Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Fall Reflections

Judging by the Facebook statuses popping up in my news feed, it snowed in my hometown.

Weather has a way of reminding me of the passage of time when I start to forget. On the last weekend in September, I finally experienced a rainy day in Rabat. My cheeks felt cold outside and the clouds hung low in the sky. That night, the fifth in my new host family, I cuddled up with my huge fleece blanket. As I warded off the cold, another type of chill set into my bones: that of reality. Throughout my exchange experience, reality has remained elusive. I said "I can't believe it" when I found about my acceptance, when I had one hour left in the United States, when I landed in Morocco. But on my first cold night in Morocco, I believed it: I finally felt and understood how LONG ten months is. In that moment, I understood that I would be Morocco long enough for the nights to become much colder and then warm again. The length of my exchange was tangible, real, and a little bit scary.

Now the cold feels normal, and instead of thinking about how LONG my exchange will be, I am realizing just how quickly it is flying by. Two months of this crazy adventure will have passed me by come October 31. Have I explored enough? Has my French improved enough? Have I taken advantage of this wonderful, challenging experience in as many ways as possible? These are the questions that I wonder as the rhythms of Rabat familiar to a point where they are no longer "rhythms of Rabat" but simply habits of home.

We are given finite time and infinite possibilities. Past exchange students have warned me: exchange flies by. I understand that now and I realize that my time here in Morocco will never be "enough." All I can do is make each day worthwhile, seize it in the most energetic way possible, and fill it with growth. Lately, I've been challenged to continue giving this experience the effort and dedication it merits. It's all to easy to slip into the mindset of "I have all year to do this." But if not now, when? When will I be in this situation again? When will I have chance to earn back the wasted moments? The answer is never--every moment of every day I have ever lived is "once in a lifetime." Even the most mundane, routine activities can never be experienced in the exact same way two times. These activities are infinitely more precious here in Morocco, because come June, they will take place an ocean away. The small moments are the ones I will remember when I look back on this year. I will remember chopping vegetables each night with my host mom, going to the hanut with my host sister, and burning my finger tips and tongue on cous cous. I will remember the English classes I laughed through and the walks home with the sun high in the sky. For now, I am off to create these memories, and reflect on them, keeping in mind that their existence, like my exchange, is temporary yet beautiful. Carpe Diem.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Eid Mubarak!

Last week, I had the joy of spending Eid al Adha for the first time with my wonderful host family! Eid al Adha is a holiday commemorating the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son when God ordered him to. To remember this obedience, Muslim families around the world sacrifice animals--sheep, cows, goats and even chickens--and spend time with family and friends.The celebration takes place annually at the end of the twelfth month in the Islamic calender, after the pilgrimage to Mecca, called the Hajj, comes to a close. You can read more about the story behind Eid al Adha here!

In Morocco, most families sacrifice sheep. This meant that, during the weeks leading up to Eid, the city swelled with sheep-- their cries of "baa-baa" and their stench filling the normally crisp fall air. Trucks wound through the streets, carrying men and their sheep of choice from souk. A few days before Eid, my host mother motioned me over to look out the window of our laundry room. She pointed with a smile on her face to a single sheep in the courtyard below, and gestured so that I understood: this was the sheep that would be sacrificed in our home the following Wednesday. I looked forward to Eid with excitement--the inevitable mutton centered dishes and time spent preparing these dishes with my host family.

The morning of the Eid I awoke to a special call to prayer, called Salat Al Eid. When the prayer ended, people spilled onto the street from the mosque, all headed home to sacrifice their animals. Not fifteen minutes later, my sister motioned me to the balcony. On the sidewalk below us, I saw sheep heads roasting on a charcoal fire. The reality that almost every part of the sheep would be eaten set in. My family and I watched the king sacrifice his sheep on TV, which vaguely reminded me of watching the Macy's Day Thanksgiving parade before digging into a huge meal of turkey and stuffing.

When the time for the sacrifice came, the sheep was brought from the courtyard to the laundry room of the apartment. We gathered around, petting it and taking pictures, before our neighbor came over to perform the sacrifice. Our neighbor, the concierge, and my host uncle held down the sheep, and with the words "bismillah allah akhbar" and two swift cuts to the throat, it began to bleed out. It didn't take long for the sheep to quiver one final time and die. I watched with a mixture of interest and sadness as they cut a small hole in the sheep skin and inflated it, before removing the fur and skin. When I came back to the laundry room a few hours later, I found the sheep carcass hung by the ceiling. The first day, we ate the organ meat on kebabs, which my host family cooked on a charcoal grill. As I watched the apartment fill with smoke, I realized that fire alarms don't exist here.

The next day my host mom butchered the rest of the carcass herself. I helped her to do so, but watched from the side as she cleaned its head. As is customary, we gave some of the meat away to those who could not afford a sheep and some it to friends. I have become very familiar with the taste of mutton over the past few days! The streets have come to a stand still, for once. Many of the stores have remained closed through the weekend, because the owners are spending the holiday with extended family in far away cities. Eid festivities vary across Morocco and around the world. I've enjoyed learning about Eid around the world through the blog posts of my YES Abroad counterparts! You can read about Eid in Ghana hereEid in Oman here, and Eid in Indonesia here. Two common themes seem hold Eid festivities together--food and family. I loved spending Eid with my family and hope that this was just the first of many Eid celebrations to come!

