2nd December 2009

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A bit of Continent Hopping: Morocco

The last two weekends have provided a wide variety of traveling experiences, to say the least -Morocco and Amsterdam are quite a juxtaposition. My first destination, Morocco, is still very much a conservative, predominately Muslim society struggling with the tension between tradition and the influences of western culture. This is in contrast with Holland, one of the most liberal countries in Europe, distinguishable by its legal prostitution, canals, and streets fragrant with mary-jane. Of course, I’m going to talk about them separately, but there is nothing like witnessing such stark cultural differences in one week. Took a bit to wrap my head around all of it.

I’ll go ahead and say Morocco was one of the best things I have ever done-Kind of one of those things you know will stay with you forever…

A group of about 25 kids from my school went to Morocco through a group called “Morocco Exchange.” Our leaders were former members of the Peace Corps who had volunteered in Morocco and so they were fluent in Arabic (or the local dialect of it, anyway). The trip’s purpose was to increase cultural awareness and communication. We were able to stay in home-stays and were really exposed to the culture, so you can imagine I was very excited, but it far exceeded my expectations. This will inevitably be a long post because the trip was packed, but in a good way.

After an 8 hour bus ride over night, we took a ferry over to Tangier. After the long journey, we were excited to finally step onto African soil. yes, in AFRICA. so crazy.

We immediately delved into the culture. Upon arrival, we went to a DARNA a Women’s center, where women who are either homeless or have been marginalized by society (such as women who became pregnant out of wedlock)  go to learn skills that will help them support themselves and their children. There, we had the opportunity to talk to three students who were our age and volunteered there.

As this was our first contact with Moroccans, we were kind of tip toeing around issues at first, but they were very open and overall did not hold back much. The girl was clearly a little more conservative, as she described why she wore her hijab, or head scarf, and how wearing a flashy or bright colored one defeats the purpose.  Many women in Morrocco don’t wear them, but of course it depends on where you are. The more rural areas haven’t been as exposed to western ideals or cultures and tend to stick to this tradition. She said it was completely her choice, and from a young age she knew she wanted to wear one, so she could always represent her religion.

One of the most interesting conversations we had with them involved the practice of dating. Technically, dating is frowned upon and is not permitted by parents, but it still goes on behind there backs fairly readily. There is a double standard, though, as the boys explained. They both date, but they said that they want to marry a woman who has not dated. Pretty interesting…I can’t help but wonder what they would think of the hook up culture within college students in the States. They were very curious about what we were anticipating in terms of Moroccan culture and Moroccan people in general. It was actually kind of embarrassing to admit how little we did know. They know so much about us, and our culture, and well everything. I would say a majority of Moroccans know Arabic (or a dialect), French, and a little English or Spanish. To be honest, all this traveling has just furthered how ignorant I feel as an American.

During the meeting, this was also our first exposure to Moroccan Tea. Once you’ve tried it, you will never be the same. It is basically a staple of their daily rituals and is absolutely delicious. It is just green tea with mint and entirely too much sugar, and I can even begin to talk about how much everyone raved about it.

We had a delicious lunch, and I can’t actually remember what it entailed, but all I know is Moroccan food is splendid, and I want to cook it as soon as I return…or have my parents cook it anyway.

Next, we drove to the little town of Asilah which is along the Atlantic Coast. On the way we caught a glimpse of the Shantytowns. Which are even more sobering then you would expect, even from a distance. Despite the relative wealthiness we would soon witness in our homestays-poverty is a huge issue in morocco, inevitably leading to these shanty towns, as almost 9% of the capital cities inhabitance are in them. We were told that these are the social conditions that often lead to Islamic extremism. The article we read said Morocco has not had a huge problem with this, but it could be right on the brink as it told of a suicide bomber who had lived in a single room with 8 others in his family. It was really all pretty eye-opening. The most recent King is making efforts to end these living conditions and thwart poverty, but I am not sure how successful he has been.

Along our drive we also got a pleasant surprise. Camel Rides! Ok, to be honest, riding a camel is a little anti-climatic, but we were still all very excited regardless. One of those things where our trip would have not felt complete with out it. They are pretty funny creatures.

We later arrived to the beautiful town of Asilah. It still blows my mind how such beauty coexists so closely with such poverty and suffering. The town itself was basically closed down for the season, so it was vacant, which only added to the effect. Everything was blue and white and there were art murals all over. We wandered through the Medina (the old city) and made our way to the edge that looked over the coast. The crashing waves on the rocks next to the white buildings made for some not too shabby scenery.

