Grains of Fire and the Burn of Memory

30 May 2012

Sand.   Grains orange like sunset, bright against the white fabric.  Filling the corners of my pockets and clinging to my skin, as Morocco clings to my mind.

I’ve been home for a week now.  My suitcase is unpacked, most of my gifts and souvenirs have been sorted, but I’m still finding unexpected treasures from my life in Morocco.   Like the pants I’m wearing.   I thought the pockets were bunched up after I put them on, but when I went to straighten the lumps out, my fingers encountered fine sand, as bright as a sunset over the Sahara, which is, in fact, where it came from.

I realize I must have worn these on ISA’s last excursion to Merzouga, where we visited the Sahara desert almost a month ago now.  I can’t believe it’s been so long, and at the same time so short.  Time passes strangely while in transition and re-entry into the States is definitely a big transition to make.

I admit it’s not always fun, but neither is this re-entry as difficult as some others I have faced in the past.  I miss Morocco and have some culture shock, but I’m not completely depressed.   Perhaps, like all things, the transition becomes easier with time and practice.

Categories: In the USA, Morocco | Leave a comment

All Good Things…

5 AM. The morning call to prayer rings out across the city. From minaret to minaret, across the rooftops of Meknes, various muezzins take up the call, echoing and overlapping each other in haunting yet peaceful melodies that call the faithful to prayer, greeting the new day with Allah in mind.

Usually I am sound asleep when this particular call rings out but tonight I can’t sleep. Hearing the morning call to prayer and feeling the peace it brings makes me glad I’m awake to hear it this time. I don’t have many left.

My last days are full of small tasks, meeting with friends for what could be the last time, last-minute shopping in the medina searching for relatives’ gifts and souvenirs, soaking in the smells of meshwi grilled meats and diesel exhaust on the dusty walk from one side of the city to the other. The sounds of the informal local language are by turns shouted and murmured as stall-holders hawk their wares at bartering patrons, consonants pushed together, gurgling around me from all sides in snippets of understanding and as-yet-unknown syllables until I am immersed in a world at once familiar and only half-understood.

I don’t quite belong but I have made a place for myself in this carnival of characters. The scarf vendor down the first alley will accept my trades in place of currency. The jewelrist knows the school I’m studying at and is sure to teach me a new word or two each time I speak with him. At one shop I have a reputation for “bartering like a Berber woman”, but they always invite me for tea when I pass by. The woman across the narrow alleyway always asks after my family and I tell her her scarves are the prettiest in the whole medina.

Even people I haven’t met yet know who I must be as soon as I open my mouth. There is only one small group of Americans studying at the university here, and no common tourist knows the local language. I am known and I am welcomed. Whatever hassle I may receive on the street for being female, it is that open heart that continually redeems Morocco in my eyes. People’s ability to make you feel like an honored guest in a strange land has undoubtedly won many a haggler profit from tourists, but by digging beneath the surface and making an effort at understanding, it has gained me more than a few friends.

The time has come, however, to move on. My year is up, and while I haven’t learned all that I had hoped (I’m still not fluent in Arabic or French or Darija) I did learn just how important personal relationships can be and what a difference even a small gesture can make.

After one last hot yet mintily refreshing cup of sweet Moroccan “atay” at a local café with friends, I head back to the apartment I share with my host family to gather the last of my things and find a way to zip up my overstuffed suitcases. The house is empty, quiet. The cool, tiled floors keep this place insulated from the cacophony of activity in the streets below but I enter this sanctuary with slight trepidation, too worked up over the day’s schedule to fully relax. I keep the last parting gifts I have for the family to myself, hoping I’ll get the chance to give them in person. They haven’t made it home yet and my bus is leaving earlier than I had hoped. My host sister had stayed behind but I don’t see her anywhere either.

I pile my luggage by the entryway, watching the clock anxiously and listening for the sound of a key at the door. But the lock never turns. I can’t wait much longer so I pile my presents on the dining room table, arranging them carefully with a note of heartfelt thanks.

