsa, and Khadija, three really sweet native Moroccans. While we chatted with them over lunch (it was Friday, holy day, so we got Moroccan-style cous-cous…I was in heaven), I was struck mostly by the importance of their religion that seeped out constantly, even when they didn’t directly bring it up. For example, one of them told us that it is quite common to see taxi drivers pull over on the side of the road to pray. Families who are housing people in hard times have been known to secretly sell their valuable while the guests are gone so that they can continue housing them. At the same time, the Moroccans also openly admitted that there are double standards and unfortunate difficulties regarding the treatment of men and women; but how you interpret the Koran, insisted Khadija, the most conservative of the three women, hidden beneath a head scarf, is a personal matter, and they do not force their beliefs on others who interpret the Koran differently. For someone whose experience with Muslims has consisted almost entirely of what I have seen on television, I must admit that I was not expecting to hear such openness and acceptance of differing religious views. It was an unexpected and wonderful start to the weekend.
After lunch we made our way to Asilah, a little Moroccan town a short bus ride from Tangier. On our way there, the bus driver randomly pulled over on the side of the road, right after we has just crossed a bridge. We were all really confused, until we saw the camels lined up on the beach. Apparently part of our 320 euros pays for a Camel ride! How many people can say they’ve ridden a camel on a beach in Morocco?? I can. Oh yeah, it was amazing. Those things are big!! Pictures really don’t do them justice, lol…
We didn’t spend much time in Asilah. Actually, the only thing that I can really remember from Asilah is that Rachel, our group leader, bought us all homemade cookies from a street vendor. But what I do remember are some of the things I heard in the bus in the way to Asilah. Rachel was telling us about how, during WWII, Hitler demanded that the king of Morocco hand over to him all of the Moroccan Jews. The King responded, “We have no Jews here, only Moroccans.” For a religion that is always portrayed as being mortal enemies with Judaism, that was not the response I was expecting. I liked it a lot :). More good food for thought is what the driver said to Rachel while we were enroute to Asilah. He is trying to learn English, and was apparently talking to her about that. He said something that I found quite profound. There’s an old Arabic saying that says, “Making mistakes and learning something well is better than not learning it at all.” As someone who often feels shy to speak in Spanish because she knows she’s going to make mistakes, that was good to hear. Actually, for any of you who may be struggling to think of a Christmas present for me, I’d love a sign with that proverb on it…preferably in Arabic :).
After Asilah, we made our way to Rabat to meet our host families. All of us were living either 2 or 3 students to a home, in a traditional homestay – we slept in their home, ate our meals with them, etc. This one was slightly different from other homestays I’ve had because A) I did not speak a word of their language, and B) we were only there 2 nights. But it was a homestay nonetheless…thank goodness the eldest daughter, Hasnae, spoke a little English :). We got an Arabic lesson at dinner – I quickly learned “eat!”, and almost just as quickly “I’m full”. Other phrases that stuck with me were thank you, thanks be to God (which they say after every meal), and God willing (which they say as a response to pretty much anything). It’s cool to see how worshipping their god permeates every facet of Muslims’ lives, even their language.
Anyway, our first night in Rabat, Hasnae came in and asked us if we wanted to try traditional Moroccan clothes on. So we got dressed up in takchitas, what Moroccans wear to wedding and other special ceremonies. It was pretty cool, although I can’t say that I would enjoy wearing so much fabric all the time :). I was also introduced to Bollywood! If you think that Spanish soap operas are melodramatic, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a super cheesy, over-dramatized Bollywood movie. Moroccans are crazy about them – pretty much every TV I saw turned on, either a soccer game or Bollywood movie was playing. It cracked me up :D.
Saturday we had breakfast with our host family, and then went on a drive to meet with some young Moroccans. They all spoke English, and are members of a group called Ouled al Hay, Brothers of the Neighborhood – this group was formed a couple of years ago when people started worrying that poor areas of Rabat could be breeding grounds for terrorists. These young men, who are all from poor areas in Rabat, wanted to combat these assumptions, and so they started Brothers of the Neighborhood to help the people of their city and beyond – they host youth camps, city cleaning projects, sports camps, and more. We met with them to talk about the differences between the Western and Islamic worlds, and our respective images of each other. We talked most of the morning – about religion, politics, history, stereotypes, everything. It was sad to me to see how much stereotypes about Islam have permeated the American society, often without us even realizing it. I had no idea how many negative assumptions I had made about Muslims until I sat face to face with them and talked with them, and realized how loving they were, and what a heart they had to care for others and be understood by them. One thing that the association leader, Aboubakr, said struck a chord with me – he was talking about Western perceptions about Islam, and he mentioned that a lot of times Americans may feel nervous sitting next to an obviously conservative Muslim on a plane. What surprised me, however, was that he insisted that there was nothing wrong with that. It is normal, he said, for us to feel that way; it is the Muslim’s job to reach out to you and make you feel at home. “We are just as responsible as the government for creating a good image of ourselves,” he said. If only people from every country thought like that – no resentment for the stereotypes that exist, but simply a determination to prove them wrong.
