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.
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.