February in Morocco

Another month has come and gone, and we will be back in Chicago before April starts. This month, though short, was full of new experiences and beautiful sights.

We came back from Spain, met our new professor for “Islamic Thought in the Maghreb” and started February on a spiritual note. That weekend, we went to Ifrane (also known the Switzerland of Morocco). It was snowy and cold but it reminded me of my childhood in Bursa and the soft snows of Uludag in the winter. There were storks everywhere and according to my mom, if you see storks before springtime, it means you will travel a lot that year! There were also monkeys in the forest and steep ski slopes, one of which we used for sledding. After a few hours in the snow, we ate a delicious tajeen at a women’s cooperative. There are many of these cooperatives all over Morocco whether they are selling argan oil, weaving carpets, or making tajeens. It’s nice to see women owned and managed businesses.   

tajeen smoke illuminated at Ifran

The day after we came back to Rabat, Leyla and I moved homestays. Our first host family was unorthodox, to say the least, and we weren’t really comfortable with our living situation. There were a lot of people in a small house, the food wasn’t great, and we didn’t feel valued as guests. However, not only is all that behind us, but also our new host family is as better as the former was bad, and our quality of life has increased exponentially.

The first excursion with our new professor was to Meknes. I caught some pretty shots of an old madrasa. Then, we visited another one of Leyla’s family friends in Kenitra. She picked us up from the train station and took us to a beauty salon, a taco place, and gave us a tour of the town. Then she made us an elaborate dinner and woke up super early the next day to drive us back to the train station. She and I clicked in a way that proves the story true: our souls knew each other before coming into these bodies, and that’s why sometimes, even if you just met somebody, you feel an immediate connection.

Our next excursion was to Ourika Valley and downtown Marrakesh. We heard gnawa music, watched the stars, and hiked for several hours while taking in the majesty of the mountains and reveling in the beauty of creation. We had tajeen for dinner and eggs for breakfast, and a new kind of cheese in a bowl of olive oil. I point this out because there doesn’t seem to be a big cheese culture in Morocco. The most popular cheese is the triangular cream cheeses. Similarly, there isn’t that big of a yogurt culture either, I haven’t seen plain yogurt sold anywhere, it’s not essential for the cuisine, and what’s readily available is the fruit flavored Dannons in corner stores. Sad!

Marrakesh was very crowded but also livelier than many of the other cities we visited. In the famous main square, there were more than 60 carts selling freshly pressed fruit juices (only 40 cents for orange juice), snake charmers, parrot and peacock photo stands, poets and performers, and little spreads with people displaying jewelry and soaps and spices. People get around in motorcycles and sometimes zoom past awfully close to you – but it’s all part of the experience. Either way, Leyla and I perfected our bargaining scheme in Marrakesh. We play a version of good cop/bad cop, where I am the stern cheapskate and Leyla is the sweet moderator. In this way, we say a price that is obviously too low, I act stubborn, and Leyla acts as if to convince me of the shopkeeper’s counteroffer. I yield when it’s a price Leyla and I previously agreed to, and everyone’s happy. (Take note if you are going to be studying abroad!)

In between Marrakesh and our next excursion, we had a bread-making activity with our program. We learned how to make msmmn and hrsha – which are staple breads for Moroccans. Our new host mom makes both of them in the morning for us and seeing how much effort it took made us appreciate her even more.

Before we started our next class with another professor on Post-Colonial Morocco, we went to the desert! It was my favorite part of study abroad and a true bonding experience for the cohort. It took around 11 hours to get to Merzouga, where our hostel was, but it was definitely worth it. After resting a little bit, we mounted our camels (YES!) and journeyed for an hour into the desert. We arrived at a glam campsite (equipped with electricity and modern toilets) and went through the practice of eating tajeen and listening to gnawa music (which happened again the next day at a Berber “House of Music”). Someone asked if the guide could give us a few minutes so we could get blankets and he said, “Few minutes? You can have my whole life! In America, you guys have watches, but here – we have time.” Berber culture that we have seen is amazing, accommodating, and proudly African (the latter is usually missing from Arab Moroccans.) After preparing… we went to stargaze!