We could have stayed there for hours, but Rachel insisted that we had to move on. After the diversity talk, we visited Chellah (old Roman ruins which also happen to be a huge nesting ground for storks), and the Mausoleum of King Mohammed V. There was an eel pond that we were going to throw boiled eggs into at the site of the Roman ruins – it’s supposed to bring good luck and fertility – but unfortunately a stork nest had fallen into the water a few days before, and all of the eels were in hiding. How often do you hear that combination of words: “It’s terrible when the stork nests fall into the eel pond?” It became kind of a running joke among the 15 students in our program throughout the course of our time in Morocco :).
I ate lunch with my host family on Saturday. After lunch, they taught me how to make the delicious mint tea that Moroccans drink with every meal. I measured the mint, and heated the water, and rinsed the leaves, and added the sugar, and even learned how to pour it properly. We had tea that day on the terrace. The warm sun and friendly atmosphere was very relaxing. After tea Hasnae started playing some music on her phone, and my little sister, Chimsah, started dancing some sort of traditional Moroccan dance. She’s such a little diva! She was really getting into it; it was a lot of fun to watch.
After lunch we met up with more Moroccan students to explore Rabat’s Kabash (old fort) and Medina (market). The conversations I had with them were much more relaxed and less formal than the one that we had had the day before, but still just as fascinating to be able to see into the hearts of people so different from myself. In the evening, we talked to some Fulbright scholars about what their lives are like in the Fulbright program. It was very interesting to talk to them, especially considering that I’ve applied to a Fulbright program. Claro, they were research scholars and I applied for a teaching assistantship, and they were in Morocco and I applied for South Korea, so obviously there were differences, but it was nice to get some sort of a glimpse into what I might be doing next year.
Saturday night we went to a Hamman. A Hamman, for those of you who don’t know, is a public bath. It’s technically an optional experience, but very few people ever opt out of it. I figured since I was already using squat toilets, I might as well get the full cultural experience and use a public bath too, right? 🙂 This Hamman consisted of 2 rooms: the first one you took off everything that you didn’t want to get wet – for most people, this was everything – and then the actual bath room, which was super hot and steamy, and had hot water and soap and scrubbers to wash yourself. If you wanted to get really clean, you could even pay a woman 50 dirhams to scrub for you. It was definitely a cultural experience; and I definitely left it with a newfound appreciation of my shower at home :).
After dinner with my family (noodle soup, turkey, and potatoes…and of course, tonssss of bread), we settled down on the sofa/beds to watch more Bollywood. Moroccan houses do not have beds, and very little furniture – most of the rooms are simply lined with sofas, and people can lounge and relax on them during the day, and sleep on them at night. Chimsah started dancing again, and this time I decided to dance with her. It was a little awkward, I had no idea what I was doing…but it was fun to cut loose with her and her family. She’s really sweet – they all are – and I had a lot of fun.
Sunday morning marked the end of my stay with the family. As we were leaving, Hasnae asked us to give her our contact info, so we could stay in touch. She wrote her information on a piece of paper for me, and underneath signed it, “your sister, I will miss you.” This was such a simple sentence, but it touched me deeply. She has known me for literally 2 days…how could she care about me at all yet?? But yet she seemed to genuinely do so. One thing that Khadija, one of the women at the DARNA center, said was that Muslims try to do everything as a form of worship – this includes simple things like respecting other peoples’ opinions, smiling to people in the street, and caring for strangers who pass through your house. And those really seem to be more than words – I could see these peoples’ faith in action everywhere I went, including in the care shown by Hasnae. I will miss such genuine-ness.
Our main destination on Sunday was a remote farmhouse in the Rif Mountains. The conversation in the bus ride was fascinating. The group of students on this trip was very diverse – there was a Muslim, a Hindi, a Chinese girl, and people from all over the United States. I went from hearing about a traditional Indian wedding – which can last for months! – to population control measures in China, to techniques for using a squat toilet. Rachel also told us a few jokes that Moroccans have made about themselves to help pass the time. One of them poked fun at the rampant police corruption that can be found throughout the country: a man buys a brand new tractor, and is driving it home when he is pulled over. The police spends forever looking for something wrong with the tractor so that he can write the man a ticket (it’s common practice to bribe policemen to not submit tickets so that they won’t go on one’s record), but he can’t find anything. Finally, he pulls out his notepad and starts writing the man a ticket. “What can you possibly be writing me a ticket for?” asks the man. The policeman responds, “The two back tires are bigger than the two front ones!”