These people opened their home to me and welcomed me into their family. I lived with them for months. How do I ever express the value and appreciation I have for that experience? How do I convey the depth of my gratitude with a note in a language I’m not fully versed in? How do I say goodbye without actually being able to say goodbye?

I do my best, then sling my pack over my shoulder, dragging my suitcase behind me and turn for one last look before I shut the door. No longer home, I know this place has had an impact I probably won’t be able to fully understand or appreciate until I am long gone, once again immersed in my life in the States. Whatever eventually comes of my time here, though, I know I am eternally grateful for the experience.

With the help of some friends, I haul my bags down the street to where the bus awaits and the crowd of teary-eyed classmates and exchange students continually grows. The goodbyes are bittersweet, but somehow we all manage to board the bus headed for what is to me an almost forgotten home. As we drive off into the setting sun of a Moroccan spring, I am compelled to say the final goodbye to this part of my life, and pull out my phone to call my host family.

The call doesn’t go through.

I try again.

The number doesn’t work.

Suddenly I am overcome by loss, the end of this time in my life feels abrupt, cut short even though I knew it was coming. There is no closure; no final words, no ritual to fall back on no matter how contrived. I am simply gone – cut out of Morocco like a scab picked clean. I am cast adrift – for Morocco has been cut out of me too, or rather I have been cut out of me. The part of me that was Moroccan, that fit here, lived here, ran into people on the street here, shopped for vegetables at the Sunday Souk, asked for hot sauce on street food, traded scarves with friends and vendors, and drank mint tea every day – that part of me no longer has a home. And I didn’t even get to say goodbye to the people that gave it one in the first place.

I blindly turn away from my useless phone, not knowing what to do as my eyes overflow with too many memories, too many regrets, and too much uncertainty. My friends are standing in the aisle telling jokes. I hear the group’s laughter and see their smiles but can’t comprehend what’s been said for the ache in my heart. I don’t make eye contact but as I dazedly turn away, David comes over to sit beside me. One of the few other students who stayed in Morocco for an entire year, David and I had become good friends over our extended stay abroad. He sits quietly at my side and puts his head on my shoulder, his wordless support and clear understanding more than I could ask for and exactly what I need.

The evening call to prayer goes out while we’re on the road, sounding mournful and haunting against the setting sun. Entranced by the sound, my sad heart sends an upswell of gratitude to whatever powers may be for the people that are now a part of my life, whether past, present, or future.

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The Call to End

5 AM.  The morning call to prayer rings out across the city.  From minaret to minaret, across the rooftops of Meknes, various muezzins take up the call, echoing and overlapping each other in haunting yet peaceful melodies that call the faithful to prayer, greeting the new day with Allah in mind.

Usually I am sound asleep when this particular call rings out but tonight I can’t sleep.   Hearing the morning call to prayer and feeling the peace it brings makes me glad I’m awake to hear it this time.  I don’t have many left.

Tomorrow is my last full day in Meknes, Morocco – the city that has been my home for the past eight months.   I’ve finished my final exams, have almost finished cramming everything that can possibly fit into my suitcase, and should by all means be resting so I can enjoy tomorrow to the fullest: visiting with my Moroccan friends, doing some last-minute shopping in the medina, getting my hands henna-ed, etc.  I want to soak up every bit of my last few hours in this wonderful city, with the people who have been so kind and generous as to open up their lives, homes, and hearts to me.

The problem is that tomorrow is the last full day.  My time here in Morocco is drawing to a close and I’m not entirely sure how to react to that.  While I’m excited for my upcoming trip to visit friends and travel in Europe, it’s hard to leave the beautiful country that has been my home for the whirlwind roller coaster ride of the past year.  There are so many people, customs, and things I will miss in Morocco but the truth of the matter is that I know I won’t be able to fully grasp the significance of any of these things until I am settled back in America.

My friend Katie wrote a very nice post about our upcoming departure in regards to our time spent here in Morocco.   Her experiences are not mine, but she does a good job of describing the joy to be found in living here, as well as just how much this place has become home to our group.  This was posted on the ISA Student Blog, as she is one of this year’s featured bloggers:


By Katie Gillespie

The first time I got a glimpse of the shores of Africa, I was in tears.

