Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Inevitable Question

Exactly three weeks left in Morocco. My plane tickets await in my inbox, and the hunt for the perfect gifts has begun. The end has loomed for the past few months, but I've mainly been thinking about the "happy to go, sad to leave" paradox that most exchange students are facing this time of year. However, on Monday I had to the privilege of visiting the U.S. embassy with the YES Abroad and NSLI-Y groups, and the end suddenly feels much closer.

At the embassy, we met with some embassy workers, members of a visiting delegation, and the ambassador himself, which was a cool look into the world of diplomacy. We spoke about our years and shared the moments that changed us and those that made us realize how much we have changed. In the next few months, there's a lot of conversations like these ahead. When we return home, we will inevitably be asked "how was Morocco?" 

To everyone who asks "how was Morocco?" thank you. My response will depend on whose asking, but I'm so excited to respond. What a privilege it is to be asked this question--to know that there are people in my life who are curious to hear about what I've been doing for the past year, whether they are former teachers, neighbors, or close family and friends, and to be able to share even a small part of my story with them. 

If I only have a few words, what do I want to tell people about Morocco?

I want to tell them that I feel incredibly lucky to have had an experience so multidimensional, I struggle to summarize it. Morocco was my home for the past 10 months, the backdrop to some great adventures and the most powerful classroom I have ever learned in. There were wonderful days, bad days, and flat out boring days. I awakened to the possibilities of myself and the world around me. And that's just the beginning of a conversation that could last for hours.

I suppose that's the hard part of the "how was Morocco?" question: time isn't infinite and neither are people's abilities to listen. Not every interaction will lead to heart to heart--that would get pretty tiring. I want to remember that, as I find it difficult to compose a response about an experience that changed MY life, I'm not the only one. The question "how was your year?" will slip out of my mouth, and my friends will have a pretty difficult time answering that too. Though my year was very different from that of my peers, they will want to share their trials and joys, just as I do. 

At one point in our lives or another, we're all asked to find the one word that can summarize an event that has rocked our world for better or for worse. Perspective: As I sit here trying to answer the question "how was your year?" after having the opportunity to go on this adventure, someone is searching for the response to "how are you?" after losing a spouse or child. One of my goals is to remember that everyone in the world has a story to tell. I want to be a person who is okay with asking a few word sentence and getting a few hour answer, because we all need someone to sit by our side as we unload our observations on our lives. Through listening, we validate each other's joys and fears. In every day interactions, I'm going to try to be more conscious of the emotional baggage everyone is carrying. It's easy to forget the complexity of our lives until someone gains the courage to open up. I am seeking the type of community that welcomes and encourages these surprising conversations.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Moroccan High School #2

A few months ago I started attending English class at a public high school near my house. Even though I’ve been attending school in Morocco since September, I felt a bit like I was starting in a whole new country when I came in the doors on the first day. I received quite a warm welcome from students and faculty: attending English class (and the connections I have made as a result) is easily one of the highlights of my year.

In the first week, I gave presentations about my life in the United States and my experience in Morocco. My new “classmates” (if you will) had so many great questions, and I had the chance to ask them a few of my own. I met teachers of English, Islamic Education (a subject in Moroccan public schools), and French, all of whom invited me into their classrooms. When my little brother came to visit, I took him to school with me. On a typical day, I sit with the students and try to help them with their assignments, and sometimes I’ll lead listening activities. I’ve been given a few presentations as well—about Ramadan and hammam—both of which I greatly enjoyed.

