My Moroccan Family

I’ve decided to be a little unorthodox and post a blog about living with my homestay family instead of the Meknes entry, which I still have to write.

As I’ve mentioned in previous entries, I’m living with a host family in المدينة القديمة , the Old Medina of Fes. I’ve learned so much just by living with my host family—basic daily routines and etiquette and what not, the kind of stuff that I never really thought about in America. When you enter the living/dining area, marked by the presence of a carpet, you’re supposed to take off your shoes (or sandals—shoes basically function as sandals for most Moroccans, I’ve found). No furniture in our house is above knee level, and I believe that’s the norm in Morocco. When we eat meals, we sit on a couch (and whoever is not on the couch pulls up a chair). The dinner table is a small round affair with wheels on it, allowing it to be moved about easily. There’s a see-through plastic cover on top of the tablecloth, because—at least in my family, though from what I understand this is also a norm—there’s basically no silverware or plates, not for individuals. They do use spoons when necessitated, such as with flan or soup, but both of my host parents simply lifted bowls of soup to their mouths and slurped it straight from the bowl, which was unexpected but also pretty cool. Typically the meal will be something in a large communal bowl placed at the center of the table.

Now, I must mention bread. خبز (bread) is THE staple of the Moroccan diet, or at least for the typical family living in the Old Medina. They eat bread with every meal, and basically use it as silverware. The bread typically comes in a flat, circular form, and is then cut into slices and distributed to each member of the family. They also reuse any bread that doesn’t get eaten, so sometimes the bread can get a bit stale—though I haven’t had that problem since Ramadan started, since everyone’s eating bigger servings. When you eat, you usually take your piece of bread, rip off a chunk, and using only your right hand, you dip the bread in the communal bowl, pinch whatever’s in there between the bread and your thumb, and essentially just eat with your hands. I’ve actually found it to be a manner of eating I can totally get behind. I remember after eating meals with my host family for about a week, and then going to a restaurant, I just automatically grabbed some bread and started eating with my hands before remembering that there was a plate and silverware in front of me.

Another thing related to food I gotta mention: Moroccans basically live the same schedule as the typical American college student. They eat a large lunch, then pass out with a midday nap (which really makes sense considering how hot it is around noontime). Then they eat dinner around 9 or 10pm, though some of the other students are living with families that eat as late as 11pm or 12am.

Also, Moroccans drink tea. Mint tea. They put lots of sugar in it, so it’s actually really delicious. I never drink tea in the U.S. because I think it tastes bland, but Moroccan tea is a whole other story. Same with the coffee, I don’t like the taste of coffee in America so I assumed I wouldn’t like it here. However, they put a ton of milk and (once again) sugar in the coffee, to the point where it almost tastes like hot chocolate. I’ve only had it twice here, when my family made it, but it’s some good stuff.

Here’s a breakdown of my host family. Oh yeah, I should also mention that they don’t speak any English, and I only speak a little Darija (Moroccan Colloquial Arabic, which is actually a distinct language from Fussha, Modern Standard Arabic, which is the lingua franca of the Arab world and the Arabic that I’m learning in my classes).

عبد الرحمن
Abderahman [Father]
A very kind, patient, tolerant, and fun-loving old man. He’s also very pious, he prays five times a day and goes to the mosque after each call to prayer. His name is actually two words: literally, “Servant of God”. Rahman is another name for Allah, I believe.

Najia [Mother]
My very accommodating mother, tough as nails, but also very loving and eager to joke. Her name means “saved”.

سي محمد
Si Mohamed [Brother]
He’s tall and skinny, and the same age as me. He’s kind of a goofball, he enjoys making other people (and himself) laugh. Oftentimes he’ll make mock karate moves at various people/objects. He will also often sing to himself in a high-pitched voice as he’s walking around the house. Obviously he’s named after the prophet, and “si” is a sort of honorific title put before one’s name. Since he’s named after THE Mohamed, my host parents used “si” out of respect to the prophet.

Hassania [Sister]
Her name is a nisbah adjective form of the name Hassan, who was the king of Morocco prior to the current king. She’s slightly older than me, and was just recently engaged. It’s taken a while, but I feel like now we’re finally on the same wavelength.

Even though I can barely communicate with my host family, as my time in Fes is winding to a close, I’m realizing that I’m really going to miss them. Maybe it’s because after five weeks I’ve become accustomed to my living situation—the other day, a huge crowd of tourists was walking through the Old Medina near my host family’s house as I was on my way home, and I actually found myself turning my nose up at these foreigners. The irony was not lost on me, I assure you.

That’s it for today, I gotta get home so I can break the fast with my family. Which reminds me, I also ought to make a post about Ramadan… Hm. Well, until next time!

Volubilis (Sunday, June 23—Morocco)

On Sunday, I had the opportunity to see the ruined Roman city of Volubilis and the imperial Moroccan city of Meknes. All the students embarking on the tour met at ALIF in the morning. We piled into a van, and then we were off into the Moroccan countryside. Much of the road was lined with ramshackle shops offering various goods, from fruit to baskets to hats.

Roadside Shops.

We stopped along the way to admire some amazing scenery: a beautiful lake with houses scattered about the shores.

The Lake.

On the horizon were some rather epic-looking mountains.

Mountains and Mosque.

In the distance you can make out a mosque. There were also people in boats out on the lake. Needless to say, the Moroccan countryside is a very evocative sight to behold.

