Monthly Archives: June 2011

Personal “Space” and Freedom

This program keeps me very busy, so busy that I hardly have time to breath let alone write. So, this will be quick, but for my own sanity I feel it’s necessary to process certain aspects of my experience here. Most of the students in the program, including myself, have been sick, many of us since we got here. We’ve all shared a cold that’s been going around, and most of us have had some kind of stomach issues, some of us worse than others. I can’t speak for everyone in my program, but I do know that many of us are having a difficult time living with host families. This is not because we don’t like our host families, nor is it because we don’t see the value in this type of cultural exchange. Rather, the concept of space in Morocco is very different, particularly for an American woman in her thirties who has been independent for many years and is accustomed to doing what she wants, when she wants and when it suits her. Personal space as we know it in the U.S. (i.e. alone time) does not really exist in Moroccan culture. Also, another difficult aspect of this program and living with host families is having to give up control over most aspect of our lives – what we eat and when, and even how much we eat. Additionally, we don’t have control over what kind of sanitation we have or where we sleep and even how much we are able to sleep. For example, my host family provided me with a bedroom of my own. However, it is so insanely hot here that I have given up trying to sleep in my bedroom because it is too uncomfortable. Instead, I sleep in the “salon” (aka the living room) on one of the couches where the rest of the family sleeps because this is the only room in the house that has air conditioning. In Morocco, most rooms in a house are communal and the walls are all lined with couches. I’ve gathered that this is because visiting family and family events are very important here and the couches are needed so that everyone has some place to sit at family gatherings. Still, sharing a communal sleeping space is a very different experience for me, and one that is not entirely comfortable for me. But I want to come back to the matter of control briefly before I wrap this up. Americans, generally speaking, are accustomed to having control over their lives, for the most part. Many of us are having to give that up here and it is really difficult. The family unit is really tight here and the parents have a lot of say and control over their children’s lives until they get married and move out of the house. For those of us who are well traveled and have traveled alone and even lived abroad before, the experience of living with a Moroccan family feels restrictive at times because Moroccan families are very protective. Of course, this comes from a place of concern for our well-being. Nonetheless, I can say with certainty that in all of my travels abroad, this is the first time I’ve really experienced culture shock, and it is because I feel as though I’ve lost control over most aspects of my life. I do not want to give the wrong impression here – I really like my host family and I have shared many wonderful moments with them. Yet I will say that navigating space and boundaries is tricky business here. I think I have a new appreciation for what it means to be American, and the personal freedom that comes with it.


My First Week in Morocco

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It’s been quite an adventure the last few weeks. I meant to write more but there has been very little time for that. Today I finally have a bit of a break and a day to rest and reflect on my experience in Morocco thus far. Tomorrow I hope to explore the city of Fes in all it’s glory. I haven’t seen much of the city yet because I’ve been so busy settling in with my host family and adjusting to my daily schedule at school, which is quite full and quite intense. However, having said that I can say that what I’ve seen of this city so far has blown me away. What amazes me most about Fes is the interior of the buildings. From the outside, many of the buildings are absolutely stunning, but some of them don’t look like much – they are old and run down and look very plain. However, once you step inside even the simplest looking building, you are likely to be transported to another world. Moroccan’s are big on Islamic art and decor and many of the buildings have beautiful tile work and extremely intricate and detailed decorative woodwork inside. It’s hard to even try to explain how beautiful it is. I will do my best to capture this aspect of Moroccan architecture in pictures so stay tuned for more.

My classes here are very intensive. This week we had 4 hours of instruction in the morning – 3 hours of Modern Standard Arabic and one hour of the Moroccan dialect. This is followed by an hour-long lunch of traditional Moroccan dishes, and of course, we are expected to converse in Arabic. After lunch, we have 30-minute individual sessions with “speaking-partners,” which gives us a chance to practice speaking and expressing more complex thoughts and ideas in Arabic. Then, after that we have another hour of the Moroccan dialect. Finally, we have an additional 2-4 hours of homework and studying each night, making for very long days. Starting next week, we will not have the late afternoon session of the Moroccan dialect, but we will have different activities – in my case Moroccan dancing, as well as excursions (scavenger hunts if you will) to different areas of interest in the old medina. We will also be expected to write blog posts in Arabic as part of a weekly assignment.

My Moroccan host brother Brahim

The school I’m studying at, INLAC, has placed us with Moroccan host families, adding an all together different dimension to my experience here. I’ve never had the experience of staying with a host family in another country, and I must say I am really enjoying it. My host family speaks very little English, but thankfully the father (Abdu) and my host brother (Brahim) speak FusHa (Modern Standard Arabic) – were it not for that, I’m not sure what I would do! It has been a challenge to communicate without being able to rely on English, but this is actually a great blessing because I am forced to communicate in Arabic all the time when I’m at home with them. I will say, however, that my threshold and capacity for how much I’m able to absorb and tolerate ebbs and flows each day. It is quite exhausting to be immersed in another language when you are just a beginner. And, by the way, learning Arabic is no easy feat! What is most challenging for me is the energy I must expend in trying to understand what people are saying, which is an on-going daily experience, every waking minute!

Yet there is a bright side – I have been in Morocco for just over a week and I am already a much more confident Arabic speaker. I am sure this program will do wonders for my ability to communicate. Prior to coming here, I was very reluctant and often afraid of trying to speak Arabic. During the last month or so of my Arabic class during spring semester at UA I reluctantly forced myself to speak a bit more in class in anticipation of studying Arabic in the MENA region. I’m happy to report that my fear of speaking has dissipated dramatically – there’s simply no way to get around it here. It’s speak, or sink!

My host sister Najwa (left)

 

I’ll wrap this up with a bit of reflection on the experience of cultural immersion. As an American, I am accustomed to living a life of comfort. Although I am a student and thus live a relatively frugal lifestyle in the U.S., the standard of living in the U.S. is extremely high in comparison to other parts of the world. I am reminded, through being here, to be grateful for what I have, and to be more conscious of how much I consume. For example, in the U.S. it would not be unusual for me to take a 20-30 minute shower each day. However, here I take no more than a 5 minute shower every morning, and the water is always cold. My fellow classmates and I have exchanged stories about adapting to life in Morocco – many of us are living outside of our normal daily routines and some of the students must bathe with only a bucket of water, and some of them do not have a western-style sit down toilet in their homes. But these are wonderful and humbling experiences. It is good to be reminded of what there is to be thankful for, and it is good to be reminded that there are many people living with so much less than what we have. As an American, I feel a responsibility to consume less when I return to the U.S. More to come later…


Summer in Fez, Morocco

I think I have finally recovered from the insane semester and am ready to blog again! I’ve spent two lovely weeks in Seattle visiting friends and family and now I am preparing for a great summer adventure. I was fortunate to receive an amazing scholarship that will allow me to undertake a two-month long intensive Arabic program this summer in Fez, Morocco. I was afforded this opportunity through the Critical Languages Scholarship Program, which is administered by the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, and is a program of the United States Department of State.  I consider myself very fortunate because Congress is beginning to cut funding for programs like this bit by bit. But for now, provided the escalating situation in Morocco doesn’t escalate too much over the next few months, I will reap the benefit of a brilliant opportunity. I hope to return from Morocco with a much better grasp of the Arabic language, and the ability to express more complex ideas than my current, and very basic level, allows. I will do my best to post updates and pictures here regularly throughout my trip. And, being the good little journalist in training that I am, I am traveling to Morocco fully equipped to do some journalistic multimedia work while there. So stay tuned for more!