At times this new school seems quite different from the small private school (taught in French) I have attended all year. Most of the students there have met Americans and traveled to several different countries. In contrast, the school where I attend English class is a large public high school, taught in mainly Arabic, and many of the students have never met Americans before. Class sizes are larger and there’s more diversity (of background, area of study, etc) within the student body. In certain branches, there’s a Translation class. In this class, students translate their school work from Arabic to French, in order to prepare for the transition to university, which is taught in French. Girls also wear a vest like thing over their clothes. There are also similarities—the teachers spend most of the time lecturing (though some teachers do break out of this), being a few minutes late to class isn’t a big deal, and the students are stressed out about their upcoming exam, the Bac, which plays an important role in their future. Teachers don’t have substitutes, so sometimes class is canceled for days on end. There’s no exact end date—whenever the teachers finish the coursework, summer vacation begins. Things are a bit more up in the air than I’m used to in the United States, and I’m thankful I have so many friendly classmates to guide me through it.

I cannot express how much I have enjoyed connecting with my classmates and the adventures we have shared. From Bollywood dancing, to conversations over cous cous and rfissa, to Hung gar kung fu, and simply hanging out around the school and city, I have gained dear friends, as well as the insight on the life of a ‘typical’ Moroccan teenager that I have craved all year. It’s going to be hard to leave in a month, because I really feel like I’m hitting my stride here in Morocco. I am so grateful for the time I have had at Lalla Nezha—to everyone who has made my time there so memorable, thank you, shukran bzaf. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

North Trip

Earlier this week, the YES Abroad group and our leader headed out on our last overnight trip to the North of Morocco. Because this region of Morocco was once a Spanish protectorate, it has a different feeling--there are many signs in Spanish, we were often addressed in Spanish, and European foods were cheaper. On the first day, we stopped for the morning in Tetouan, a city in the mountains a few miles from the sea. We explored the medina and an art museum and ate lunch.

YES group in Tetouan! 

 Then we drove off to M'diq. M'diq is a new city on the Mediterranean, and our hotel was right on the beach. I loved the city. At night, a market bustled with people buying their groceries, I ate delicious calamari and shrimp and got to swim in the Mediterranean for the first time!

After a final morning on the beach, we headed to Akshour, an area nestled deep in the mountains, for a picnic and river swimming. The water was freezing and crystal clear and we climbed around on the rocks and explored a bit.

From Akshour, we made our ways on the twisting mountain roads to Chefchouen, a small of 50,000 people, located in a valley. The beautiful scenery and entirely blue medina make Chefchouen popular among tourists. Fountains (with public cups attached) dot the medina.

(Charis's picture)

 After living in Morocco for several months, it's always interesting to explore a new medina. Another YES Abroad student and I had a great encounter with couple who owned a shop. The wife is French, and she met her Moroccan husband when she visited Chefchouen as a tourist many years ago. Since then, they've traveled the world--to India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, and now they make and sell clothing together. I also loved going to the hammam in Chefchouen--the tiles were blue, reflecting the city around it .

at at waterfall in Chefchouen (photo credits to Charis Ramsing)

We made the last stop on our trip at a farm just outside of Chefchouen, called Auberge Dardara (click here for website). The owner of the farm took us on a nature walk through the fields, and his knowledge of the land amazed me--he would stop and point out flowers and plants, and he also shed light on the nearby Rif region. The Rif region of Morocco is unique in that it is self governing, and Rifi people are (in general) very proud of their homeland. At the Auberge, we had the chance to milk a goat, a first for me, and then we ate one of the most delicious lunches I've had since coming to Morocco. Tourists can stay on Auberge and I highly recommend it to anyone going to the North of Morocco!

milking the goat (again, Charis's picture)

All in all, I loved learning more about the North of Morocco. Our group trips are so much fun--thanks to my wonderful fellow students and leader. I come back each time feeling a rejuvenated love and curiosity for Morocco. I'm now entering my last month here, and I want to take time this May to give thanks for the past 243 days. I'll update again soon!

Moroccan Wedding #1

Last weekend, I had the joy of attending my first Moroccan wedding, with Charis (another YES Abroad-er) and one of our good friends. I've wanted to attend a wedding all year, and I'm so grateful I had the chance to experience one! 