I assure you, though, that they were not happy tears. In fact, they were really, very, extremely distressed ones. As excited as I was to start my study abroad adventure, the previous 36 hours had featured the following: A flight cancellation due to snow, an emotional six hour layover in Frankfurt International, missing my loved ones already and the prospect of getting in a car with someone I didn’t know in a country I’d never been to for a long drive to Marrakech.

What was I thinking? I didn’t know Arabic. My attempt at using French in the airport had resulted in a disastrous call with a confused and angry representative from Royal Air Maroc. I was a 20-year-old homebody who’d never left the country, and now I was going to North Africa.

Seriously, what was I thinking?

The second time I got a glimpse of the shores of Africa, I was in tears.

This time, they weren’t just happy ones. They were tears of absolute delight. I was home, to my beautiful, beloved Morocco after ten days traveling around France by myself. My passport, the pages still stiff from being less than a year old, was peppered with stamps of countries I’d never imagined I’d see as a 20-year-old homebody who’d never left the country. That night, I’d be in Meknes, sleeping in my own bed, seeing the friends and the city I’ve fallen head over heels in love with.

Eiffel Tower

I mean, Paris is pretty incredible, I’m not gonna lie. But there’s no place like home.

Everything can change in three-and-a-half months. I often tell people if studying abroad has taught me anything, it’s that a patient eye and an open mind can find joy anywhere they go.

There’s joy to be found in a walk to school. There are always fruit stands to visit if you’re hungry and men with donkeys delivering more goods to them. There are men working at hotels to wave at who giggle when you say “As-Salam Alaikum” (Peace be upon you; the traditional greeting in the Arab world) to them. There are security guards at the front gate of the university trying to look intense, but if you catch them at the right time, you’ll see them tickling the kittens that live there.

There’s joy to be found in doing laundry on the roof. There are no dryers in Morocco. All clothes are hung up. Lines dot the walls of every apartment complex and from every rooftop, there are clothes fluttering in the wind. The air smells strongly of detergent, and if you go up at just the right time, you can watch the sun set and listen to the call to prayer, one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard and the thing I will miss most about day to day life in Morocco.

The view from my window is absolutely stunning at sundown. I’m going to miss it so much.

There’s joy in making friends with friends of the ISA directors. Absolutely nothing can beat a day spent on their sprawling farm, petting camels, hiking for what seems like miles and riding back to the house, not in a car, but clinging to the side of it and squealing in nervous excitement as they drive dangerously fast across the rugged earth. And naturally, because this is Morocco, there’s food and mint tea to be had back at the house. Of course, you’re always invited back to watch the Barcelona Football Club play and feast on marvelous dishes you’ll never see in the U.S. Couscous, anyone?

Farm in Morocco

I never thought I’d end up on a farm in the middle of nowhere in Morocco, but it ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made to go there.

There’s joy to be found in communication barriers, as exhausting as they can sometimes be. The brain power required to put my shwiya Arabia (little Arabic) to work is intense, but people are always helpful. People laugh and are eager to help when you throw out the few words you know. You’re guaranteed to make a friend and learn a few new words when you go out for dinner. You might even get a free bowl of fruit or see the cook scampering over to your table to put your purse on a chair, because it might get messy or make someone trip if it’s on the floor. At least, I think that’s what happened. Regardless of what was said, it’s always accompanied with smiles and giggles, the most universal form of communication.

There’s joy in watching your roommate fall in love with a Moroccan man, in meeting his friends and talking to them for hours on end over a cup of coffee, learning about the culture and gaining a better understanding of how important the simple things like love, life and family are. There’s joy in scheming with her, in figuring out how and when she’s going to return to Morocco. There’s joy in filming the moment he finally gets down on one knee and asks her to marry him.


This definitely happened, and I definitely cried a little bit. It’s so amazing to have witnessed this from the beginning. My roommate is in for an amazing life in Morocco.