Evocative Countryside.

Along the way to Volubilis, we stopped in a small town to buy some water for the trip. However, we wound up becoming the center of some drama in this sleepy rural town. As the vans parked, one of the students, Juan (a Spanish expat with several degrees under his belt… a belt that happens to be black, as he is a student of karate as well, I recently learned), was struck in the head by a mentally unstable man walking down the street. All the residents of the town got worked up into a frenzy as they shooed away the crazy man. Juan was bleeding a little bit, but in the end was perfectly okay. The incident wound up setting the trip back about an hour as we hung around this small town and checked up with a couple of local cops.

Crazy Town.

After some more driving through the countryside, we arrived at Volubilis.


The site is on top of a low-lying hill surrounded on all sides by wide-open fields—you can see for miles. To reach the ruins, we walked along a dirt path lined with trees, shrubs, and some nifty-looking cacti.

Cacti are cool.

The entire site is overgrown, with much of the ruined city hidden amongst the shrubbery. When you “enter” Volubilis, you feel like you’ve stumbled into some ancient history purely by chance.

Overgrown Ruins.

The fact that there was a lone donkey munching on the grass really added to the ambience as well.

A Donkey.

Volubilis is a remarkably well-preserved city—you can really make out the layout of the city. For example, you can tell that this was once a major street.

Roman Street.

Scattered throughout Volubilis are some excellent mosaics that have somehow survived the tides of history.


Everywhere you go, you can also make out the ruined foundations of ancient Roman houses. With a little imagination, you can almost see what life would be like back then—people hanging out in the streets, walking to and from the market and their houses… the general flow of life was probably not much different from today.

Ruined Houses and Mosaics.

Here’s Driss showcasing the hand-made straw hats used by rural Moroccans (and foreign tourists) to protect themselves from the searing midday sun.

Straw Hats in Volubilis.

From Volubilis, you can see a nearby hilltop town off in the distance. I believe it is Moulay Idriss, the town where Morocco’s first Muslim king is buried.

Moulay Idriss.

From what I’ve read, over the course of Morocco’s history much of Volubilis was dismantled in order to build new settlements. Yet even so, I can’t stop mentioning how much of the city has survived. For example…


Also worth mentioning are these GIGANTIC stork-things. You don’t notice it when they’re far away, but they are very large birds. Volubilis was the first place I saw them, but since then I’ve also seen them guarding massive nests perched atop dilapidated rooftops and minarets in the countryside.

Giant Birds!

We ended our tour of Volubilis at the forum.


I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The ruins, combined with the surrounding countryside and foliage, really made me feel like I’d been transported back in time. It also reminded me of the epic scope of Moroccan history, but then, I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff.

The Old Medina (Saturday, June 22)

ALIF’s guided tour of المدينة القديمة (the Old Medina) began around 10:00am on Saturday. It was actually supposed to begin about an hour earlier, but it seems everyone else had switched to Maghrebi time (i.e., show up whenever you want… it seems to be the norm in Morocco. Or maybe it’s just the norm for American students in Morocco). The tour started outside the Old Medina with a visit to a monument that had something to do with Moroccan independence. I couldn’t hear what our tour guide was saying, but I’m guessing it’s the manifesto drafted by the Istiqlal Party in 1944, since Morocco didn’t gain its independence from France until 1956.


Much of the Old Medina is surrounded by very old walls. The more iconic entryways are marked by intricate gateways, such as this one. I believe it’s called the Blue Gate (why wouldn’t it be?).

Blue Gate.

Once you pass through the gate, you’re in the Old Medina!

Entering the Medina.

The place is truly a maze, in the best possible use of the term. You never know what’s around the next corner. You might be walking through a large, open area flanked by cafés, then suddenly find yourself in the shade of a covered market, or سوق.

Covered Market.

I was instantly reminded of Istanbul. The covered market really is ingenious—it gives you protection from the sun, while still allowing the natural light to seep through so you can see.


Our next stop was a historic مدرسة (school) that doubled as a mosque… I think (this was all a couple weeks ago, so my memory’s a bit fuzzy). I know there were prayer rooms and a fountain for cleansing, so at the very least students could use it as a mosque. Apparently students could live on-campus, and wooden screens covered their study areas so they could see what was going on in the courtyard without being seen themselves.


Of course, the entire school is completely covered in intricate Arabic calligraphy. Driss was able to read some of the Classical Arabic text, which is no easy feat.

Calligraphy Lessons.

If you’re not paying attention while walking down the streets of the medina, it’s very easy to miss some interesting sights, such as this beautiful fountain.

The Fountain.

The sheer amount and diversity of goods for sale in the medina is mind-boggling. Many streets are lined by shops offering trinkets and necessities side-by-side.

Market Street.

There are narrow streets, and then there are narrow streets. As our group navigated a street of the latter category, I turned around and got a shot of Cody illustrating just how narrow the alleyways in the medina can get.

A very narrow alleyway.

One of the most confusing things about the Old Medina is figuring out whether an alleyway actually goes somewhere, or whether it will simply end at someone’s front door, which would be an awkward situation. The good thing about going with a guided group is that you don’t have to worry about where you’re going, you can just soak in the scenery, which is what I did that first weekend. As you’re walking down the street, all you need to do is look to the left or the right and you’re guaranteed to see something interesting, be it a shop, a street, or an entryway to someone’s house.