There were lots of preparations leading up to the wedding. I bought my tukshita, bag, and shoes, slept a lot during the pre-wedding week (Moroccan weddings are all night affairs), and went to the hammam. On the day of the wedding, Charis and I set off for Sale, the city right next to Rabat, where the wedding would be held. We spent the next eight hours preparing for the ceremony--it reminded me of pre Homecoming or Prom festivities in the United States. There was lots of trying on clothes, ooh-ing and ahh--ing and only a few makeup disasters. We also went to the hair salon. Three hours, 102 bobby pins, fake flowers, fake hair, and a ton of hair spray later, I emerged with a very elaborate hairstyle. 

the final product 

After taking a ton of pictures, we left for the wedding at 8:30 P.M.

Pre wedding picture! 

 Most Moroccan weddings are held in large rented ballrooms. When we arrived, we ate a date and drank a glass of milk, and then sat down at an open table. 

The first two hours of the wedding were the quietest--only slow music was played and nobody was dancing. The real fun began when the bride arrived around 10:30. Moroccan weddings have camera men who videotape everything and play it live on screens all over the room, so we could see the bride and groom getting out of their car and coming up the stairs to the ballroom. 

the screens that show the couple's every move

 Men and women who are hired to assist in the wedding, called gandora, accompanied the couple as they entered the room and throughout the ceremony. 

The gandora carried the bride into the wedding and everyone surrounded her, clapping and taking pictures. Over the course of the wedding, the bride changes outfits about five times, and she is carried in and out for each outfit change. In the past, Moroccan weddings were three day events--the first day for a trip to the hammam, the second day to apply henna, and the third day for the actual wedding. Today, most weddings are done in a single day, and the bride applies henna in the ballroom. The bride at this wedding had done henna the day before and added some more during the ceremony. She always wears a green dress during the henna application, to match the color of the henna leaves. 

After the bride entered, the real fun began--dancing! Most of the wedding is spent cha3bi dancing. Cha3bi is a type of Moroccan music and I had a great time learning to dance to it. Moroccan weddings are an occasion for anyone who can walk to shake their hips, regardless of age, body type, and gender. Women as old as 80 were out on the floor as well as young children and everyone in between. I don't think anyone felt self conscious, and I love that. 

The bride and groom sat together on this couch in the front of the room for most of the wedding. 

We ate dinner at about midnight--

The first course was chicken, followed by a tajine of beef, prunes, and apricots. Then the dancing continued, until 3 A.M., when it as time for cookies. 

Our friend's mom made the cookies, and they were really delicious. Most people didn't eat the cookies at the wedding, but instead, they took them home to eat later. 

Throughout the whole wedding, I was waiting for the moment when the couple would officially be 'married'-the Moroccan equivalent of 'you can kiss the bride.' However, there really isn't a moment like this in Moroccan weddings, and it's unheard of for the bride and groom to kiss during the wedding. Charis and I also noticed that Moroccan weddings are less focused on the couple's love story. During American weddings, everyone discusses how they know the couple, how the couple met, etc. I don't think most of the people in the room knew how the couple met, and we didn't even know the bride's name until they said it at the wedding. The unofficial separation between genders also marked another difference in Moroccan and American wedding traditions. Though the sexes at this wedding were not officially separated, almost all the young men sat on the second floor of the ballroom, and the women (and a few older men) sat on the first floor. While everyone danced on the same red carpet in front of the couple, females danced with females and men danced with other men. 

One of my favorite moments of the wedding took place when the groom lifted off the bride's veil. 

Despite many differences between Moroccan and American weddings, the couple was clearly in love and everyone around them looked happy and excited. The bride's last dress is white, just like the dress most American brides wear, and the couple cut a wedding cake together and she tossed a bouquet of flowers. We left at 5 A.M.--completely exhausted. I still can't believe I managed not to fall asleep, and the whole thing feels dreamlike. I am so lucky I had the chance to see a Moroccan wedding, thank you to everyone who made it happen, particularly to my lovely partners in cha3bi dance and wedding adventures! Mubrook Ecram u Rachid! (Congratulations, Ecram and Rachid).