When we first arrived in Morocco, during orientation, one of the program coordinators said that talking about religion is pretty easy here, but atheism? Atheism is bizarre for Moroccans. The concept of not having God is alien. And that’s how I felt lying on the sand, wrapped in a blanket, and gazing up at the stars. How could anyone be an atheist, if they lived this close to the stars? How could they look at the grandeur of the universe, touch the intricate balance of the earth, and be so in tune with creation and not believe that there must be an Orderer, a Balancer, a Creator? Of course they think it bizarre.

Last weekend, we went to Chefchaouen (the blue pearl), and then to Tangier. Chaouen is a small, quiet city, that is entirely blue. It used to have a predominantly Jewish population, but they have mostly left. In all of Morocco, numbers went from millions to now only five thousand.

After Chaouen, we left for Tangier – which used to be an international zone and is kind of a microcosmic Morocco. We saw the Caves of Hercules, the old medina, and also the only American historical landmark that is outside of the US. It’s US soil in the heart of Tangier, formerly a Legation, now a cultural center and museum. Fun (not so fun) fact: Morocco was the first country to recognize America as an independent nation. And while originally legitimized by a Muslim country, America now has waged several wars in the region, killed millions of Muslims, and won’t even let some of us in. Hmm… On a similar note, I am sad that I can’t hear the athan regularly while in Rabat, and I am sad that when we were in Chefchaouen we overheard a girl say “This song OMG! When I was in Jordan, they would play this [referring to the athan] all. the. time!” I am sad that our second professor (A Muslim man) got so much flak for things that our first professor had done without anybody complaining. Just some observations.

Despite the few lows, February was so much better than January, thank God. Leyla and I signed up for a 10K which happened on Sunday (our time: 73 minutes!), and we have been running almost every day, slowly building our stamina. Our gym is a women’s only gym and extremely affordable given all the amenities and services, like fun classes round the clock, a salon, and a hammam. But, more importantly, it has a supportive and lovely community of teachers and gym-goers, which is priceless. We have befriended all the instructors, the cleaning ladies, the hairdresser/manicurist, and all other helpful and sweet women (who have bought us soap, scrubbed our backs, dropped us off at home, and translated things into English to count a few of their acts of kindness) and we will miss them a lot.

Over this month, as much as I learned about Morocco, I learned new things about myself too. For example, I have been blessed with a good memory and sense of direction, and a body that is resilient and strong. I am grateful for having had time to exercise without stress and wander without limits. I am grateful for being able to read for pleasure, and I am grateful for poetry, and beauty, and Divine love. I am grateful that I grew closer to the friends I already had, and the new friends I made. I am grateful for the friends back in America who message me regularly, because I miss them, and I miss their smiles and their warmth and their presence in my life.

See you in spring Chicago, I miss you too.

January in Morocco

I am writing this blog post in a bus that is on its way to Tangier. As you might know, I am studying abroad this quarter! I have been in Morocco since January 1st. Life here is definitely different from what I am used to and has been a true learning experience with many humbling moments along the way. Here’s a recap of my journey so far:

I arrived in Rabat at night on the first day of 2018. On the way from D.C. to Boston to Lisbon to Casablanca to finally Rabat, I made couple of friends and also got my first taste of Morocco.

I met a French-British woman who is a radio journalist. I asked for help from a mom and her daughter. The mom even fought with a taxi driver on my behalf. I talked to a lady who was watching a Turkish TV show. Being Turkish is a currency here – which has its pluses and minuses. People love our shows and our president. And I seem to get away with a lot of things because as soon as people guess I am Turkish, or I say I am from Turkey their whole demeanor changes. They welcome me a thousand times and say all the Turkish words they know. They let me bargain for lower prices, because I am not like other tourists. I am not complaining, but I want to note that this probably stems from internalized preferences for whiter and more European-looking Muslims.