Mysterious Courtyard.

Looking straight ahead, you’re guaranteed to get some interesting shots as well. Also, there’s Ahmed (in the pink shirt) and Driss.

Ahmed and Driss.

Okay, pretty much anywhere you point your camera in the Old Medina, you’re gonna get a fantastic picture.


We eventually wound up on this covered street where craftsmen make wedding… carriages? I’m not sure what to call them. Newly-wed brides sit on these fancy white seats and people carry them around for a while. One of the artisans whipped out a photo book and showed us some wedding pictures, which was interesting (and kind of funny). I mostly was just interested in the way these thin bendy trees had grown alongside the buildings, twisting upwards towards the wooden street covering.

Wedding Street.

Like I said, when you walk through the Old Medina, you never know what’s around the corner. There’s just so many wildly different things packed into the city, all connected by thin, winding streets. After walking through the wedding carriage street, suddenly we were out in another open area with a madrasa and some shops, as well as another awesome fountain. Also, there’s Driss again in the left-hand corner.

Cool Plaza.

Here’s another fun fact. If I’m not mistaken, the fez (as in the small, red hat) originated in—you guessed it—the city of Fes, before being adopted by the Ottomans. But I have never seen anyone in Morocco wearing a fez, apart from people on billboards and TV shows… and this hat merchant who tried to sell a fez to one of the girls in our tour group.

Fez Salesman.

Here’s another shot of a typical street in the Old Medina.

Street in the Medina.

I gotta point out the ingenuity of the medina’s design. All those tall buildings and narrow streets pretty much guarantee shade from the sun, which is a must in this heat. Also, because there’s so much shade, there’s very little reflection of sunlight from the ground. The Old Medina feels several degrees cooler than the Ville Nouvelle, to me. The people who built these crazy cities knew what they were doing.


Some time into the tour, our guide led us into a funduq, a walled off courtyard where artisans of a specific craft gather to work their magic.


This particular funduq was filled with scarves. I wound up buying a pretty cool-looking gray/black/white scarf for 50 dirhams (about 5 dollars). I also got a nice shot of one of those… cloth… thingies. I forget what they’re called.

Funduq Clothier.

Many of the sights in the Old Medina feel like they come straight out of a dream. Something about the way the sunlight falls upon the walls brings with it a sort of déjà vu, and many times I felt like I had been here before, a distant memory of a forgotten dream gurgling forth from the recesses of my mind. Here’s a picture of one such sight.


At one point in our tour, we stopped by a spice shop. The walls were lined with innumerable jars of spices, some labeled in English, most in Arabic. The shopkeeper explained the nature and purposes of several different herbs, spices, perfumes and colognes as his wife came around to each of us with samples. There was this one… thing, I’m not even sure what it was, but you’re meant to plug one nostril and breathe it in as deeply as possible with the other. Whatever it was I sniffed, I felt it gripping the nerves of my spinal chord in the back of my neck, if that makes any sense. Afterwards, I felt like my head had been cleared. It was an odd experience.

Lots of spice.

As some of the students in our group purchased some spices, I took a picture of an interesting array of tools and bowls full of… stuff, all laid out on the ground.

Grinders, bowls, and pillows.

I’ve seen those stone grinders all over Morocco. They look positively ancient… It’s pretty awesome that something like that is still in use.


Finally we arrived at one of the most distinctive sights in Fes: the tannery.

The Tannery.

We were each given a mint leaf twig for the smell as we ascended the stairs of one of the many leather stores surrounding the tannery. We wound up in a breezy room high above the ground, with an awesome view.

More Tannery.

I’ve always heard about how horrible the tannery is supposed to smell, but I didn’t think it was bad at all. Maybe I just have a stunted sense of smell, but in all the travelogues I’ve read of Fes, people seem to blow the smells of the city way out of proportion. Or maybe since I went in expecting a full-on “assault on the senses”, I was more prepared, and so it hasn’t bothered me as much? No idea.


I also got some great camera shots of the surrounding buildings and countryside. I’m so used to cable TV that the army of satellite dishes perched atop peoples’ houses really stuck out. Driss made a humorous remark that even if a family in the Old Medina might not have access to water, they’ll still have a satellite dish.

Dishes Galore.

At last our grand tour of the medina came to an end. We arrived at another little plaza, our journey at an end. You can sort of make out a donkey being saddled with a massive load of… something in the right-hand side of this picture.

Final Plaza.

That’s another thing I should mention. All the stuff that people are selling in the Old Medina has to get there somehow, right? But the streets are way too small for any cars or trucks. The answer: donkeys. There are some horses as well, but it’s mostly just donkeys, carrying burdens of epic proportions. When one of these donkeys is heading down the street you’re walking on, you have to squeeze yourself up against the walls to make room. It can actually be quite shocking if you’re not expecting it—there were times when I was walking through masses of people and was suddenly startled by a donkey head popping out of the crowd as the beast walks past me.


As our tour ended, individuals within our group peeled off. Cody, Ahmed, Driss and myself headed towards the outskirts of the Old Medina to find a taxi back to Batha.

Open Space?!

And so we wound up at a very busy street. While we waited for a cab, Ahmed and I bought some home-made straw hats from an elderly man on the street, in preparation for our excursion to Volubilis, where we expected long hours with little shade. The last picture I took before we scrambled for our taxis was this building that Cody pointed out because it had a funny-looking muscle man on it.