There’s joy in plotting your own return to Morocco, during those long walks to school or those long train rides across the country. The itinerary grows every day with everything you see, until it seems that you’ll have to spend another three-and-a-half months in the country you love like you can never love anywhere else.

Sahara Desert

The Sahara. Words cannot even begin to describe this experience.

But, at the end of the day, the journey has to start, and end, with Meknes, the city you’re eager to return to after seeing the bustling, dirty streets of Casablanca; the snake-charmers and gnawa musicians of Marrakech; even the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Because after that much time in a city and the sheer number of friends you’ve made, there’s no way a city like this can’t be called home.

The last time I see the shores of Africa this year, I’ll be in tears—but I know I’ll be coming home someday soon, insha’Allah.

Happy travels.

Katie Gillespie
Meknes, Morocco
Spring 2012

You can follow Katie’s other adventures on her personal blog

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Free Verse Poem: Love in the Sand

Love in the sand, built up by caring hands.
Until the ocean washes it away
as the moon holds the tides
under her sway.

Ephemerality eternalized
only in the memory
of a moment’s touch.
The grit of sand under a fingernail,
a taste of salt clinging to your skin.

The sound of ocean waves
echoes in a shell held to your ear,
bringing the moment back
until you realize
it’s your own blood crashing,
pumping life into a memory
that no longer exists.

Is that all that’s left of us?

Has that ocean of time and distance
washed away
the love we built in the sand
all those years ago?

Waves crashing
until even the rocks give way.
Slowly fading
into the sands of time,
making a new bed
on the ocean floor.

Your lips move to answer
but I can no longer hear
over the sound of the waves
as I let the current take me
to where I belong
in the sand.

[Written 10 April 2012 on Banana Beach in Agadir/Aourir, Morocco and inspired by my friend’s drawings in the sand]

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The Wonders of Language

It’s amazing sometimes how much language can mean to people.  It’s something you don’t generally think of in everyday life, at least from my experience in America.  Other than some Anthropologists and Linguists gunning to protect endangered languages (learn more about it here), the most attention it gets in the States tends to be from people complaining about immigrants who don’t speak English.  Not exactly the most positive image of American culture, especially considering our own general lack of linguistic education (which I’m sure is a big contributing factor to such anti-foreign sentiment, but I digress).

In Morocco, language is important and everyone knows it.  People communicate not just with the words they speak, but also with the choice of which language they use.  Language choice can convey information about education, social class, upbringing, expectations (foreigners are often addressed in French), and cultural attitudes of the speaker.  The differences between French (the language of the colonizers and foreign elite), Darija (the everyday language of people on the street), and FosHa (the holy language of the Qoran and MENA’s lingua franca) are vast and carry very different connotations in their social use.   These connotations can greatly affect one’s perception of the speaker, leading to some interesting exchanges that can either help or hinder one’s cause.

Between my limited Darija, stumbling French, and halting FosHa, I am generally able to comunicate and make myself understood after having been here for about 7 months now.  I’ve found that the more Darija I use, the more surprised and happy people are.  They don’t expect foreigners to know the local dialect.  Even people from other Arab countries can’t understand much Darija, which is what makes FosHa so helpful.  Moroccans are often surprised when I speak FosHa too (as most European or Western tourists speak only French, English, and/or the language of their home country), but only the more educated, more religious, or those more enamored with Egyptian soap operas speak it themselves.   Whenever I speak Arabic (including FosHa, but especially when I try for some Darija), people instantly become more friendly, more open, and more excited to know me.  I’ve gained a lot more insight on Moroccan life and culture by trying to learn the language, and people repay my interest in small ways all the time.

I’ve already mentioned my encounter with the cotton candy man in Meknes, but that’s just one example.  Just this morning I went to buy water from a small shop near the train station (to avoid paying the more expensive price on the train) and greeted the man there with a short conversation in Darija.  He told me the price and then, after a few jokes testing my Arabic while I dug around in my wallet, refused to let me pay full price because he knew I was a student studying the language locally. I’ve only been to that shop once before (and not in a month or so)  but he remembered me and appreciated my efforts to learn about Morocco.  I know that long after the water is gone and the money forgotten, his smile will continue to warm my heart, serving as a reminder of the true value of cultural exchange and the ability of language (whether gestured, fluent, stumbling, or otherwise) to connect people all over the world.