On the way from Casablanca to Rabat, the night sky was clear and there was a full moon. It was especially picturesque when it lit up stretches of lush farmland. I saw horses and palm trees and palaces (I think), sometimes unfinished small, flat-roofed houses, and cacti. After 30+ hours of airplanes and airports, it was a refreshing change of scenery. When I finally arrived in Rabat, it was dark and I was tired, so I checked in at the hotel, went to my room, and immediately fell asleep.  

Rabat is the official capital of Morocco but Casablanca is the cultural one. It’s like D.C. vs New York, or Ankara vs. Istanbul. That being said, as it is expected from capital cities, there is a calmness and quiet here. It has to be a little boring so it doesn’t attract that much attention – the King lives here too. (In case you didn’t know, Morocco is a monarchy and people love the King – one of the things we learned during orientation was to not insult the King or the monarchy because people will get really offended).

Our first week, we stayed in the hotel. And on the Friday of, we moved into homes with our host families. There are 26 people in our program and we are all living with Moroccan families so as to be fully immersed in the culture here.  

The following Monday we started classes. And for the last three weeks we have been learning about Antiquity aka. Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and the rise of Christianity. We visited some ancient ruins in Volubilis (pictured below), Chellah, and Lixus, and we went to the archeology museum in Rabat. We are traveling today to Spain because we covered a bit of the Muslim rule in Spain and will see Cordoba and Granada when we are there.

In addition to history of civilizations – we are all taking Arabic. Most people are learning Darija—which is the local, Moroccan dialect of Arabic. Only three of us are continuing with Modern Standard Arabic (fusha) – this is so when we go back to Chicago, we can finish our intermediate Arabic sequence. While I don’t get much practice speaking fusha/Darija outside (or even at home), I have been getting a lot of practice in my class and really like my teacher.

Almost all people in Morocco are bilingual. Kids start learning French in elementary school and academics stay that way. The bilingualism isn’t even the most impressive part – because most young Moroccans are trilingual at the least. In addition to French, they start learning English in high school, and can hold their own in any conversation. Spanish is also commonly found (especially in the North) and in fact, when I landed in the Casablanca airport and had to ask for directions from a police officer, I spoke with him in Spanish.

Last week I met a language partner* of one of the people in our program, upon hearing my name, she exclaimed (in Turkish) “You are Turkish??” and since that is a signal word to just switch over to Turkish – I replied yes, and you are too?

She laughed at me and continued – in fluent and accent-less Turkish – that she is not Turkish, she is Moroccan, and she loves our TV shows. I was dumbfounded obviously because I am not the kind of person that easily says “So and so speaks perfect Turkish” – but this girl? She floored me. And she has no former schooling in Turkish – she learned perfect enunciation and grammar and comprehension from these Turkish shows. We exchanged WhatsApp numbers and later that day when we were messaging I was further impressed because she is also a flawless speller. Oh, and she’s only 19.

*Our program assigns us language partners – Moroccans who are close to us in age who are learning English so we can practice Arabic with them and they can practice English with us.

This past weekend, Leyla (my roommate and close friend from Chicago) and I went to Casablanca and were hosted by a distant family friend of hers. They have a daughter, Nada, who is 16, who actually is the Moroccan ambassador for an international girls-leadership summit that is hosted in Chicago. And she learned English from make-up tutorial videos. And well – you can fill in the rest here: she’s good enough at it that she was flown all the way to Chicago to meet with and present to women leaders from the likes of Google and Microsoft.

These are the cultural phenomena that leave me in awe. Of course, Moroccan hospitality is another level of treating guests. I thought that Nada would take us out for tea and we would go to the big mosque and then leave that same night. Morocco has proven me wrong quite a few times at this point.