Muscle Man.

And that wraps up my (and your) tour of the Old Medina. The flow of life in the Old Medina is definitely a lot different from anything I’m used to, but at the same time, it doesn’t feel entirely alien. Not sure what to make of that. Anyways, that does it for this entry. Until next time!

Week One in Morocco (June 15 thru June 21, 2013)

So after I arrived in Fes, I met my AHA associates: Ahmed and Cody, both 500-level Arabic students from Portland, and Driss Marjane, the program director. I also met Jenna (sorry if I misspell your name), an AHA employee… I’m actually not sure what exactly her job is, but regardless she’s a very kind woman. My first weekend in Morocco was spent hanging out with the motley AHA crew. I can’t quite remember the order of events from week one, as the first two days felt like a whole week just on their own, but I’ll try to recall.


Saturday night (June 15), we ate out at an Italian restaurant. Our whole first weekend was completely covered financially by AHA, which was awesome. Jenna wanted to eat traditional Moroccan food, but Driss told us that since most Moroccans eat “traditional Moroccan food” for everyday meals at home, when they go out to eat, they prefer different national foods. I got a delicious pizza, and to my joy I learned that people in Morocco eat pizza with their hands, not with silverware (the one and only drawback of ordering pizza in Europe, in my opinion).


The next day (June 16), Driss took us on a mini personal tour of the Old Medina. I didn’t take any pictures for most of the first weekend because the last thing on my mind while trying to adapt and soak in my new environment was stopping to pull out my highly steal-able camera (but don’t worry, I got plenty of pictures of the Old Medina the following weekend). Before our journey into the medina, Driss had made arrangements for us to meet our host families (we were to officially move in on Monday). I learned that the neighborhood in which I was to live was called Batha, and I would be sharing my room with a Duke University student from the first summer session (there are multiple waves of students attending ALIF, and I’m in Summer II). Ahmed and Cody would be rooming together with a homestay family just outside of Batha, right next to the fountain where all the taxis congregate.


My host father, Abderahman, met us at a kiosk near the Batha fountain. From there, he led us through the winding streets of the medina to what was to be my house for the next six weeks. There he invited us in for coffee. I’m not a coffee person, but this particular coffee was delicious, almost like hot chocolate. Once in the house we also met my host mother, Najia, and my host brother, Si Mohamed (he is around the same age as me). Si Mohamed wound up accompanying us on our tour of the Old Medina.


Driss basically led Ahmed, Cody, Jenna and myself through the maze of the Old Medina, walking us through the souqs (marketplaces) and showing us a riad (traditional Moroccan house featuring an interior courtyard/garden) that had been converted into a guesthouse. We finished our tour with lunch at Café Clock, a very cool restaurant/café run by a former ALIF student who enjoyed Morocco so much that he decided to stay. Incidentally, his name was also Mike. Ahmed and Cody both ordered a camel burger, which apparently was really good. I ordered some tasty sweet couscous with chicken, raisins, nuts, and apricots.

Cafe Clock.

After lunch, we met Ahmed and Cody’s host family, who seem to be quite posh despite living right on the edge of the Old Medina. We then traveled to the Ville Nouvelle and bought cheap cell phones (roughly $20 American dollars) to use for communication while in Morocco. After that, Driss shoved us in a cab and next thing we knew we were at an extremely fancy hotel overlooking the whole city of Fes. We walked through the lobby and found ourselves on a balcony with a fantastic view of the Old Medina. This is where I took my very first picture in Morocco!

Overview of Fes.

If I remember correctly, the mosque marked by the large, green minaret is near Café Clock, where we ate lunch earlier in the day.

Awesome Minaret.

We sat and enjoyed the balcony for quite some time, with some very interesting conversation. Driss talked at length about the absurdity of nationalism and borders, and demonstrated on paper how you could trace the similarities of various letters within different alphabets, as well as the history of how those letters evolved, showing how all of humanity is connected. I have since learned that Driss has a PhD in linguistics and sometimes teaches classes at ALIF, which answers a lot of the questions that were floating around in my head for that first week or so.


After our time on the balcony, Driss left our company, and Ahmed, Cody, Jenna, and myself all decided to have dinner at the Broadway Café, the same café that Ahmed, Cody and I met on Day 1. As we sat there, we remarked how incredible it was that we had only been in Morocco for two days—it seriously felt like it had been ages ago that after first arriving in Fes I had wandered by the same café that Ahmed and Cody happened to be sitting at. As we were eating our food, Driss showed up out of nowhere to inform us that he had taken care of the bill for us behind our backs, which elicited much complaining as he had been taking care of everything for us, it seemed. I must admit, though, it feels pretty good to know we have a guardian angel in Morocco… a guardian angel with a PhD.


The next day (Monday, June 17), I packed all my bags, checked out of the hotel where we were staying for the first weekend, and got ready for my first day of Arabic. Both Driss and Jenna met me at the hotel, and Driss got my textbooks for me (he also showed me where I could buy a notebook for class). I met my amazing teacher, Moustafa, who also happens to be a professor at Dartmouth, as well as my classmates. After the morning class, I met my host father Aberahman in the ALIF garden, and we took a cab to Batha so I could officially move in to my new home.