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The ride to Chefchaouen was uneventful, if cramped. It took about two hours to get there and our mode of transportation was a Grand Taxi, hired just outside the DMZ of the Sebtan border. Grand Taxi’s are wonderful and relatively cheap. I use them on an almost-daily basis to get to and from school, paying only 3dhs (approximately ($0.40 USD) each way. Each one is a big old Mercedes that 6 passengers are crammed into: 4 in the backseat and 2 in the passenger seat. Moroccans don’t have much of a concept of personal space and a Grand Taxi ride is just one example of how you can get real close real fast with some interesting people.

For better or worse our group consisted of exactly six people – perfect for filling up a grand taxi and paying the cheapest price, but also meaning we’d be crammed in said taxi for two hours, hardly able to move. The ride wasn’t all that bad though, as there was plenty of new scenery to enjoy along the way. Chefchaouen sits in the Rif mountains of northern Morocco. If you’ve heard the term “reefer”, that’s where it comes from – Chefchaouen is arguably the cannabis capital of the world. My attraction to the place lies more in the gorgeous mountain scenery and the blue color it’s known for, as I noted in my previous experience there last semester, but all of these factors have helped the city earn a name for itself.

Our arrival in Chefchaouen was greeted by misty rain clouds .  I haven’t yet managed to visit the place when it’s sunny [and seeing as how I only have three weeks left here, I doubt I’ll have the chance this trip] but the imminent rain couldn’t dampen our spirits as we wound our way through alleys and gardens to some of the boys’ favorite hostel from their last visit.

Our evening was spent eating multi-course meals in the medina, getting to know the other people in the hostel, and wandering through the maze of blue-painted walls at night.  We eventually stumbled across one shop, situated between a mosque and a big, ancient olive tree, with one of the friendliest, most insightful and entertaining shopkeepers ever.  His name was Rashid and our time with him was so memorable we returned back the next day.

There were so many interesting Rashid quotes, from attempts to sell things for “potatoes price”, to the more philosophical “life is onion”.  He had a gift for relating anything to food, even licking one of his leather bags to show it is  “like couscous” and true Moroccan leather.  It’s people like him that epitomize the generosity, friendliness, and up-selling savvy that permeates so much of Moroccan culture.  Several of the guys purchased goods from him and though neither Monica nor I bought anything, pleading lack of funds (my ATM card had been eaten by the machine the first night), he gifted us both with a cloth bag each.

We spent Sunday morning hiking an old Spanish monastery above the town.  It was a short hike, but the view from the top was spectacular and we got great views of the city on the way down as well.

The others took the bus back home to Meknes that afternoon but my ATM card was still stuck in an ATM downtown so I had to stay until the bank opened Monday morning to retrieve it.  My friend Ben stayed the extra day with me and we spent the afternoon further wandering the town and exploring the old fortress (aka. kasbah) within it.   The gardens were beautiful, even in the still drizzly weather, and the tower had been converted into a museum exhibit, offering great views of Chefchaouen’s rooftops on the way up.

Thankfully the next morning’s card retrieval went relatively seamlessly.  I spoke with a lady upstairs at the bank and she had a whole stack of ATM cards sitting on her desk that had been eaten by the machine.  Mine was near the top of the pile and with a simple display of ID and a signature, the card was mine again.  I decided to try a different ATM to get money for the ride back, and as soon as we had our stuff, we were off to the station to get tickets for the three-hour ride to Fes, where we caught the train home.  Things certainly hadn’t worked out exactly as planned for our weekend adventure, but the trip ended up being one of my favorites anyway.   That’s one thing I love about travel: even through all the uncertainty, at times even having no money or no place to sleep, you can still have fun and enjoy the experience.

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Sebta in Photos

Before moving on to Chefchaouen, I’d just like to share some more pictures from my adventures in Sebta.  They all have very different feels to them but I had fun capturing different moments throughout the day.  Enjoy!

