While I still have two more months before I go home, it is seeming impossible that I am going to have to tear myself apart from a country that has so willingly embraced me in its arms and so effortlessly captured my heart. This country has taught me how beautiful life can be and how incredible human beings are. Although Moroccan culture is so unlike American culture in many ways and it is hard to imagine how people’s lives can be so different from my own, I have found that at times nothing is more encouraging than a smile, a laugh, an embrace. Home exists in these simple things. One afternoon about a month ago, I found myself sitting with my friend Carolyn in a cafe not far from my medina house chatting with the waiter who worked there. We told him that we were living in Rabat for the semester and that we were loving Morocco, despite whatever “culture shock” we had experienced. He told us that he believed travel to be one of the most important things a person could do. He had never traveled outside Morocco himself, but he thought that if he ever did, he would not be worried or afraid to be in a new place without the people he knew. “It’s what’s in your heart,” he said. No matter where you go, if you are good, you will find yourself surrounded by people who are as good, if not better, than you are. I have found this to be true. The Moroccans I have met have never questioned me or looked down on me for being American, but have welcomed me into their homes, their coffee shops, and their markets without hesitation. If we cannot communicate well, meshi-mushkin. We will share tea and each other’s company. We will make an effort to converse in broken English, French, and Darija and we will laugh.
This hospitality is probably one of my favorite things about Morocco. Little gestures, like holding my hand to cross the street, a smile, or wrapping me up with blankets, have been stored in my memory and culminate to create a warmth inside me that I will never forget. This is something we miss in America. People rarely go out of their way to help strangers, as if we have been trained to believe you can never trust someone without them giving something to you first. One of my favorite experiences in Morocco so far involved me relying solely on strangers for a full day to get me to where I needed to be. My program takes us to a rural village to stay with host families for a week so that we can get an idea of what life is like outside the urban cities. On the day we were meant to leave for the village, I discovered that illness would make it impossible for me to join my classmates on a four hour bus ride, so I would have to find my own way there once I was feeling better. Two days and several doctors visits later (one of which involved me being told the only prescription was to eat more bread - THAT’s a joke, if you had any idea how bread is shoved down our throats on a daily basis) I was ready to join everyone else in the village. Our program assistant, Nawal, told me that I did not need to come to the village if I was not feeling up to it, but I insisted. City life can be overwhelming at times and I was dying to get out. Plus, after spending literally every day with my classmates, I was feeling severely lonely and desperately needed to chat it up with them. So Nawal gave me instructions on where I needed to go and how I could get there, and yallah! I made my way to the village. I soon realized that things would not be so easy. First, I had to take a grand taxi for about an hour to the city of Tifelt crammed in the back with three other women next to me and three more people in the front seat (excluding the taxi driver). This was a standard 5 person car, mind you. Once in Tifelt, I was meant to take another grand taxi to Oulmes, but ended up taking a cramped minibus. At first I had my own seat, but gave it up to an elderly woman. This meant I had to stand for the two hour ride, but I was alright with it. When we arrived in Oulmes, I waited with the bus driver until my next ride came. Three Moroccans from a local NGO, all three named Mohammed, picked me up, brought me lunch, and drove me the rest of the way to the village. The entire trip was completely improvised but in the lovely hands of Nawal, a true miracle worker and someone who I now know I would trust my life with. If I was unsure of my next move, all I needed to do was call Nawal and she would ask if she could talk to someone. I would hand the phone to literally whomever was closest to me and they would accept it without hesitation or confusion. “Salaam aleykum!” they would immediately say, going through the usual plethora of Arabic greetings, and after a two minute conversation would hang up and without a word lead me where I needed to go. I was in the hands of strangers the whole day, but never once did I feel afraid or suspicious of them. I knew I would soon reach the village and be reunited with my friends. In retrospect, this was one of the craziest days I’ve ever lived through. I kept thinking “this would NEVER happen in America” and enjoyed the craziness for that very reason. I was amazing by how willing people were to help me. No one thought twice about taking the phone from me or helping me get to where I needed to go. Even the bus driver who sat with me and chatted for twenty minutes while I waited for my next ride never gave me the impression that I was imposing on him or disturbing his schedule. It blew me away; I might not wish an experience like this on myself again, but it is one I highly value and will never forget.