The first week went by really fast. We’re supposed to have two different Arabic teachers, one for the morning (10:00am—12:00pm) and one for the afternoon (4:00pm—6:00pm), but for the first week our morning teacher, Mohamed, wasn’t available, so Moustafa simply taught both classes. I also met my roommate from Duke, Dylan. He’s in the 500 level Arabic, plus he’s already been here for several weeks, so he showed me the ropes and has been helping me communicate with my host family. I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to survive once he leaves on July 5, heh.


At the end of the first week, I went on two excursions provided by ALIF. On Saturday, June 22, we went on an almost all-day guided tour of the Old Medina (basically a more comprehensive version of the previous weekend… only this time, I had my camera at the ready!). Then, on Sunday, June 23, we took a trip to the Roman ruins at Volubilis, then toured the imperial city of Meknes. And the following weekend was the trip to the Sahara. Of course, those trips require blog entries of their own, so I’m gonna have to stop here for now. I’m almost all caught up!

The City of Fes

Once again I’ve forgotten to calculate blog-time into my schedule. Tomorrow (Friday, June 27), several students from ALIF (including myself) are going on an excursion into the desert, and we won’t return to Fes until Sunday night. So, needless to say, I won’t have time to write blog entries and upload all the accompanying photos until sometime next week. Obviously I have some free time right now, but I need to devote a lot of that time to homework and studying. So it’ll be a little while before I can post the substantive blog entries I was planning. To make up for it a bit, I’ve decided to just post this little entry to give you a glimpse of my routine in the city of Fes.

I’m studying MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) 100 (the beginning level) at the American Language Institute of Fes (ALIF). I have four hours of class total per day: two in the morning, two in the afternoon. ALIF is a pretty awesome place to study. The ALIF garden is the place to be. It’s a courtyard outfitted with several tables, chairs, and benches, with trees providing much-needed shade from the sun. Moroccan students come here to study English, foreign students come here to study Arabic.

ALIF is located in the Ville Nouvelle, the new part of Fes. The Ville Nouvelle (or New Medina) is filled to the brim with concrete apartment complexes, gigantic hotels, cafés, a reeeeaaally long park/fountain (I actually have yet to take a picture of that, gotta put it on my to-do list), an assortment of stores and shops, and more speeding cars, taxis and trucks than can be counted. Some newer additions include a MASSIVE up-scale McDonald’s (much nicer than any I’ve seen in the U.S., funnily enough), and a gargantuan shopping mall called Borj Fes. Pretty much anything you want, you can find in Borj Fes, though from what I understand it’s a bit pricey. Everything’s very hip and French there. I opted to live in Fes el-Bali (the old medina) rather than in the Ville Nouvelle, so the place I have become most acquainted with is this fountain roundabout area. This is where all the taxis (and traffic) seems to congregate, which is good to know since I take a taxi both to and from my home in the Old Medina to the New Medina.



Ville Nouvelle Fountain.

While studying abroad, I’m living with a homestay family in Fes el-Bali. To get to the house from the Ville Nouvelle, you ask the taxi driver to take you to Batha (pronounced sort of like bot-taa). Batha also has a fountain and a roundabout, which makes the commute easy to figure out—you take a taxi from one fountain/taxi-hub to another fountain/taxi-hub.

Batha Fountain.

From Batha, I have to walk 15 minutes or so through the winding streets of the medina to get to my house. During the first half of the walk, I’m going through streets that are still large enough for people to drive through.

Old Medina, with cars.

During the second half of the walk, however, the streets get really narrow. I haven’t had to share the streets with any donkeys since I’m living in a residential neighborhood, but if you go into the souqs (marketplaces) of Fes el-Bali, you will often have to step aside as donkeys carrying goods make their way down the streets. I have seen men on horseback passing through my neighborhood, though.

Old Medina, without cars.

Of course, since nobody’s ever content to just walk, a lot of mopeds are driven through the narrow streets of the Old Medina. Sometimes you’ll see a moped attached to a cart, with the cart carrying either goods or people. Since I don’t walk around with my camera unless I’m with a group, I haven’t been able to take a picture of those cart-mopeds, but they’re quite an entertaining sight. Anyways, eventually I’ll arrive at the street that my house is on.

My street.

See those stairs in the middle of the photo leading down to the left? That’s the little alleyway that goes to my front door. I quite enjoy walking from my house to the Batha fountain, and vice versa, though it does get a little frightening during off hours when you’re going solo down a dark, narrow street, haha.


Also, there are tons of cats wandering around the city, just like in Istanbul. And also lots of kittens. It’s both cute and a bit of a downer. For example, while walking through the Ville Nouvelle, I saw a mass of kittens huddled together taking a nap. Adorable, right? But when I stopped to look at them, I saw that they all had messed-up eyes. It’s about a 50/50 split between cute and sad.


And obviously every cat is going to be scrawny and mangy, since they’re living out on the streets. It doesn’t bother me too much, since I’m a dog person, but if you’re a cat lover you might have some problems. Mostly I just enjoy their presence, I think it’s fun (and funny) to walk down a street and see cats everywhere instead of squirrels.


That’s all I have time for today. I still want to make a post describing my settling in with my host family, the tour of the Old Medina, and the trip to the Roman ruins of Volubilis and the Moroccan imperial city of Meknes (all that from last weekend!). But I can’t make any promises, since I have the trip to the Sahara this weekend and who knows what after that. And then I’ll have to make a blog entry for that! So lots of blogs to come, at some point, in the near future. Until then, massalama!