Finally, we made our way to our homestays. We were quickly briefed on a few key words to know. First was the greeting: “Salam uaalikum” which means, hello, peace be upon you, and the answer “WaalikumSalam”, which  means hello, and also on you peace. I feel this common phrase embodies what I came to understand as Moroccan Hospitality and warmth  (Southern Hospitality has nothing on them). Every single person  I met  there was truly  welcoming and loving.

Honestly, the only thing I came into Morocco thinking was that there would inevitably be anti-Western sentiments maybe because of our ideals, but also because how our Government and media has treated the Islamic world. Instead, we found people were very curious about us and were above all eager to reverse and stereotypes we had of them. When I mentioned during one conversation about what I expected, he told me, of course they do not necessarily support our governments actions, but people understand that they do not reflect the beliefs or wishes of all the people in the United States. This is an obvious statement, but it is sad to think how often in the States this mentality is not quite the case. It is so often that we see people only associate Muslims with terrorism because of the acts of a few, so having him say this was so refreshing and only made me appreciate the Moroccan people even more.

I’d say the other most crucial word we learned was”shbaat,” which means “enough.” I’d say a main attraction of the trip was the abundance of Moroccan food, and they loved feeding us (I know, right up my alley) . Me and the two other girls I stayed with all agreed we have quite literally never eaten that much in our lives. As a sign of hospitality they feed you, so our house Mom kept insisting “kool! kool!” “eat! eat!”. One of the girls was vegetarian, so we were served cooked veggies and soups and cous-cous, and my new found love: pomegranates, for dessert. All of this talk is making me want to go back, immediately.

Interesting side note, they often all eat out of one bowl, and you just stick to your part. They also only use their right hand for eating and touching food. This would be because they use their left one as a substitute for toilet paper, for a lack of a better phrase. Although, for a part of the trip they had toilet paper. I wasn’t sure if it was for our sack or theirs. I wasn’t about to ask.

The family was very nice, although they did not speak a lot of English, so we were a bit limited. They are also hosting an American boy, who showed us around the Medina. He tried to convince us to have snail soup, which literally consists of a bowl of snails you suck out. We passed. He told us that our family is actually a very political family. The daughter’s husband was a diplomat who had greeted Hilary Clinton when she came. This explains why their house was pretty nice and spacious. They are really into decorating, so everything was very ornate and the walls had sparkles on it. Much as you would expect it.

Moroccan families are very close-knit, and families usually stay together. Where as my family is spewed across the United States in Colorado, Georgia, and Ohio, from what I grasped that is not common. As the students mentioned the day before, even for those who travel or move to make money, there is a constant need to be back with their mothers. One of the them said after a few days of not seeing her, he had to go back, it is an obligation. They said they did not really know how to explain it.

That night we were so exhausted from the traveling busy day we went to bed at 930, the screaming 2 year old made it up past us.

We woke to a breakfast of about every variation of bread you could as for. They enjoy their bread. At the risk of being repetitive, it was delicious and so very filling. That morning we got to roam around some ancient Roman ruins. It is insane how much influence from other cultures there are in Morocco. From the Romans to an Islamic Regime and in recent centuries both France and Spain had from my understanding basically colonized it, and it was an International state. Amazingly enough it did not get its independence but just over 50 years ago, so these European influences are very apparent, particularly the Spanish because of its proximity-It is only 14 km from Morocco!

The ruins were very cool to see, pictures of course will be provided. You can see additions from the Muslims as well. There was also a little pool with eels. It was said if a woman threw an egg in and an eel ate it she would get pregnant (The symbolism is pretty obvious). There were also cats everywhere, which provided much entertainment as there was a girl who was deathly (or dramatically) scared of cats.

We then we finally got some quality Moroccan shopping in with three other girls, accompanied by a couple of Moroccan students. Everything is so cheap, naturally, it was a big trip, but as there are many gifts involved I can not divulge. It was really cool to spend some one-on-one time with the students. The girl was really spunky and hilarious. She was extremely disappointed when we told her Ashton Kutcher was married, and the guy and I shared some of our favorite music. He knew more American music than I did (and not just the radio stuff that is unfortunately so popular in the discotecas. He also told me about all the great surfing spots in Morocco. After we had spent so much time focusing on our cultural differences the first day, it was cool to see our similarities. We all were, after all, just college students.