Monday, October 14, 2013

The First Americans

Today I set out on an adventure with my friends Kate (Boston) and Belinda (Maryland) to Temara. Our English teacher invited us to help out at the English classes she coordinates through the ACCESS program, which is sponsored by the US government. I knew today would be a day of firsts for me--my first time on the bus, first time out of Rabat, and first time volunteering in Morocco. However, as I set out from my apartment this morning, I didn't imagine that I'd be the first U.S. American to some of my new friends.

My friends and I met at the bus stop, which was already crowded with people anxiously staring down the street. We weren't sure which direction we wanted, just the bus number, but thanks to some helpful Moroccans, we realized that we needed to move to the other side of the road. Upon arriving at the actual bus stop that we needed, we waited about 10 minutes for Bus Number 4. I boarded the bus, clutching the 4 dirham fare in my hand. I didn't see any place to pay, so I proceeded to make myself comfortable (or as comfortable as possible on such a crowded bus). It wasn't until I saw a man in the middle of the bus attempting to get my attention that I learned that I had walked right past the ticket taker and neglected to pay. After handing over the equivalent of 50 cents, Kate, Belinda, and I communicated our destination to the driver, who agreed to tell us when we reached our destination. The bus transported us out of flashy Agdal, through the villas of Hay Riad, and finally, onto the main street of Temara. Temara felt oddly like small town USA--one main street, filled with stores and restaurants. The street was dotted with "koochees" which are horse drawn carriages.

After exiting the bus, we navigated to the school using the hand drawn map our English teacher had made for us. The students look at us with curiosity but also with kindness. They said "Welcome" as we entered the simple classroom, filled with hard benched desks and closed in by graffiti covered walls. We took our seats next to our Moroccan counterparts. Over the next 4 hours, we helped them with English worksheets, laughed over shared musical likes and dislikes, and of course, exchanged Facebook information. One of my favorite moments took place when our teacher played a video of the Cup Song, a popular tune from Pitch Perfect. All of the students in the class, whether Moroccan or American, joined in and sung along. View a small clip of our singing HERE.

Being surrounded by the students today gave me a breath of fresh air. Their sometimes hilarious, sometimes serious comments and questions made me both laugh and pause to think. When our teacher posed the question "Have you ever met an U.S. American before?" I was surprised to hear that many of the students in the class had not. Being one of the first U.S. Americans (along with Kate and Belinda) for these students is both an honor and responsibility. It's an honor because, out of all the people in United States, I am one of the first. It's a responsibility because to my new friends, I am the United States, I am their point of reference for my entire nation. I lived in the United States, but the United States continues to live on in me--in my view of the world, in my values, and in my mindset.

After class finished, we walked down the street together, quite literally arm in arm. We promised to meet up again soon, and bid each student farewell with kisses on the cheek when they had to turn from the group to walk home. Finally, we reached the bus stop and waved goodbye to our new friends, heading back to the bustling city of Rabat. Tonight, as I sit in my room, I am admiring a new bracelet on my wrist--it is black, with shiny round beads. One of my new friends gave it to me from her wrist. Having a small collection of beaded bracelets myself, I gave her one of mine. We are now carrying a small part of each other, representative of our different lives and cultures. When we sit across from each other in classrooms, when our tongues wrap around the words of each other's languages, when our voices trace the same melody of overplayed pop songs, the 'other' is no longer so foreign.  I feel that the type interactions I had today--friendships that stem from curiosity and bridge cultures--are what the YES Abroad program is all about. Today gave me a renewed sense of purpose of my time in Morocco, and I can't wait to see these amazing students again! 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Learning by Immersion

For the past 38 days, I have been engaged in the process of learning both Darija (Moroccan Arabic) and French. Though I have participated in organized Darija and French classes, most of my language acquisition has taken place outside of the classroom. Before I came here, many people asked me if I spoke Darija, a question to which I cheerfully replied "no!" I envisioned that, through immersion, the words of this unfamiliar language would flow easily from my mouth. While my ideas about immersion were not entirely wrong, I've realized that learning a language in any setting requires dedication and perseverance. Undoubtedly, learning by immersion offers numerous benefits--but (in my opinion) benefits cannot be realized without a conscious decision to focus.

I have studied (and struggled with) French since seventh grade. During my stay in Morocco, I have primarily relied on my French--at school, in my host family, and on street. On the road to fluency, I'm not there yet, but I'm much farther than I was last year, last month, and or even last week. It's easy to become frustrated by not understanding a simple question, a joke, or an entire lesson. But when I step back and realize how much more I comprehend of my classes now than I did at first, I recognize the growth I have made with French. Sometimes I can even answer a question! It's the little milestones that call my attention to overall progress. For instance, the other day I had a small conversation with my host sister--just talking about our days at work and school. When I walked away, I couldn't remember if the conversation was in English or in French, I just knew it felt natural.