Arrival in Morocco (Friday, June 14 and Saturday, June 15)

Like I said in my introductory post, I’m posting all of these long after I was supposed to (sorry about that). However, after my first day (Saturday night, June 15) I did write down everything that happened as far as getting to Fes, so luckily I can just use that for this particular entry, while adding in a few little details.


Just for context, I was to take a flight from San Francisco to New York, then from New York to Casablanca. Then I would take a train from Casablanca to Fes.


So, where to begin? I’ve only been in Morocco one day but it feels like it’s been a week since I left. I actually have to struggle to remember everything. So the first flight was from San Francisco to JFK Airport, New York. Had to get up around 4 in the morning on Friday to get to the airport on time and everything. There was some initial confusion since even though I was taking JetBlue airlines from San Francisco to New York, which is a domestic flight, JetBlue was in the international terminal, so I suppose they go by the ultimate destination (Morocco) rather than where I would be changing flights. Luckily, my dad came into the airport with me to help out, and once we figured out where I had to go and I got my ticket, the rest went off without a hitch. I got some sleep, though it wasn’t very good sleep since my neck was uncomfortable, but whatever.


Then there was JFK airport. That place was a nightmare. Just the sheer size of the airport was enough to make my head spin. As I departed the plane, I realized that the ENTIRE TERMINAL I was in was just for JetBlue airlines!! So I had to figure out how to get to the other terminals, which wasn’t easy since it’s such a big airport. I eventually discovered that I had to get on this “airtrain” thing, so I followed the signs until I got to it. Then I had to look up which terminal Air Maroc (my flight to Casablanca) was in (Terminal 1), and then I jumped on the little airport metro thing (sorry, airtrain) and got there okay.


From there though, I had to get my ACTUAL ticket in order to go through security, which wasn’t difficult, and then I just waited in line for a while and got through security. After that, it gets annoying, though. According to my boarding pass the flight was leaving from Gate 9, which I got to just fine. A flight to Brussels was leaving, so I figured my flight to Casablanca would show up on the screen once that was done (there was no single big screen with all the departures and corresponding gates). However, I check back later only to see a flight to WARSAW pop up. I asked the lady at the counter and she didn’t help at all, so I walked over to neighboring Gate 10 just to see if I got lucky, and it turned out the flight was coming in at Gate 10… an hour late. I actually had a bit of a freak out because I wasn’t sure if I was miscalculating military time and had already missed the flight, but no, it was just late. Then there was this huge line that formed, right next to another line for this Air France flight that kept getting all delayed or something. Point is, EVENTUALLY I got on to the plane, although about an hour later than the ticket said we would. From here it gets worse though. The flight itself was fine, the seats were good, there was plenty of leg room, and the pillow allowed me to get some good sleep. BUT, even after everyone boarded, the flight didn’t leave for another two hours! It sat at the gate for the longest time, then it taxi’d a little bit, then stopped, then taxi’d a little bit, and so on. It’s a good thing I told Driss Marjane (the program director for AHA) I would arrive in Fes between 2 and 5!


Once we landed in Casablanca (and just the view from the plane was great, Casablanca is just miles and miles of totally flat farmlands with Moroccan style manors scattered about), I couldn’t find an ATM, so I just exchanged some money at the booth. I followed the signs that featured a picture of a train. Here was another issue: my computer, as well as the little clock on the flight map on the back of everyone’s seats in Air Maroc, said the time was an hour earlier than it actually was. Add to that the fact that everything’s in military time, and I’m not sure what the heck is going on. Getting the two tickets was a breeze, I just mentioned Casavoyageurs, and Casavoyageurs to Fes to the man in the booth, and he instantly understood. He also pointed to the proper dirham bills I needed to pay him with. At this point, I had set my watch to an hour earlier than the actual time without realizing it, so my watch said it was 8:58am or so. My ticket said the train departed at 10:00am, so I figured for some reason I didn’t catch the next one that would leave in a few minutes and had to wait for the one after. However, just to be sure, I went to where the trains stop, and the train there was the same number as the one on my ticket! So I jumped on board and sat in my comfortable first class seat, and promptly moved my watch time forward an hour.


The ride to Casavoyageurs took a half hour, and the scenery was great. Bright red, yellow, orange dirt and rocks, bright green foliage, square buildings in earthen tones. Two American ladies sat down with me, and it turned out they were headed for Fes as well (and were probably on the same airplane, since they said they came from New York). So we just sort of figured out how to get to the Fes train together, and I tagged along with them. Eventually it was figured out where this train was, so it was a good thing I stuck with them, since I assumed it was at a different terminal! This train was much larger than the other one, and it was in the style of European trains with the booths that seat six people and have doors you can shut. Me and the two ladies from New York just sat in one for ourselves, but just like my experience traveling in trains with my parents in Europe, it turned out we were supposed to sit in an assigned compartment. I wound up sitting in a booth with two women speaking Arabic, a little girl, and a silent middle-aged man with a shaved head. The man silently gestured to available places I could put my baggage (since I just set it on my lap at first), and later silently offered me some Pringles (but I didn’t want any salty chips since I was already sweating like a beast, so I passed up the offer). However, once I pulled out my Moroccan phrasebook, he totally surprised me by speaking to me in English! It turned out he didn’t even speak Arabic at all, he was an Englishman who comes to Morocco a few times a year, because he married his wife (who was speaking Arabic with the other woman) here. I think his parents were Pakistani, but he was born in England. He lives in Birmingham, if I recall correctly. He was a really neat guy, the three and a half hour train ride flew by remarkably fast thanks to the interesting conversation. We covered everything, from the experience of traveling abroad to learning Arabic and the Qur’an to the political and social implications of the housing crisis/economic recession. I also learned he planned to open up a moped garage in Morocco sometime in the near future. I think I won the lottery as far as being randomly stuck with someone on a train for three hours!