Walking the streets we saw some interesting graffiti, most of it the usual tagging or doodling but this caught my eye and made me chuckle.

Going in search of the big fort on the end of the peninsula meant climbing a pretty big hill but the views along the way were well worth it.  This house looks like it has a pretty nice set up, I particularly liked how it almost appears to be floating over nothing, overlooking infinity.

The walk down to the beach was full of color.  The football “field” was bright red and this yellow staircase lined with flowers emphasized the imminence of Spring, even though the weather had yet to clear up.

Field for football, ruins to explore, beach access, gorgeous views, and a crystal clear sea.  What more could you ask for?

Exploring the ruins of an old building by the beach, I climbed up to what used to be an upper floor to see the ocean and found some neat perspectives on the ruins themselves as well.

The front of the building was guarded by an old gnarled tree that had probably been there as long as the building had.

There’s always lots of different forms of life and color to be found in the ocean, especially at a beach as rocky as this one.  I’m just amazed my camera was able to capture both the shells on the rocks and the water’s surface at the same time.

I don’t know why I love black and white photographs so much.  The ocean always looks like it could stretch on forever and combined with these rocks for contrast I just knew I had to try something in B&W.

We all enjoyed the fresh ocean air.  Our time in Sebta was short but I think we’d all agree that it was time well spent.

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What’s in a Day?

Midterms, and Languages, and Ambassadors, oh my!

School today was a pleasant surprise. Though I went to bed early, I was still exhausted from the weekends festivities (trust me, Moroccan’s know how to party, and their wedding hefla’s last all night long), and slept later than I intended, meaning I had to take a petite taxi to make it to school in time for my 8am class and the midterm that went along with it. I had a really nice taxi driver, who picked up some other nice people on the way, and (thanks to a great mix of FosHa and Darija) I was actually able to communicate and understand what was said in our conversations (Hooray for constantly trying to juggle 3 foreign languages!). I made it to class in time for some interesting discussions about djnun (aka. djinns) and what travel and experiencing “the Other” means for personal growth, change, and self-discovery. We had a midterm in the second half of class, which thankfully was a timed write on some of the literature we’ve read for the class (yes, in this class we actually read, discuss, and analyze Moroccan literature = win!).

Some of the books donated to Universite Moulay Ismail

My morning Moroccan History and Culture class was followed by Advanced Arabic Grammar, with a professor who never fails to keep class interesting, but what was really exciting about the day was what happened after lunch. Two of my friends from ISA and I went to get shawarma just off campus at a local place where we ran into some of our Moroccan friends. We then returned to campus together to listen to the American Ambassador to Morocco speak. He and his wife had come to the University to donate some books on American Studies (including titles by John Steinbeck, Malcolm Gladwell, Walt Whitman, Ray Bradbury, and J.D. Salinger to name a few) and have some discussions with the Moroccan American Association for Communication and Cultural Cooperation (MAACCC) on campus. After the public speech and official donation of the books, Ambassador Samuel Kaplan and his wife Sylvia moved from the university’s auditorium to the administration building for an exclusive meeting with the members of MAACCC and the American students who decided to sit in on the meeting (and were allowed in by virtue of being American). After introducing ourselves, the Ambassador and his wife asked us all if there was any way they could improve their mission in Morocco. They were rather pressed for time but still made an effort to listen to students’ input and address concerns, leaving a few minutes for pictures and some short side conversations before they had to head back to Rabat (Morocco’s capital is about a three hour long drive away from Meknes).

The Americans

It was an interesting experience as an American student in the crowd of excited Moroccans. I hadn’t known the Ambassador would be there until I got to school that morning, though I do remember overhearing something about it last week. Vaguely. [At the time I thought it was part of another cultural event MAACCC is having later this week, but that’s another story.] That’s very much how things tend to go in Morocco, at least in my experience. Flexibility is key, especially when it comes to scheduling, so when I heard that the US Ambassador would be on campus in the afternoon, I quickly changed my plans so I could go. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see him speak (and I’m always in support of sharing books!) but I didn’t really think about the possibility of meeting him personally. However, after the meeting, as all the excited Moroccan students crowded around them, asking for pictures, the Ambassador made a point to seek out the few American students who were hanging around to talk and get a picture with them. We were all just along for the ride, but he and his wife seemed like genuinely nice people who were happy to see some American faces in the crowd.