Learning Darija is entirely different from French. I wonder if I'll ever be able to pronounce the "gh" or the "kh" sound, but that doesn't stop me from trying (and getting a sore throat in the process). I'm so thankful to our lovely Darija teacher, Khadija, for her patience! Now more than ever, I'm motivated to learn Darija because my new host mother doesn't speak French. (For those of you who don't know, I switched host families recently and I'm very happy with my new living situation!) There's been plenty of translating, thanks to my host sisters, but also miming, pointing, and new acquisition of vocabulary on both of our parts. I can now greet friends in Darija, point out certain objects, and, most importantly, say that I'm full. Ana shabaat and safi baraka mean "I'm full" and they top of list of my most commonly used Darija phrases. My host mom is a wonderful cook and is constantly encouraging me to "koolee, Catherine, koolee!" (Eat, Catherine, eat!)

My Darija has grown through my interactions outside the home as well. I learned the words for right and left by asking for directions in Darija and then realizing that I didn't know any directional terms. Today at the hammam, a women kept asking me "skhoon?" It wasn't until she gestured repeatedly at the faucet that I understood that "skhoon" means hot in Darija. Almost every evening, I help my host mom cook dinner, and through much gesturing and laughing, I have learned the words for basic foods and kitchenware. To help commit my new vocabulary to long term memory, I've been keeping a notebook where I write the new words I learn each day. I try to find time to study the words at some point during my busy days here--whether on the tram or late at night. Hopefully, my Darija will only continue to grow! For now, here's a few pictures from the past week!

Sheep at Marjane, a big super market. Eid al Adha is next week, and my host family, along with many other Moroccan families, will be sacrificing a sheep. 

My host sister let me try on her tuk sheeta! Tuk sheeta is a dress worn for special occasions.

Sifa--a noodle dish with raisins, nuts, and hard boiled eggs topped with cinammon and sugar. It's delicious!

Laundry drying on my balcony! 

Heads up to anyone interested--the YES Abroad application for 2014-2015 is now live at! I remember how excited I was last year to start filling it out! I'd love to proofread essays or answer general question, so please let me know if you have any! Thanks for reading! 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Trip to the Hammam

On a quiet Wednesday afternoon two weeks ago, I finally set off to the hammam. As I walked down the street, bucket in one hand and stool in the other, I felt both normal and out of place. Going to the hammam is a routine for my Moroccan family and I knew that, in going to the hammam, I would gain insight on this ritual and its importance in Moroccan culture. However, lugging my hammam supplies down the street, I also had no idea of what awaited me within.

After meeting up with my fellow hammam goers and consulting a kind local woman for directions, I arrived at the hammam. In Arabic, hammam means "spreador of warmth." Before these steam baths were introduced to Arab societies, men and women used only cold water for bathing. After seeing Roman baths in Syria, the prophet Mohammed recommended "sweat baths" to his followers. As Islam grew, so did the hammam, evolving into the sauna like chambers I have come to know and love. Entering the hammam was intimidating--there are no signs explaining what to do, only unspoken traditions. After paying the entrance fee of treize Dirhams (13 dirhams = $1.60), we followed the movements of the other hammam goers. We handed over our clothes--the hammam is not a place for those unprepared for near public nudity--  in exchange for buckets and gesture towards a closed door.

Once inside, three rooms stretched out before us, each one progressively hotter, and we chose to set up our supplies in the hottest one. My hammam supplies include:
A stool  (for sitting on while bathing)
Kessa (a mitten with a sand paper like texture for scrubbing shown below)
Bucket (typically the hamman provides one bucket/bather)
Flip Flops 
Ladle (for rinsing)
Savon Noire (a black soap pictured below) 

After arranging our various scrubs and tools in front of us, we filled our buckets from the two faucets on the side of the white tiled room. As I walked across the floor (which was surprisingly clean), I could feel the heat from the fire of the hammam beneath my feet. Immediately, sweat began gathering all over my body and the bathing rituals began. I don't have any pictures, but the tiled room of the hamman I visited looks like this, but without the benches on the side and with a flat ceiling.

Savon noire is applied to soften the skin and swell dead skin cells so they are easily removed. The removal of the dead skins cells is made possible by kessa. Hammam goers have two options for scrubbing--doing it themselves or hiring one of the hammam workers to scrub for them. Either way, the goal seems to be to have no skin left, accomplished by vigorous and repeated scrubbing. I chose to scrub myself, but I watched the hamman workers scrub many other women with unmatched ferocity. After the scrubbing myself, I washed my hair repeatedly, using the ladle my host mom had lent me to rinse myself.

As we refilled our buckets with water of various temperatures, ranging from scorching hot to a refreshing cold, the hammam began to swell with women of all ages. Going to the hammam isn't just about lathering and ladling. It's a social event. Women often come with friends or children to enjoy a couple hours of relaxation and conversation. For this reason, the bathing can stretch on for several hours. I finally began to feel sufficiently clean after an hour of hammmam-ing. I don't think any shower will make me feel as clean as I did when I stepped outside the hammam onto a busy street in Rabat. I've already returned to the hammam and I've designated Wednesday afternoons as the time for my weekly trip. I hope to try out as many hammams as possible! 

Until next time!