The evening proved to be a particularly interesting one. We all went to the Hammam, which for those who don’t know is a public bath. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it definitely wasn’t this. Armed with buckets, special olive soap, and scrubbers, we stripped down to just our bottoms, and went into a room with about 30 other women. What an experience, to say the least. I’ll spare you all of our bathing details but I did also receive the most interesting massage of my life. Quite a peek into a common practice within their society. Not too bad either. Because of the sandpaper like scrubber, I can say my skin has ever been quite that soft. The evening culminated with yet another delicious meal and a very tired Sarah from another packed but equally as enlightening day.

Our final day, we left our home-stays with much a full belly and many a shukuran (thank you!). We voyaged out to a much more remote, rural town in the Rif Mountains. As we drove through the country side it was an entirely different perspective. There was obviously a deep contrast between their lives and those of the families we had been staying with. I almost became nostalgic for Ohio scenery after seeing all of the rolling farm hills.

We drove a few hours out and then hiked about 20 minutes up to a house amongst the mountains. The surroundings were unreal, and hopefully I have some good pictures to relay how truly beautiful it was. As it was a rural area, the family did not know English, so we had a translator. The translator was actually one of the sons who had left the area for education, and is now currently getting his Phd. This was one of the most worth while experiences of the trip.

Although the family had seen hundreds of students like us in the past 5 years, they treated us like we were our first. Through the translator, they asked us question after question, wanting to know where we were going to school what we were studying. It was really interesting to see all generations from a 2-year-old to the Grandmother in one room interacting. They themselves had just gotten electricity a few years back and so had not been exposed to as much Western culture. The women’s clothing was very traditional, and of course they did not know English. Their livelihood is based on farming, and I may be wrong on this, but I think it is mainly olive trees.

The translator at one point became very embarrassed, as the men kept speaking over his sister. He said he did not want us to see aspect of their patriarchal society, he was very ashamed of it. Although, to be honest I found everyone likes to talk over everyone no matter what. Our leader told us this is common and not necessarily considered rude.

As for the translator, although he is very educated it will be difficult for him to both find a job and acquire a visa because it has become nearly impossible after 9/11. But he seemed adamant that he could never return to the lifestyle of his family after having been exposed to so much education and possibilities-it was really kind of sad.

They fed a huge bowl of cous-cous and pomegranates, and it got to the point to where I decided I might have eaten enough for the rest of my life. Except, apparently not, because as I write this I am eating a pomegranate right now-something I will definitely miss. During said food-coma, we had the opportunity to watch them perform some typical Moroccan music with singing and drums. It was awesome to hear, and they unfortunately had to ruin it by trying to teach our over-stuffed, uncoordinated American selves how to dance. We failed miserably, but it was still fun.

We walked back through the small village they were closest too, and everyone looked at us pretty curiously. The kids would run out of their doors staring. Some even dared to say, “hi!” It was pretty cute. The little red-headed (I was surprised too)  Moroccan children are especially adorable.

After additional bussing along, we made it to our final destination: Chefchaouen (not as intimidating of a name as it looks). This city is known for being the safe haven for both Jews and Moors during the Spanish Reconquista. It was seized by Spain in 1920, but, of course, Morocco got it back when it gained Independence. It is a beautiful city amongst mountains with narrow alley-ways painted and blues and whites. It is also, unfortunately, very touristy. This came to our benefit, though, when it came to bargaining because not only did they speak French and Arabic, but Spanish too! Never have I ever been so happy to hear Spanish. We wandered the streets checking out all of the scarfs, rugs, bowls, and whatever other trinkets they tried to convince us to buy.

After delighting in all our new Moroccan goodies, we had our final celebration dinner. The dinner was delicious, and once again I wish I could remember what it was called, but it was like this sweet chicken dish. I’ve just come to learn that when it comes to Moroccan food you can’t go wrong. I haven’t at least. We then huddled up on the rooftop of our hostel and just reflected on our trip. It was truly amazing, and I don’t think any of what I said did it justice. The Moroccan people were some of the most heart-warming I have ever come across, and I would love to go back someday and meet more people as well as learn more about their culture.

The final morning, we said our farewell to Morocco with a final brisk hike up to a Spanish Cathedral that overlooked over all of Chefechaouen. I feel like anything I say at this point is going to be inevitably cheesy, but it was a perfect way to end things. I have never felt so fortunate. There is so much beauty that Morocco has to offer, but also so much sadness. I think it also reinforced my thoughts that I want to spend time in a developing country be it teaching English or volunteering in some way. With that I’ll leave you with a quote because this is entirely too long-it may be corny, but Alisha, our guide from the Peace Corps gave it to us, and I liked it, so here it is.

"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."