As an added bonus, another middle-aged man named Hassan joined our booth after one of the stops, and spoke in Arabic to the Englishman’s wife and the other woman. After several minutes of this, suddenly he reveals that he also speaks English, and he’s American! Well, he has dual citizenship. He lived in Richmond Virginia, then moved to the Bronx, then moved (back?) to Morocco. They were all really nice people, the scenery was amazing, and I was almost disappointed when we finally reached Fes. I said goodbye to Hassan (the Moroccan American) and the Englishman (I only heard the Englishman’s name once at the end of the ride, and I have a really bad memory so I’m sorry if I get this wrong, but I think it was Faru), and departed the train. It seems you can meet some really interesting people on the train to Fes.


Once I got out of the train, I was struck by how much hotter it was with the sun beating down at 2:30pm without the cool sea breeze that Casablanca had (Casablanca seriously felt just as comfortable as California during the summer). I was supposed to meet Driss Marjane, the AHA program director, at the train station. I didn’t see Driss, but I figured since my plane was late that he probably had picked up the other two AHA students and was waiting at the hotel. A middle-aged Moroccan man with a sort of bugged-out eye approached me with greetings in Arabic, French, Spanish, and finally English, and since I was getting a little anxious, I decided I would just trust him since he wanted to taxi me to the hotel on foot (since I had the address of the hotel written on a flashcard, and it was only a few blocks away). My gut and my brain told me not to follow this random, shady-looking man into the city by myself, but for some reason I just decided to go with the flow.


I followed the man through the town in the scorching heat, I was sweating up a storm and I was also freaking out a little in my head since it was just me and this shady guide walking down some dilapidated streets. With what little English he knew, he told me how he had a bunch of American friends, and he kept bringing up the fact that he would take me on a tour of the medina and give me discounts for shopping and the like. I think he also implied that he could sell me some hashish, haha. I turned down all of his offers of course, and we finally arrived at the hotel. It had the right name and was across from a massive McDonald’s, just as described in an email from Driss. I got my leftover dirhams (Moroccan currency) out, and since I didn’t know how much to pay someone for walking me to the hotel, I just asked him how much I should give him by holding out the various bills I had. Predictably he wanted me to give him the biggest bill, which was 200 dirhams (a little over 20 American dollars). Obviously that’s more than I was obliged to give him, but he had ultimately brought me to my destination, he carried one of my bags, and I really just didn’t care at this point, so I gave it to him. Before he left he told me his name (Mohamed) and gave me his right hand to shake. Turned out he had a malformed right hand in addition to his bug eye. I still shook his hand though. He was very thankful for the money, probably since he wanted future business (he wrote down his cell number on the back of my flashcard), but at the end of the day, it’s only 20 dollars, and it’ll go to feeding his family anyway (or maybe it’ll go to drugs, who knows). Either way, no point crying over spilled milk I figure. I don’t plan on getting in that kind of situation again, but I met a pretty interesting character as a result.


Now the next challenge. I walked into the hotel lobby with my two bags and realized I had no clue what to do next. After waiting around I went up to the man behind the counter, who did not speak English, and I just sort of desperately mentioned Driss’s name to see if anything happened. When that didn’t work, I figured I’d ask if he had a phone I could use, since I had Driss’s mobile number on the flashcard. He revealed that the phone in the lobby didn’t work, so I would have to go to a payphone up the street. I found the payphone, but had no idea how to work it, or even if it was still working. Even if I did somehow manage to figure out how to put the coins in it, I don’t think I had enough dirhams anyways. I was really starting to freak out at this point, so I made my way back down the street… And that was when this American comes up to me and asks if I’m Mike.


As luck would have it, I walked right by a cafe where the other two AHA students, both from Portland, Cody and Ahmed, were sitting. Cody was the one who came up to me, and man was I happy to see them. I sat down with them and eventually Driss showed up at the café. We shook hands and then he bought lunch for all of us.


Driss took me back to the hotel, got me my room key, and just told me to meet him back down in the lobby at 6pm. So I got an hour and a half to relax after all of the stress and anxiety. Downstairs Driss gave me, Cody and Ahmed our class schedule, a schedule of all the excursions we could go on through ALIF (American Language Institute of Fes) this summer, and a copy of the homestay info he emailed us earlier. We also met Jenna (I never saw how your name was spelled, so again, sorry if I’m doing it wrong!), an AHA employee who was really nice and accompanied us on Driss’s tour of the New Medina (Ville Nouvelle). The rest of the evening was basically just a tour as we all got to know each other. He showed us ALIF, as well as locations of various ATMs, and he gave a lot of general advice that was good to know. Driss is a really awesome guy, he is totally fluent in English AND French, plus he’s funny, smart, and extremely generous and helpful (you can see Driss in the photo of me in my introductory post… he’s standing behind me wearing a green shirt). We ate at a nice Italian place (all the menu items were in French, so I was lost, but it wasn’t any worse than when I was in Europe with my parents), and then finally we arrived back home after buying some bottled water.