Nawal being a superstar
Late in the day, I finally reached the village and got to see my friends. I was placed in a homestay with my friends Alex and Julia because there was enough room for three students to be there. It was true that our house seemed to be bigger than everyone else’s and that our family owned more land than the others. Still, it was a rural home - there wasn’t much more than what was needed by the family. We had two sisters who were 18 (Miriam) and 21 (Mina) and two older brothers we didn’t get to see much because they worked all day. Our parents were incredible and absolutely hilarious. Our father, Ahmed, spoke Arabic and French fluently (despite only being educated up to 8th grade) and worked with the livestock they had on their property. He had very leathery skin and a great beard that covered a significant portion of his face. Zahara, our mother, was an older woman who showed the wear of working and living on a farm, but was as lively as ever. She had a great smile and loved to laugh. We ended up spending most of our time inside with Miriam, Mina, and Zahara because it rained a lot of the time we were there. I couldn’t communicate with them well, but Alex and Julia both speak Arabic, so it was not a problem. Despite being cold, wet, and stuck indoors, I really enjoyed the time spent with them. They were goofy and were so happy to have us with them. They showed us family pictures, taught us some of their favorite games, cooked with us, and just relaxed by the fireside as we read our books. We watched television with them as well and wondered what it was like for them to see the outside world, since their village was pretty secluded and they had rarely gone far from it. They also had relatives who had moved away and sent back pictures and letters. Alex and Julia told me that before I had arrived, Miriam said that she did not want to just get married right after her schooling was done and have babies like everyone else. She did not want to get stuck. I hope she is able to get out if that is what she wants, she’s beautiful and deserves a chance to live the life she wants.
Julia, Alex, Zahara, and Ahmed at the souk!
Playing games with Miriam and Mina on a rainy day.
The family life there was incredible though. In Rabat, I have witnessed a close family dynamic. Relatives come and go for visits every day and extended families usually live in close proximity to one another. In the rural village we visited, this was certainly true, but there seemed to be an even tighter support system. Everyone was involved in the welfare of the family and had a part. We visited the home of Zahara’s aunt or sister (I think? it was unclear how everyone was related) and shared tea with them. We were surrounded by many relatives… and so many babies. Daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles - everyone was there. It was a very communal experience, and there is no norm of getting out and getting your own space when you get married. Every family member has responsibilities and everyone seems to have their own job to do to help out. I can see the value of this way of life. Everyone grows up surrounded by family and literally gets to know personally every member. We rarely have that in America. We live with just our parents and siblings and move out when we can provide for ourselves. We value being self-sufficient, but through this we are divided. We live thousands of miles away from our grandparents, our aunts and uncles, our cousins, even our parents and siblings after some time. We don’t get the comfort of family support, we don’t get to feel the warmth of each other’s hugs, hear each other laugh, or really get to know each other. This kind of rural Moroccan life of course has its downfalls and it’s nice that in America we are able to remove ourselves easily and chart our own courses. But I can’t help but feel like I am missing a huge part of the human experience. Nowadays, I spend less time away from my immediate family than with them, and I am so grateful for the opportunities they have given me to be at the school I love and to be here, but I feel awful for spending more time away from them than with them. I see the value in the closeness of the families here and wish I could take part in something like it.
Overall, the village stay was incredible. The scenery was so beautiful and peaceful and the grass was greener than I ever could have imagined. I got closer to my host family than I thought possible. We danced, laughed, and loved. I couldn’t believe we were only there for a week (less than that for me, actually). The last night we were there, we put on crazy pajamas that our host family had provided for us to humor them and show them how much we appreciated being there. They LOVED it; Zahara literally rolled on the floor laughing. They gave us necklaces to wear and took lots of pictures with us, and at the end of it all, Miriam cried because she was sad to see us go. It was then that I realized how fast Moroccans are to not only make you feel welcome, but a part of their family. I will never forget my rural host stay family.
In our fashionable pajamas.
With only one more day of class left, we have one week of preparation and then we start our Independent Study Projects. At the end of next week, we move out of our homestays and live on our own to conduct research on any topic of our choice. I am slightly nervous about this, but mostly excited. None of us will really be alone - most of us are staying in Rabat and renting out apartments in groups. I’ll be living with about 10 of my friends in a fairly sizable apartment, and I’m excited to spend time with them and everyone else. In my mind though, the beginning of ISP means the end of the program. After our three weeks are up, we have one week of presentations and then it’s time to go home. I will be traveling for a couple of weeks after that, but when ISP ends, I’m going to have to say goodbye to the people who have been such an important part of my experience here. I’ve made so many great friends, and I’m not ready to let go of them yet. I know I will stay in contact with some of them, but I’ll miss seeing their faces every day and sharing experiences with them that only they understand as I do. I know I’m getting ahead of myself and I have another month to enjoy their company, but I can’t help but feel sad already. Saying goodbye to them will also be coupled with saying goodbye to Morocco, which is something I am not at all prepared to do, and I don’t think I ever will be. There are so many things that have become part of my routine and part of my everyday life. I can’t believe I have gotten to this point, so it’s even harder that I’m going to have to give it up. But I can’t think about that yet though!