Overall, I was slightly surprised at how informal the whole affair was, but now that I think back on it, it makes sense. The more I learn of other languages, the more I realize how very informal the English language is, especially the American dialect. The use of English combined with Moroccan culture, which is so very hospitable and welcoming that American political distance seems rude and which allows people to interrupt speakers and turn any speech into a discussion, would naturally make for a somewhat informal experience by US political standards. The small size of the group also made both the speech and the meeting more intimate experiences. Plus, Sam and Sylvia Kaplan’s desire to listen to students’ input further encouraged an open dialogue and more personal interaction with them.

Sylvia and Samuel Kaplan

Sylvia and Samuel Kaplan

I found that their speech was entertaining. They made some interesting comments, (some of which are roughly quoted below), some of which I agreed with and some I found more questionable. They seemed like genuinely nice people with good senses of humor (I’m not entirely sure the entirety of their audience got all of their humor in this case, but I at least appreciated it). The one thing that bothered me was the issue of language. The entire event was conducted in English, for which I was grateful, since it’s still the only language I’m fluent in and events in English are somewhat hard to come by in Meknes, Morocco. Since the topic was American Studies and the friendship between Morocco and the US, the decision to use English was conducive to the purpose of the event as well. However, neither the Ambassador nor his wife spoke French or Arabic (let alone Darija). In sharp contrast to the Moroccan officials’ formal “Bismillah alRahman alRahim…” they made no attempt to use any words or phrases in any language other than English (except for an appropriated use of “par excellence” in part of the Ambassador’s speech, which doesn’t really count) in the whole 2.5-3 hours they were there. Not even a single “shokran” for all the “marhaban bikoum”s they received. Not all of the mostly-Moroccan audience had the English skills necessary to fully accommodate this, and some asked their questions in French, forcing the Dean of the university to make hasty translations as the Ambassador read his notes over his shoulder.

Americans already have a reputation for not knowing any languages other than English and not bothering to learn the language of the country they travel to.  The fact that our Ambassador to another country wouldn’t bother to learn any of the official languages of said country, nor the language of the people there (what people actually speak on the street in Morocco is different from the “official” languages) is embarrassing. The fact that he has held this position for over three years now (since 2009) and still does not know the language (or any of the languages used) makes it even worse.

Other than my thoughts in regards to language, the afternoon was a positive experience overall. Everyone was very excited and energetic, happy to share their experiences. Sylvia even commented on the large amounts of positive energy emanating from everyone on campus. It was an interesting experience and made for a memorable afternoon. 

Here are some of the more interesting/memorable quotes from this afternoon: 

Samuel Kaplan: (Ambassador)

I would suggest that the most complicated word in the dictionary is friendship.

[Discussing 4th of July] “…we celebrate our Declaration of Independence, which of course gave Morocco the opportunity to be the first country to support our independence. Yes I know that!”

[Discussing Obama’s inauguration] “…then President Bush got on a helicopter and flew away, and that is something I’m really proud of.”

Through all the earthquakes, well, we don’t have that many earthquakes in America, but you know what I mean…”

Sylvia Kaplan: (Ambassador’s wife)

 “I was a trapped house-wife in the suburbs….not with this husband, in my training marriage.”

Ritalin would have really helped me.”

[After a last-minute interruption by someone plugging for the Moroccan Autonomy Plan] “You generally can’t have a discussion in Morocco without the topic of the Western Sahara coming up, so at least now we know we’re having a real Moroccan discussion.”

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Confronting Misconceptions

One of the many things I love about traveling is the opportunity it presents for greater understanding between peoples. There are a lot of cultural misconceptions out there, and stereotypes exist in all corners of the world, about all people from different perspectives.  Stereotypes aren’t that great to begin with but what really bothers me is when they become the basis for prejudice and discrimination, as is so often the case.

