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18 posts categorized "Student"


Co-ops: they exist outside of Northern California? Or, the rise and fall of the Moroccan artisan

Coming from Northern California, the words "artisan" and "co-op" are like comfort food for me - these get tossed around an unnatural amount when you're living in a place like Berkeley. When I came to Morocco, however, I was not expecting to encounter them so frequently - and oh how wrong I was!

The past several weekends I've traveled have been trips organized by CIEE, and are therefore a big shift from the independent travel I had embarked on in previous weekends. For one, they were already paid for! Beyond that wonderful fact, they also have an actual structure and intent to them. There are itineraries, tour guides, reservations - in short, organization that 20- something year olds (and in my case, younger) are not prone towards. One commonality in these trips is our interaction with local artisans and rural cooperatives through workshops and conversations (sometimes over lunch!), something that I have greatly appreciated.

Our first excursion was to the city of Fez - considered the cultural capital of Morocco - and surrounding area. After our first day touring the medina and eating in the city, we set out Saturday for the small city of Sefrou. Off the current beaten tourist track, Sefrou used to serve as an important point on the trade route between Morocco and the rest of Africa and is now home to Culture Vultures. This organization was started some years ago by a wonderful British artist who had a "mission to enhance cross cultural exchange and dialogue through art ventures and culture programs" (from their website), in effect meaning that they host artists in residence, hold art shows and workshops to engage with local artisans. Over the course of a day, we visited traditional weavers, plow-makers, a cooperative housing wood workers and women making jewelry from djellaba buttons (the traditional Moroccan dress), and the abandoned synagogue and Jewish school just outside of the old medina before ending our time there with a lunch of rafeesa prepared by local women.

The loom of a blanket-weaver in Sefrou who told us that his kind were dying out due to increasing availability of inexpensive blankets from places like China

An incredible lunch of rafeesa

The next day we left Fez and headed to an extremely small village where we visited two women's cooperatives, one of which produced herbal teas, oils, and soaps (and couscous!) and the other absolutely delicious honey. Our conversations with them were conducted through a translator not only because our darija is lacking, but because the village we were in spoke Tamazight. In spite of the multiple language barriers, these women were unbelievably warm and friendly, and shared so much about their lives with us, including the difficulties of balancing this work with being a mother and/or wife. They gave me a lot of insight into the importance of rural co-ops, especially for women, and how challenging it can be for them.

A group picture with the women from the two co-ops

A weekend in Chefchaouen also proved to be an opportunity to connect with local artisans through workshops CIEE had organized with them. Because of an (ultimately inaccurate) intimidating weather forecast, the majority of the group opted out of the hike on the second day, meaning we were able to participate in two workshops each. The first day I "made" lime leaf extract, meaning that I watched as it was made and drank a lot of tea. Beyond the fascinating process of producing this extract, we learned about various herbs that grow in the area and how the community uses them as natural remedies (again something very familiar for a Northern Californian like myself). The next day I opted for something a little more labor intensive: blanket weaving. And my goodness, was it a challenge. The looms the weavers work with are enormous and extremely delicate, so of course our group managed to break something while we were there. Ultimately the experience made me appreciate the intricacy and delicacy of the blankets I see for sale - how incredibly low the price is for something so well-made by such wonderful people.

The blanket we supposedly helped to weave in Chefchaouen

Students proudly display their end result

Cooperatives are an integral part of sustaining rural life in a place like Morocco. They provide people (and especially women) with a way to support themselves doing things that they often are already experts at - for instance, the herbal co-op we visited was based on the knowledge andpractices of thee women and their families; it was simply the structure of the co-op, and the knowing that this was a feasible path for them, that was needed. Similarly, with an organization like Culture Vultures, the traditions and ability, etc, are of course present - they are there only to facilitate and support them, which is an incredibly important job in a time when so many arts and trades are being phased out or only exist in the larger cities. These experiences were among the best I have had in Morocco because of how real they were; because of the ability to witness the making of the merchandise I see every day, and to interact with those who produce it.

Students pose with various Moroccan turban styles in a scarf cooperative in Fes


On Communication

The ten days I spent with my brother gave me a new perspective on language and communication.

So far, I've spent three months focusing on learning Arabic. I've tried to find the right words and the right phrases to get the right meaning across. I want to be able to speak Arabic so that I can communicate with the locals.

Yet in ten days I watched my brother talk himself out of three traffic tickets, bargain with hotel owners, barter with Berber tradesmen, have full conversations with my host parents (who speak no English or Spanish), talk with mechanics (twice!) to get our car fixed and get deals at the car rental place.

