October 25, 2004

Diary of an American Student in Morocco

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RABAT, Morocco — It took me two tries to get to Morocco. My first attempt was thwarted by two intractable entities — a group of al-Qaida operatives … and my mother. On May 16, 2003, just days before I was set to fly to Morocco for a six-week Arabic language course in Fez, a group of Moroccan terrorists coordinated a series of bomb attacks on three different sites in the city of Casablanca, killing over 40 people.

Was I fazed? My persistently delusional sense of invincibility cried out, “Go! That was a one-time thing! Nothing will ever happen to you. … Besides, you’re not one of those Americans. You’ll be so inconspicuous and culturally sensitive; no one will want to hurt you!” My mother felt differently. She turned on the major “I will never be able to live with myself if anything happens to you” guilt. I promised to dye my blond hair brown. She was not convinced. I promised to get really, really tan. She did not budge. I told her that in case of another major attack, I could swim across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain or disappear into Mauritania. She hid my plane tickets.

I did not end up going to Morocco that summer. In retrospect, of course, my mother was probably right — it was important to let the country settle down a bit before venturing there as a single, Western woman. Besides, she knew I would have my opportunity to spend a semester there during the spring of 2004.

And so I finally arrived in Rabat last February: The sun was shining; the sea breeze was blowing through the narrow streets of the medina; and sheep intestines were hanging out to dry on rooftop clotheslines across the city. What?!? Well, naturally, we had arrived one day after ‘Eid al-Adha, the celebration of Abraham’s proffered sacrifice of his son Ishmael, during which every family slaughters a sheep in honor of the ancient sacrifice. And there was no way any of that sheep was going to waste. Over the next few weeks, my darling host mother served up bowl after steaming bowl of lamb stew, only once threatening to feed me the head. The sheep intestines magically disappeared from the clothesline, though I never had the courage to ask where they ended up.

And where better to expose my lamb-stuffed body than at the neighborhood hammam? These are the famous public baths where many Moroccan men and women, separately, go to clean themselves once a week — though its purpose is far greater than that of mere hygiene, as I first discovered one Sunday evening shortly after my arrival.

Following what was likely my tenth cup of mint tea for the day, I heard the call from my host mother reverberate around our tiled courtyard: “Yella! Nemsheeo ala hammam!!!” — “Come on! Let’s go to the hammam!” My two sisters, mother, cousins, great aunt and great-great aunt set out from our houses in the medina with our shampoo, soap, buckets, loofah brushes and plastic stools, and our little party wound through the maze of streets until we arrived at the women’s hammam. Once inside the bathing room, we shed our clothing and prepared for what was to be a steamy (literally) two-hour extravaganza of soaping, scrubbing, conditioning, shaving, washing and rinsing, all this with women I had only met two days prior.

Playing anthropologist, I observed their moves and attempted to copy them, with mild success. Luckily Moroccans are, on the whole, pretty forgiving, and more importantly, thrilled when foreigners try to fit in. My cousin Samira came to my rescue, and began scrubbing my ENTIRE body for the next 20 minutes until she was satisfied that all the dead skin, and perhaps some new skin, was adequately removed from my poor white self.

The lamb and the hammam were just the beginning of what was to be…. The Most Amazing Experience of My Life. Yes, I utter this phrase just as every study abroad returnee does — an unabashedly hyperbolic declaration which you hope might reflect a fraction of your memories from your time in a land far, far away from Cornell.

There is no condensed form of communicating to your friends and families the details of what has happened. Really, how can I describe the awe of watching the sun rise over the Sahara, or the delight of a young Moroccan schoolgirl offering her popsicle to me because it is part of the culture to be so generous, or … on the extreme edge, the challenge of interviewing the leader of the Islamist party and questioning his party’s commitment to improving women’s lives? And how could I hope to discuss Morocco’s incredible complexities? It is a country which is not exactly Arab, nor African, nor European; it is deeply traditional yet increasingly modern; it is in the process of developing democratic institutions while its leader remains a monarch and the official “Commander of the Faithful”; it is rich in generosity and kindness and hope, yet suffering from unemployment and poverty and illiteracy.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate these complexities is by sharing a story about Fatima and Ali, my second set of host parents in Morocco. I lived with them during one week in April on their small farm in the Middle Atlas Mountains. Fatima and Ali are Berbers, which is a general label for Morocco’s indigenous people. They had relatively little education — four years for her, two or less for him. They spoke Berber at home, but were able to communicate in Moroccan Arabic with me, hamdullah (Thank God!). Their house was a low-slung building made of local stones and clay and concrete, with a tin roof held down by more stones, and built into the side of the hill.

I like to consider it a Berber spin on Frank Lloyd Wright. The three rooms had stone floors, partially covered by the gorgeous red woven rugs for which Berbers are renowned. We spent our days shepherding sheep across the rolling green foothills of the Middle Atlas, baking huge round loaves of bread, riding horses, visiting neighbors, and trying to help our host mother with the cooking and cleaning. After sunset, we would sit around the fire and talk in a mix of Moroccan Arabic and the few words of the Berber dialect we had learned, and then share a delicious dinner of stew and bread.

You can imagine my surprise when, a month later, I took my actual father back to visit Fatima and Ali, and discovered that their living room had been turned into a TV room! In the middle of nowhere, in a developing African/Arab/Mediterranean nation, where there is no running water and no available doctors, there was somehow a brand new Sony satellite television nestled between the sheep skin rugs and hand woven Berber carpets. And as if to exaggerate the utter juxtaposition between tradition and modernity, Ali proudly turned on the television set and watched in awe as the screen came alive with images from the latest American rap video — shaking asses and all. And of course it was not long after that that Ali came across Al-Jazeera, and torture pictures from Abu Ghraib. Explaining that situation in rudimentary Arabic was not exactly the most enjoyable experience of my life.

I think the greatest joy of studying abroad in Morocco has been to hear my family and friends express their appreciation of learning more about the Arab-Muslim world through my eyes.

Archived article by Emily Sharpe
Special to The Sun