Since the attacks of September 11th, America has fostered a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment, much of it stemming from ignorance.   This chart (found on Tumblr) lists only a few of the most common misconceptions about Muslims:

Many people are surprised to hear that the Koran contains many of the same stories and characters found in the Bible.   Islam began by accepting and building off of the Christian and Jewish traditions of the time.   That’s why the three Abrahamic religions are so similar, and why they are often referred to as the “People of the Book”: they have the same origins and share many of the same stories in their holy texts.

Another phenomenon I’ve noticed is a tendency to look at Saudi Arabia as a prime example of the Muslim world.   Granted, Saudi Arabia is the home to both Mecca and Medina, two cities of great religious significance to Muslims worldwide, and was the birthplace of Islam, but one country is not representative of an entire religion.  Of course, Saudi Arabia will say it’s the home of ‘true’ or ‘pure’ Islam but I’ve found in my time here in Morocco that many Arabs (at least here) see Saudi Arabia as the most backward of all Arab countries.

I feel like the Arab Spring has done a lot to put the Arab World in a more positive light in the West.   It has served as a reminder that these people are not so different from us, what they want is not so different from what we desire, they struggle for values we share, and there are more countries in the Middle East than just Iran and Iraq.

In truth, the so-called “Arab World” is incredibly diverse.  Muslim countries include some in the Middle East of course, but also Africa, Asia, and Europe.  That’s not even mentioning the large numbers of Muslims living in countries without a Muslim majority (like America).  Even within one country the interpretations of “Islam” are multitudinous.  You could, in theory, lump all Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and all other branches of Christianity together and claim that they’re all exactly the same because they’re all “Christian”, but you wouldn’t really understand their beliefs.  Same goes for Islam.  There are countless numbers of branches and interpretations, lumping them all together does none justice.

Of course, there are many other issues concerning America’s perception of the Arab World, but I hope that this at least provides some basic information so the next time someone mentions ” those Arabs” or “those Muslims” you stop and think before jumping to conclusions.   It’s a big world out there, and we all have our differences in customs and perspective, but at the end of the day, no one’s really all that different.

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Conscious and Caring

This is one of my favorite photos from my time spent in Morocco and it was the product of a very special day.

Some of the ISA students and staff, along with several of our Moroccan friends, spent a couple of weeks collecting donations for a donation trip to a small village in the mountains called Bouqashmir.   Each student contributed and we collected as much money as we could to purchase blankets for the village (It’s COLD up there!  Especially at night).  We also brought along clothing, school supplies, soccer balls, and the University contributed a whole set of computers.  The trip was unfortunately postponed several times but that just made everyone even more excited when it came to the actual event.  The bus ride up to the mountains was full of music, drumming, karaoke, and dancing people – not to mention someone’s pet dog going up and down the aisle too.  Everyone was happy when we finally arrived and we were almost immediately met by the director of the  school in the village.

The director and head of the village showed us the town, which basically consisted of a couple of buildings for a school and another for a restaurant, with some other buildings half-constructed on the other side, explaining that they were trying to build housing for the students who have to travel far from their family homes each day (we’re talking severely rural here).   We then got to spend some time with the students themselves, visiting each class, sitting with the kids, and explaining what we were doing there.

Afterwards, we all helped unload the donations we had brought, creating a big pile of materials that covered almost a whole wall of the restaurant before having a sort of gifting ceremony.   Each ISA and Moroccan UMI student ceremoniously gave a blanket to one of the children from the village.  The rest were left for the director and other village officials to distribute to those most in need.   We also gave a couple of soccer balls to the boys and crayons to the younger girls.  We ended up with one extra box of crayons and realized this young girl had been too shy to come forward.  With some persuasion and a gentle hand, the director guided her up to accept her gift.

With many smiles and much celebration, we all took pictures before leaving the village.   It was a rewarding experience for all and a day that will certainly be remembered by everyone involved.

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