He often asked me to tell someone something, yet my first reaction was often, "I don't know how to say that." He'd say, walk over to them, and in a mix of Spanish, English and gestures, he'd get the point across.

I was thoroughly impressed by his determination to talk about things that were difficult, complex and fun. He didn't care that he could barely say "thank you" in Arabic (though he did learn that one by the end of the trip).

This whole experience simply made me reflect. I've placed such an emphasis on language. And well, to be fair, that's what my program is about. And my long-term goals involved speaking Arabic, not just communicating with Moroccans today. But still, I was able to re-realize that language and communication are not the same thing.

They are definitely not the same thing. Language often facilitates communication, but communication does not depend on language. We can smile or wave and never speak a word. We can say many, many words, yet through our body language convey the exact opposite of what we mean. We can get caught up on focusing on how to say certain things, that we forget that we can say many things without every having a common language.


Bartering Goods

"Do you have a souvenir for me? A hat? An English book?"

I racked my brain for what I could possibly have to exchange with this Amazigh trader.

I was trying to buy a carpet. But it was a little too expensive. So he was offering an exchange of goods. My brother had just purchased some things and paid using dirhams, a used pink t-shirt and some sunglasses.

I did have a copy of Catcher in the Rye in my book bag. Byron had lent it to me to read and I wasn't quite done with it yet. I asked him what he would do with a book.

"Read it, of course!" Duh. Of course. I should assume that this Amazigh man would read classic English novels.

Eh, why not? I'd get Byron another copy of Catcher in the Rye.

"Deal." His face broke into a huge smile and we shook hands. Did we just barter goods with a Saharan trader? Yup. Yes, we did.

Today we're heading out into the desert with his family. He seemed disgusted that we were headed to Merzouga, the tourism destination for those seeking desert treks. He instead urged us to go with his family. So we'll be joining his nomadic family on a three-hour camel ride into the desert where we'll see the sun set, sleep in Berber tens and share in their meals and enjoy their music. Then we'll head to sleep under the inky blackness of the the Sahara desert and awake to the majestic sunrise. A wonderful breakfast and then another camel ride back. Well, here goes :)



Last Friday we went to the International University of Rabat, which is actually in Sale. But whatever. Its an upscale university here, where students pay about $7,000 USD a year to be there. As a Moroccan you can attend a public university for all for years and pay less than $100 USD. We went as part of our Gender Issues class and we came prepared with interview questions. Our teacher encouraged us to ask "inappropriate" questions and to really ask about things that were "taboo." So we jumped in with both feet. We found ourselves asking questions related to virginity, sexual education, homosexuality, religion and stereotypes. We all had a fabulous time getting to know these Moroccan students and then just getting a glimpse into their minds and how they think. Afterwards, they gave us a tour of their campus and we were all pretty stunned by how nice their facilities were. Their dorm rooms reminded me of dorms back in the US... except that we didn't have bathrooms and sinks in our rooms. As we walked around, I ended up talking with Kenza. She's a freshman from Tangier (in Northern Morocco). She was educated in a Spanish school throughout high school, so soon we were chatting away in Spanish. She was clearly more comfortable in Spanish than in English and it was so wonderful to be able to communicate with ease in a language that actually felt like a common language. Usually, when I converse with Moroccans, one of us is exerting a lot of effort to keep up in a conversation that is carried out in a language that isn't our own. Not in this conversation. Several times I had to remind myself that I wasn't in Colombia, as I heard her flawless Spanish and looked at her physical features. She could easily fit in Bogota... no one would look at her twice if she were walking down the streets in Colombia. I was hit with a really strong sense of nostalgia and homesickness. I miss home. I miss communicating easily. I loved being in Morocco, speaking to a Morocco, in Spanish. And there was nothing strange about it.


Lil' Kiddies

I've been volunteering at on organization called Dar Shebeb for three weeks now. Most of the other students in the program teach English or French classes. But Uchenna, Byron and I have a completely different role.

We get to play games for two hours.

Yup. That's our job description.

I get to laugh and play and have fun with 7-13 year olds every week.

The first two weeks there was a Moroccan helping us with translating game instructions, if need be. But Byron and I enjoyed plunging ahead and trying to get the game across in our Arabic. This last week, there was no such safety-net to fall back on when it was obvious that instructions weren't being conveyed correctly.

We have a couple of staple games that include Ninja, musical chairs and Red Light, Green Light. We play these every week and I love trying to come up with new games every week as well.

This last week I was struck by how funny we must sound. First of all, we speak using mostly Fus-ha, when the kids speak mostly Derija. Secondly, I speak and then think. And third, the words we know are pretty formal for playground kinds of settings.

So, we try to explain that in musical chairs you can't touch the chairs before the "music" (us clapping and shouting) stops. Byron comes up with the exact term for "touch" and I can't think of anything but, "It is prohibited." Yeah, that's right. They better not touch the chairs.

Through volunteering I've realized that there are some words I really need to learn:

  • Stop
  • Rules
  • You win
  • You lose
  • You're out
  • Can't...
  • No pushing!
  • Time out

I love the little kiddies and it might be the highlight of my week. We explain games and then they run up to us and go off in full-speed Derija, expecting us to understand. I usually shrug my shoulders and say, "Mafahimtsh."

Oh, story of my life.

I don't understand.


To Spain and Back

A couple of weekends ago, CIEE took us on a trip to northern Morocco. However, we wanted to see Tangier some for ourselves before all of the CIEE scheduling and program set in, so we set out a day early. We found a great hostel in the old medina and did some shopping around. We were able to explore some and then the next day got picked up by CIEE to see various cities in northern Morocco.

One of our stops that weekend, interestingly enough, was Spain. As American citizens we didn't need to get a visa to come to Morocco. We automatically can come and stay for three months. However, our program is four months long. So, to get around this, we simply took a (very) short trip to Spain. No, we didn't cross the Strait.

We stayed on the African continent.

You see, Ceuta is an interesting Spanish city.


We simply drove to the border, got out of the bus, handed over our passports, got them stamped, walked across and suddenly, we were in Spain. We hoped into taxis and I loved that I could communicated with ease. I tried to not to snicker at the unfamiliar accent. We walked around the downtown area and European architecture surrounded us.

We spent less than four hours in this Spanish city, yet we ate pork, spoke Spanish and felt like we were very much inside of Europe. They were even celebrating Carnaval while we were there, so we were able to enjoy a very festive city.

It was an odd sensation. We had just finished reading a book called Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits for one of our classes. It tells the story of four Moroccans who are desperate to cross the border into Spain.

It is the promise of a better life-- a new life. Though we were able to simply walk into Spain, many Moroccans will never see the city of Ceuta. They can't get the visa necessary to reach Spain. As we walked across the border, you could see armed guards stationed on the hills surrounding the city; they were definitely there to keep people out.

Yet our privilege, our blue passports, allowed us to walk into Spain and back... for three and a half hours. We spent the evening in Spain so that we wouldn't need to get visas, and so many can't ever visit because they can't get visas.

All in all, it was a cool experience. I enjoyed Ceuta. I loved speaking Spanish and I really enjoyed the city :)


Things I Miss

  • Initiating conversations comfortably
    I wish I could initiate conversations in any situation with any person without having to rehearse my first sentence over and over again.
  • Finishing my own sentences. Moroccans are super friendly and are so helpful when I'm struggling to communicate. However, once they catch the gist of what I'm trying to say, they finish my sentences for me. I'm excited to be able to finish my own sentences, sometimes.
  •  Asking meaningful follow-up questions.
    Sometimes, my host family explains something to me and I can understand the big picture. But I struggle immensely to ask meaningful followup questions in order to understand better or have them expand on certain topics.
  • Asking meaningful questions. Period.
    I miss being able to ask people questions that don't start with "Who," "How," "What," and "Where." I want to be able to get to know people's and their hearts not just all the "whats."
  • Feeling more adventurous in wandering around the city.
    I'd be much more willing to hop on a bus and figure out the public transportation if I was certain I knew how to ask for directions to where I wanted to be and I was confident I could understand their response.
  • Explaining games to children.
    I just want to play games with so many kids, but I can't think of enough games that I know can explain well.
  • Teasing people.
    There have been so many times I could tease my family, but I know that I don't have the necessary vocabulary to do so. So I end up laughing and trying to gesture out some sort of tease, but it never has the same effect. Never.
While this list is in no way exhaustive, these are just a couple of things I miss about being able to proficiently communicate in the same language.



So I was surprised by several things last Sunday:

  1. How much these Moroccan ladies can eat. Oh my goodness! "Viviana, just one banana!" No, I could not eat "just" one more banana after having eaten chicken and beef and (of course!) bread only three hours after I had eaten lunch. One more banana would make me pop. I was certain of it.
  2. How these Moroccan women can shake those hips!! Colombian women can certainly move their hips, flowing perfectly with the music. But Moroccan women? The quick drums and the ultra-fast rhythms made for some incredibly fast hip movements. I was simply amazed. When it was my turn to try, I wasn't even sure how to move in that way. What was I trying to move to? There was no way I could move to the speed of those drums.
  3.  There is always room for one more woman on the couch. Oh, yes there is. I'm not sure how many women fit on the divans, but there always seemed to be room to squeeze one more on. I thought I'd feel less squished when one would stand up to dance, but alas, no, somehow, we were constantly squished on the couches.
  4.  I was told I might be cold. I might be cold... so I should wear leggings and a tank top and two sweaters under my caftan in case I was cold in the house with dozens upon dozens of dancing women in it. Maybe. At one point I was wondering if I should brave the bathroom with the light that didn't work to try and take off one of the sweaters.

So I went to a typical Moroccan subha today, celebrating the birth of a beautiful baby girl. Subha comes from the number seven; the celebration generally is held seven days after the baby's birth. We arrived around 3:30, though the celebration had been going on for at least an hour by then. At least 40 women were in the two living rooms; many sat on the divans lining the walls, a few danced in the open space.

I was pulled into the "dance floor" a couple of times and the Moroccans loved seeing this white girl try to move her hips. "Just move your HIPS," they'd tell me. Yes, I know what my hips are. I just don't have the same kind of control over mine like you do over yours. I can see their confusion, though. I'm positive my hips weren't moving when they told me to move them, so it made sense for them to conclude that I didn't know what my hips were.

After a while they took us downstairs to eat. Oumaima told me to get ready to eat a lot of food. I breathed in sharply; lunch couldn't have been more than four hours ago. I still had plenty of tajine and bread in my stomach. But more bread was brought out and then a huge silver platter of chicken was served. I ate sparingly, but still found myself quite full. She leaned over and told me that more food was coming. The chicken was cleared and a silver platter of beef was brought out. I ate a bit, but didn't think I should out of fear of the food coma. But then an entire platter of fruits was brought out. I was urged to eat more. I had two small slices of pineapple, then scolded for not eating more fruit. I found a small strawberry and ate that. Oumaima's aunt asked my why I didn't eat just one more banana. Ma'am, one more banana would be the death of me.

We returned upstairs for more dancing, more food (yes, cookies and tea, of course) and more laughing.

Wowza. What a way to celebrate new life!



I had my first "culture-shock" moment last week. No, not the kind of culture shock that makes me want to leave Morocco. Not even the kind of culture shock that makes me miss home intensely. It was the kind of situation where no matter how long I was in it, I couldn't quite get used to it. It was that kind of culture shock. I went to a hammam with a sweet Moroccan friend, Oumaima. A hammam, is a public bathhouse. I knew that they were very popular here in Morocco and that it was imperative that I visit one while I was here. But I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I guess it doesn't matter. I don't think any amount of information would have totally prepared me for the nakedness and the beautiful lack of shame displayed in the hammam. Women bathed without any thought of covering themselves, and I kept thinking I'd get used to it, until my eyes shifted from the ceiling or a wall to a person. And then I realized I still wasn't used to it. Oumaima was wonderful and talked me through the elaborate bathing steps. I was shocked by all of the dead skin that came off of me. Spaghetti, she called it. She curiously asked me, "What do you do with your dead skin in America?" Honestly? "I don't do anything with it," I replied. Her mouth dropped and I just laughed. I couldn't imagine how soft my skin would be if I went to the hammam every week, as was customary for many Moroccan women. Afterwards, Oumaima made sure I was fully wrapped up and warm so that the change of temperatures wouldn't mess with me (I guess Colombians would get along just fine here). We headed back to her house, napped on the divans (like couches) a bit and then had a wonderful cous cous lunch. After all, it was Cous Cous Friday.


The Art of Walking

Well, hi, everyone. Introductions first?

My name is Katie, and I'm currently studying in Rabat, Morocco. I'm a Philosophy major/French minor from Seattle University, and I enjoy cooking, holding hands, and long walks on the beach.

I'd say just kidding lol if all that weren't actually true; I love watching my host moms cook (we'll cook for them soon, I hope!), Moroccans hold hands a lot with their friends as they walk, and the beach is 30 seconds from where I live. I'm totally compatible with life in Morocco! Hooray!

There's so much to talk about so for now, I'll start with my impressions upon our arrival, two weeks ago:

We first glimpsed the medina as the city slept, the shops closed but for a few DVD vendors.  Scruffy looking cats roamed the empty streets as we dodged piles of garbage and deep puddles, eyes turned upward, trying to see as much as possible. Walking in this town, even in the dead of night, is proving to be a science I have yet to master; crossing the road requires an alertness I do not yet possess.

Rabat is absolutely beautiful; it lies on the Atlantic coast, there are no skyscrapers (or buildings over 5 or 6 stories), and has a rhythm and a vitality of a kind that I haven’t encountered in the US. The larger boulevards are full of honking cars and brave pedestrians (neither pay any attention to traffic signals), mysteriously disappearing lanes, Moroccans calling out words of welcome, and the occasional catcall. Moroccans are, by and large, appreciative of our presence in their country and wish to welcome us at every turn. On the plane from Paris to Casablanca, I met a number of Moroccans who pressed cards and phone numbers on me, imploring me to contact them should I need anything, or visit their city.

I have all semester tell you all about the beauty of this city, so right now, I’m going to talk about its waste. Two days in Morocco, and I have learned a lot from garbage.  One of the first sights that greeted me as we drove from Casablanca to Rabat was a pile of burning garbage in a field, just outside one of the many shantytowns that dot the countryside. Oh. For the first time, I felt acutely aware of the reality of my presence in a developing country, suddenly conscious of all I had left behind, suddenly nervous for all I would encounter. Soon, soon, I will write you beautiful posts about wealth and poverty here in Morocco, once I understand a bit more. Till then, read on.

In the city, as the chaos of the medina settles, the garbage remains; and I suppose there was something authentic and raw about the garbage that tickled my already buzzing fancy, though that may have just been severe sleep deprivation. Compared to the clean Seattle streets I stomp around at home, the garbage seemed like an acknowledgement of the vibrant human presence here, left behind after a day of bargaining, bright colors, bustle, and business.

 Family and Life and Stuff!

Here in Morocco, everyone lives with their family until they’re married, or something else happens and they move out.  Though there’s really not a status quo with cultural stuff in the US, many Moroccans find it bizarre that we moved out of our parents’ houses at 17 or 18 to make our own way in the world, and find it even more bizarre that we don’t plan on coming back; that we might not get married at all.

I live with a wonderful host family and one CIEE roommate, Alexandra, in the Kasbah des Oudayas: one of the oldest parts of Rabat.  Including Alexandra and I, there are around 10 people living in a house behind the blue walls, tucked away in a corner of the labyrinthine Kasbah: five middle-aged siblings, 3 kids, and the two of us. You’d never guess that the house was small; from the rooftop terrace, it feels as though you have all of Rabat and Salé and the Ocean to wander to.  We're a stone's throw from the Medina, which is absolutely incredible. Each morning, as we watch the sun rise, we walk through the blue-walled kasbah and the barely-stirring souk to the bus or tram, which takes us within 10 or 20 minutes of the University, or the Qalem wa Laoheh Arabic Language center in Souissi. Though it's a pretty long commute, I wouldn't trade it for anything. How about pictures? PICTURES IT IS.

This is the Kasbah. Cool.

This is the sunrise. Cool.

That's the view from the kitchen window. You can see everything from the rooftop terrace. It's incredible.

The family is very traditionally Moroccan, but not at all religious (that means something very different here than it does in the States; I mean only that they don’t pray each time we hear the calls to prayer rise from the mosques surrounding the Kasbah. Maybe they pray in their heads, who knows? I’ll have plenty of time to tell you about religion, religious language, etc…anyway); they sleep  on the couches bordering every wall, and share one big closet (we have the only bedroom, which makes me feel really honored to be here). They all speak Darija, Fous7a, and French, they eat in the traditional Moroccan fashion, they watch ridiculously fantastic Arabic soaps. The house is always occupied, always lively, always loud, never lonely. Neither Alexandra nor I really have any problem communicating; she speaks Fous7a and I speak French, and this family are experts at bouncing between languages, encouraging us to speak and explain things to each other. Abir and Wided are our wonderful, 12-year-old fraternal twin host sisters that we can ask about anything, Jalel is their 14-year-old brother upon whom we are planning a good practical joke to get him back for spraying us with water from the roof yesterday.


It's really pretty here.

We've just concluded our intensive 2-week course in Darija, Moroccan Arabic, and are preparing to start classes at l'Université Mohammed V tomorrow morning. I'm excited for my life here to finally fall into some kind of recognizable schedule, because it's been crazy attempting to settle in. There's a lot ot think about as I start out on this study abroad journey: poverty and privilege, gender issues, language barriers, cultural differences, the political situation, how to use public transit, homesickness, the eternal shortage of toilet paper. 

Also, I'm sick. It's not super awful, I'm just really tired, curled in my bed cuddling with a water bottle and my family's pregnant kitty, Rim. So it goes. This blog is about the whole experience, right?! Here I go!

Oh, and a quick postscript: a kilo of delicious oranges here is 5 dirhams at the wee fruit stand Alexandra found, tucked away in an alley in the Medina. One U.S. dollar is about 8dh. Think about that for a second.