We finally made it to the farm around lunchtime, just in time to have dinner with the family. Some of us helped them prepare the food, and others of us played with the little kids. The grandmother took a liking to one of the students in particular, Bridgett. She kind of adopted her – had her sit next to her at lunch, brought her with her to pick olives, danced with her, talked to her – even though Bridgett had no idea what she was saying. Kindness and fun, I have found, have no language barriers. After lunch the family took us to where they were pressing olives to make oil; I got to press a few olives. It was fun.
After that we settled down for another chat, this time with a translator. There was no set topic to this talk, and we talked about a huge range of things. But what most impressed me was how starkly different our views and expectations for life were. The students asked things like whether they hoped to ever go to America, and if they waned to send their kids to the university, and how often they went into town to see people and run errands. Their answers were simple – of course they would like their children to go to college, but it´s so expensive, it´s virtually impossible. Equally impossible is obtaining a visa and money to leave the country, and they work so hard on the farm and live so far away from the town that even frequent visits to the town are not very feasible. But they did not have a trace of malice or jealousy or envy…just a simple acceptance of their lives. Not only acceptance, but contentment – the father, Mohammad, told us how he never got an education, but left home at 14 to see Morocco, but then came back 14 years later because he felt an obligation to take care of his family. “I don´t have much,” he said, “but I´m happy with my life.” It was amazing – they´ve never left the country, and most likely never will, but yet we were the ones in the bubble. I felt such a respect for us and our beliefs, and yet reverence for his faith at the same time. He thanked us – in English – after every question that we asked. I think it was the only English he knew; but he wanted to make sure that his appreciation was not lost in translation. He actually asked our permission to go pray before he left the room. At one point I told them about the note that my host sister had written me, and teared up a little bit from emotion. He noticed, and came up to me later and made a point to thank me for my tender heart. Someone asked him as we were wrapping up what he most wanted from us as Americans. He said without hesitation, that he wanted us to tell people back home the truth about Islam. I recognize that most of what I experienced will probably be lost in communication – in addition to the fact that I can´t really communicate properly exactly what I want to say – but if you get nothing else from this blog, know that you cannot judge a group of people based on a few. No matter their religion – or perhaps because of it – the people of Morocco are beautiful, loving, genuine, incredible people.
No one wanted to leave, but eventually we had to. The family stood on the hill and waved to us as long as they could see us. One of the little boys was waving so hard his entire frame shook. That´s a pretty good picture of what I learned about the people of Morocco – they put everything they have into caring for and loving others. Anyway, after the Rif Mountains we made our way to Chefchaouen. We settled into our hotel, and then had a few hours to shop and see the city. Dinner was in this really cool restaurant called Casa Aladdin – I had a cheese salad, Pastilla (a pastry with a mixture of lamb, cinnamon, African spices, and mint inside), and flan. It was amazing.
After dinner we had a “reflection session”. Rachel asked us all to sum up what we had learned or wanted to do in the future in 1 sentence. Here were some of the sentences: “I want to appreciate my education.” “I want to learn more.” “Most Muslims are not terrorists.” “I want to always be grateful and gracious.” “I will try to learn by stopping – not always be trying to do things, but sometimes just sit and pay attention to people and their experiences and needs.” Mine was this: “Find your pocket.” We can´t save the entire world. But we can save a part of the world. So find what you love, find where you can help, find your pocket – and go for it! There´s a quote from Harold Thurman Whitman that I just love: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Monday morning I walked up to a mosque overlooking the city to give me one last view of this wonderful place. It was lovely – definitely worth the trek in the rain. The rest of the day was spent in a blur traveling on bus, ferry, going through immigration, another bus, and then walking from the bus station to my house. It´s hard to believe that I was only in Morocco for 3 days.
Rachel gave us two gifts as a parting gift – a Moroccan bracelet, to help us remember the people and places of Morocco, and a geode from the south of Morocco, to remind us that things always have more to them than what appears. I hope I never forget. I learned more in 3 days in Morocco than in three months in Spain. It was…beyond words.
Rather anticlimactic, but you can see the rest of my pictures from the trip here. I´ll be home 1 week from today!!