Nada came to pick us up with her dad, and they drove us back home so we could have lunch. The lunch was preceded by dates, figs and milk. Then a large traditional salad mix, followed by a beef tajeen. Tajeens are earthenware pots that a variety of dishes are made in – they come in various sizes, and families use the bigger ones during meals because it’s shared by everyone around the table.

After the meat, we had fruits and tea. Then they took us to the Hasan II mosque. Once we got there, they set up with a blanket on the courtyard and told us to take as much time as we wanted. The mosque is beautiful – it’s the biggest mosque in Morocco and the 13th biggest in the world. The inside is so big they have escalators to get to the prayer area. Leyla and I prayed evening prayer in congregation, which included several pigeons who, I suspect, are natives of the mosque.

Afterwards, we sat outside and ate cake and more fruits. They, then took us to the largest mall in Africa. It has an aquarium inside! And then they got us ice cream. The next day, after breakfast they took us back to the mosque to see it in daylight, and then to the ancient medina (where the shops are), and a fresh fruit juice and pastry shop for an afternoon snack. They fed us an early dinner and then they took us to the train station. The total cost of our two-day trip was 74 dirhams (~7.4$) for the train ticket to and from Casablanca because this family did not make us pay a single dirham for anything. And they are expecting us again – whenever we have a free day.

Another cultural phenomenon is men-only cafes. Of course, they aren’t explicitly marked for men but if there are small tables outside and the chairs are all facing the street, you can be sure that it’s a men’s café. Some people on the program were surprised that this existed since in America we apparently don’t have men-only spaces (!). Even if we disregard saloons and taverns of the olden times (although they were for men only and a certain type of women), there are so many other places (physical and abstract) where there is a systemic exclusion of women (like the presidency of the US).

And the other point about these cafes, is that they are actually a good representation of what’s missing in American society: places to foster healthy male friendships that aren’t centered around drinking and objectifying women (like fraternities).

The weekend before, we went to Fez. Fez is famous for its leather and tanneries, the maze that is its medina, and for being home to the world’s first university that was founded by a woman. We stayed in a riad (traditional Moroccon homes with many rooms and an inner courtyard) and quickly got accustomed to the smell of the medina (pure leather smell is strong, to say the least). The Fez medina is somewhat aggressive, if you are not used to half a dozen shopkeepers trying to lure you into their shop at the same time by using a variety of techniques. Even if a little bit unconventional, the people are always happy to help. Whenever we asked for directions, we were just escorted. The manager of the riad we stayed in took us where all the restaurants were (Bab Boujloud), and then later came to guide us back to the riad. We asked a family if they knew a certain street, they just said to follow them and took us there. When we wanted to see the tanneries, we asked a shopkeeper and he left his shop to take us there.

All this reminds me, there is a very strong honor system here. People care about each other and respect the rights (haqq) that people have over them. There are five small hanoots (like mini bodegas) on our street and they are all in business. The bag-sellers in the medina will watch each other’s shops, because they are friends. The nature of their relationship is compassionate and friendly, not competitive and cold. Leyla and I take the tram every day to go to school – and tram tix are 6 dirhams (~60 cents). You buy your ticket and you put it in the machine when you enter the tram. Then, there is a ticket checker who walks through all the tram cars and checks if you punched in your ticket. However, during rush hours, because the tram is super packed, there is no ticket checker. Essentially, everyone could ride for free, but everyone still punches in their tickets.

People are much more relaxed than usual. The focus is on personal relationships, not the completion of tasks. This adds a human element to everything. Sure, it’s a little more hectic, and sometimes even inconvenient, but we are so used to convenience and efficiency, we have become some of the loneliest people in the planet. If you want to park your car, there is no mobile app where you can pay for the spot – someone (a human being) helps you park in a place, watches your car while you’re gone, and you tip them when you leave. (Speaking of cars, traffic is absolutely chaotic. Rarely are there stoplights or stop signs, and you are usually jaywalking everywhere. Honking is very popular and the noise pollution is real. But, it's kind of endearing.)

Here are some more pictures of the things that i loved in Morocco so far: