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Yes…Oui…Na’am…Mumkin…*Wild Hand Gestures*

28 Jan

This is where I try to summarize the past three weeks of my life though a series of short stories. I have never thought of myself as a bipolar person, but I have felt higher highs and lower lows since I arrived here. It’s a hard experience to explain, but I have had crippling moments where I have wanted nothing more than to find a way to run home. The overwhelming experience of feeling completely lost in Arabic, and literally feeling like throwing my hands up and walking out became commonplace. On the other side however, I have had minor successes, and conversations a 2 year old would have that have made me feel on top of the world. Skiing in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah felt the same way. Fear, hopelessness, and a giant knot in the stomach pervades, until you commit, and decide to jump off that 15 foot cliff. Then, success, a swell of happiness and accomplishment. And eventually, you stand on the top of that cliff enough times that the butterflies disappear (Yes, I understand that I alienated 75% of my audience with that analogy, but it remains valid).

This must be the “some adjustment” phase of the Study Abroad rollercoaster.

I’ll let my guard down for one second here. I miss home. I miss the comforts of the developed world. And I miss the people more than anything. But new homes are never comfortable at first. It took time for me to love Saratoga. It took time for me to love Geneseo. It took time for me to love Boston. It will take me time to love Rabat. BUT, Saratoga will always feel like home, Geneseo will always feel like home, Boston will always feel like home. Rabat too, will feel like home someday. I guess, in my excessive rambling, what I’m trying to say is: Homes are extremely difficult to build, but that feeling is irreplaceable, and near impossible to lose.

Story Time:

When I first stepped off the plane into the tiny Rabat-Sale airport, I was hit with a moist warm air, and the view palm trees. Well, this is new. I have since had to tell myself every morning “it’s January, it’s January, it’s January, why am I complaining about a damp chill in 50° weather?” The bus ride to the hotel affirmed my original thought, 5% English 45% French 50% Arabic signage dominated the landscape. Yes, this was new, but the thought of a bed and sleep dominated any higher mental function that evening.

Orientation week was at best a blur. For the first time in my life, I was out of my comfort zone, and I knew it. I didn’t speak the language, didn’t know where I was going, and, for the first time in my life, I was the one who could not hide the fact that I was out of my element. The first time you truly feel like a foreigner and are unable to hide from it is a humbling experience. You begin to realize the emotions of a person who lives abroad, specifically the foreigners in the US, and you begin to realize what a crippling effect it can have on a person. You stick out like a sore thumb, you can barely communicate with those around you, and you have minimal gauge on cultural nuances, not knowing where to stand, or what to do. Mere acts like buying food, or going to the post office become treks that require a plan and time, and with them lays the fear that you will be unable to communicate your intentions to the people. All of this crashing in upon you is difficult, and in the beginning I got by on English with the few who could understand me, French leaking in when I needed it.

As the blur of orientation faded, the reality of school, and the move from the hotel into the home stay dealt another blow. Cool, now I have to live with people I can barely communicate with. Since my Arabic did not exist, French was the language of choice. It was at this point that I realized something about my language skills. I understand a lot more than I can speak, and I don’t understand that much. But, through broken French and English, we fought through the beginning days.

It was at this point that I went to purchase my cell phone. Kicker, I did it alone, no one in the store speaks English…Yeah. So I went in, and started my dialogue. “J’ai besoin acheter…telephone…” I did well, until he asked me if I needed to use the phone in other countries. I heard “do you need to use this phone to make international calls?”, which I replied “yes I do” to the growing frustration of the clerk. By the grace of god, one of the other customers spoke English, and cleared up the miscommunication before anything got painful. Crisis averted.

As I settled into my room, and started to adapt to the schedule, little things became noticeable differences to me. Breakfast? No longer an option: a requirement, lest my family get worried about me. Lunch? Huge. Dinner? Late, and small. Shower? Showerhead, Toilet, Floor Drain, The End. Heated Water? Request only: Direct heat makes this a process for every shower, Butane Heat baby. Wildlife? How do street cats sound? The winding streets and walled cities of the Medina continue to this day to fascinate me every time I walk outside. The medina is like the goofy looking kid with an incredible personality. Upon first glance, you aren’t sure what to make of it, until you enter its shops, its homes, and realize the sheer beauty and impressiveness that it hides from view. Never in my life have I met a more unassuming city. Every day is filled with interactions: beggars and con men add spice to bustling street markets, and every day has its own story.

One of these stories occurred during my lunch this past week. I found new personal irony in the “le poisson” vs “de poisson” (all of a fish vs. “some fish”) distinction. I was served the former. Yes, I ate a fish, served straight from the sea, bones, head in tact. But me, being someone willing to do anything once, ate it. Verdict: on the bone or off, fish is good. BUT, if offered fish stomach, you can pass.

Sports? Futbol, futbol, futbol. The Africa Cup is intense. I just watched Egypt embarrass Algeria, and I must say, I dont understand how golf and baseball beat this sport of viewers. It is a fun game to watch, especially surrounded by a culture that emits tangible electricity during these games. I’ll put money on me actually watching the World Cup this summer.

Things do not dry here. My shoes got soaked on a Wednesday walk to the jetty on the Atlantic, when the ocean decided that the pathway should be part of the ocean. My shoes were dry…Monday morning.

I could continue on like this for pages, but I feel that this description encompasses a small piece of what living in the Maghreb is like. It’s something that is overwhelming, frustrating, but rewarding. This place may be home of the Berbers (Ahmaziri to be PC), but I challenge anyone to marginalize North Africa as the “Fake Arab World.” 1/3 of the Arabic speaking world lives here, and when you arrive here you realize that this place, despite the reputation Western academia gives it, is no cushy place. This place is……dare I say, real, but a place you can experience firsthand. I’d recommend the trip to anyone with an adventuresome spirit, because Morocco does not disappoint.

In ending, I would just like to make note of the sadness that continues to pile up upon the other side of the Atlantic. My thoughts go out to Hati, and all of its residents. And furthermore: RIP Salinger. RIP in peace Mr. Zinn, it was an honor to see you in person last semester.

Time for some Darija:

Bislaamah (goodbye)


Culture Shock

20 Jan

I’ve decided over many hours lost in thought that the best way to approach this blog will be to write about my personal experience here, and the wide range of emotions, situations and observations I make while I am here. I want to provide for you a firsthand account of what living in North Africa is like. I could bore you with musings about Gender Theory, and Islamic History, but I think my time would be much better spent describing my journey through the emotional roller coaster of true “culture shock.”

I’m attempting to type this entire monologue out on a computer with a European keyboard, with Arabic characters dominating any extra space on the keys. What I find humorous, is that this is the easy part of the day. I’m not sure, however, what I expected. Throw a white middle class kid from Upstate New York with next to no travel experience into the “third world” with feeble (at best) language skills, and chances are “easy transition” are not the words that are going to come to mind.

Culture shock.

It’s a term many of us have become familiar with at one point in our life. Whether it’s our move to college, our move with our family to a new city, new environment, new school, or even our first apartment, all of us feel this phenomenon at one point or another, and, depending upon how set we are in our ways, it can range from simple to the most challenging ordeal of your life. I myself have felt this emotion now three times in my life. When I first left for SUNY Geneseo, when a transferred to Boston University, and right now, as I struggle with my European keyboard and French prompts. I know the feeling all too well now. The homesickness, the loneliness, the sinking feeling and sheer helplessness that can accompany it, especially when you realize you’ve only just begun. I won’t lie, I loathe the feeling, but like all times past I will emerge from the other side of this struggle stronger, wiser, and confident in my decision. The new friends and the swell of emotion when you make your return home can be the most amazing and rewarding feeling of all.

Again, nothing truly worth having is ever easy.

The challenges of Morocco, however, pale in comparison to any I have experienced before. No longer am I just trying to make new friends and adapt to a new academic environment. In Morocco I am trying to do that, while at the same time learning to use a partial Turkish toilet, showers with direct heat that are only to be used every few days, utilize a printing situation that, yes, is even worse than BU, all while living with a family I can barely communicate with in a city I don’t know. I feel as if I have reverted to the age of 3, gesturing and using the few words I know to convey my points, and only grasping 10% of conversations. My French has come in handy, but I often struggle to find the words, or meanings I need. I understand that I have just painted a picture of a frightening world, a hostile world that one of sound mind would avoid, but this is only half the story. Although life here is far from easy, it is not bad.

I wake up every morning to my 14 year old host brother using the computer, finding it impossible to not just smile when I see his expressions. I eat breakfast lunch and dinner without utensils, and usually from one plate. As I eat, I am surrounded by lively conversation that breaks into French from Darija randomly, as I try to recognize one more word than I did the day before. My right three fingers on my right hand remain perpetually yellow from the saffron in so many of the dishes. The local Berber population may make this “the fake Arab world,” but this is still very much the Muslim world. 5 Times a day the low roar of the call to prayer reminds me of where I am, acting as a constant reminder of my location. Daily interactions with people who cheer on my feeble attempts at Arabic, or roll their eyes at my feeble French make every conversation an interesting one, and the beggars and drug dealers just round out the pack. I never know what to expect on my walks, and being one of 20 white people in a 3 mile radius of my house, it’s always funny to see someone like me on the streets of the Medina. Somewhere between watching Oprah with my host mom and speaking to her in broken French, playing games with my host brother in broken Darija/French/English, and smiling to my host grandmother and not understanding more than 5 words she says, I begin to think that I will one day be at home in this Medina, and will hope to one day return and show others everything I have learned.

As you may be able to tell from this post, the sheer mass of this past week or so was overwhelming, and I have yet to wrap my head around it. I could already write a chapter of a book on all of the events of this past week, and I know I have only scratched the surface of what this country has to offer. I will follow up this post with one on some of the more interesting stories I have experienced so far, but if there is one thing I could say to sum up my experience so far, it’s this: Words only scrape the surface of an experience like this, and only after experiencing it yourself, can you fully grasp the breadth, rewards, and struggles the experience brings. And, if I were to make a prediction, it’ll be worth every second, good and bad.

Maasalama (Goodbye)