Aaaaaand end quote. Actually it seems I lied in my introductory post, I don’t think I will be able to recount the first week’s events before today (Monday, June 24) ends, as I will only have internet access for the next thirty minutes or so, and I need to use that time to do Arabic homework. Looking back on it, I think I will probably split my first week in Morocco into two or three blog posts, just because there is so much material, and that way I can put SOMETHING on this blog (inshallah) rather than waiting and then just dropping one really big post.


Just because of everything going on during my arrival, and trying to acclimatize to my new surroundings, I didn’t take any pictures. However, I will have a LOT of pictures to share in the coming posts… I’ll leave you with this tantalizing taste of things to come, a preview of sorts… Peer into the gate now, then explore what lies beyond in the next installment of this blog!


Peering into the Gate.

Pre-Departure (Morocco)

So, what are my pre-conceived notions of Morocco? The first thing I take note of when I observe humanity is what people wear and what their buildings look like. I’ve looked at a lot of pictures of Moroccan dress and architecture (both Amazigh and Arab). Some pictures are from the past, others from the present. Sometimes they match up, sometimes they don’t. In any pictures and videos I’ve seen of people in North Africa, it seems the overwhelming majority of people simply wear “western” clothing, but reworked into a unique style (especially with women, since the hijab has a myriad of different styles just by itself). This is something I observed when I visited Istanbul with my parents for a week, and I expect to see lots of jeans and polo shirts in Morocco, though they do seem to have retained some iconic features of their dress, most notably the djellaba (long, hooded unisex robe). I expect there to be some women wearing burqas, the niqab, etc., but I think they will be a minority, similar to Turkey. Sometimes it seems like western media paints all Muslim women as only ever being clothed in an all-black ensemble that completely covers every inch of skin, but I know this is not the case. As for the climate and natural scenery, from what I’ve gathered, it looks quite similar to summertime California.


Now, taking the visual aspects of a people aside and looking more at behavioral culture, I’ve heard about the hospitality of… well, pretty much any culture that is predominantly Muslim, to the point where it’s become a cliché. No matter where I look, I always seem to find remarks about the “legendary hospitality of the Moroccan people” (and you can easily exchange “Moroccan” for any other Muslim nation, and the cliché will still fit). Okay, I’ll expect my host family to be very hospitable, but honestly, is it really possible to sum up an entire nation like that? I’m sure many families in the U.S. would be considered to be hospitable to guests, but would I say that “the American people are legendary for their hospitality”? Doesn’t that just sound silly? Generalizing entire peoples like that seems a bit ridiculous to me.


I will say one of the main things I’m looking forward to learning is what daily life in a Moroccan household is like. It’s one of those things that can’t really be explained in a book (if one can even find a book or article that even mentions it), it has to be experienced. How do people eat? How do they interact? Even if I can’t speak the language, I’m excited to observe what life is like in the city of Fes.


Introduction (Michael Smiley)

Hi! My name is Michael Smiley, and I’m studying Modern Standard Arabic for six weeks in Fes, Morocco (Summer 2013). I’ve never studied Arabic before, nor have I ever been to a country that speaks Arabic. I’ve never traveled abroad on my own, and I’ve never been outside of the United States for more than four weeks (I will be in Morocco for a total of nine weeks). This trip is a lot of firsts for me!


I’m actually cheating with these blog entries, since I wasn’t able to get the blog to work for me until a few days ago, and even then I haven’t had the necessary combination of an available power outlet, stable wifi access, and free time. So the introduction, pre-departure, arrival, and first week blog entries are actually all being typed up on Monday, June 24, 2013.


So why did I choose to come to Fes? I should start by saying that I’m a Social Science major, which basically means I can just cobble together all of the classes that interest me into a degree. I really have no ultimate plan with my college career; the only criteria for which classes I’ve chosen to take (apart from required classes) is whether or not they seem interesting. It’s probably fair to say almost all of my time is spent daydreaming (often while doing other things, of course—I can multitask, sort of). Whenever I see, experience, or think about anything, I’m always imagining several other things at the same time. The daydreams are always fueled by what’s being fed into my brain, be it scenery, pictures, or books. In a way, the acquisition of knowledge feeds my imagination. I’m always keen to find the best feasts for the imagination, and I’ve developed particular tastes. The Middle East and North Africa have always had an inexplicable draw for me, though only recently have I consciously recognized it. Much of my free time in the past few years has been spent gathering pictures and lore about Africa and the western reaches of Asia.


One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is whether my interest in other lands, cultures, peoples and histories is benign, or insidious. Seriously thinking about colonialism, Orientalism, the dark side of the romanticization of reality has led me to question my personal daydreamer’s pursuit. Regardless, I do want to learn more about the world, and I don’t think it’s because the rest of the world is “exotic” compared to my usual surroundings. One thing I’ve learned in my anthropology classes is that weird is relative; studying other cultures makes the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. The mundane and the fantastic are one and the same.


Whoops, this is actually probably way too long for an introduction post. I tend to go off on tangents when I write directly from my mind, so I’ll sum it up as succinctly as I can. Why did I choose Morocco? Because Morocco fascinates me.