Why Going to Pronunciation Lessons is Like Visiting the Dentist

You know that feeling of dread you get when you know it’s coming? You are about to be told you need to floss. Someone you don’t know well is expecting you to show up to your appointment, make contented small talk and than answer questions about whether you have been regularly engaging in proper dental hygiene. You will sit in a chair with your mouth open and attempt to answer the questions you are asked acquiescently, but end up making garbled sounds while attempting to string together coherent sounding words. Disregarding the matter of dental hygiene, this is an accurate description of my bi-weekly Tajweek lessons.

In addition to my Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) and Ammiya (Colloquial Jordanian Arabic) classes, I also take Tajweed classes here at Qasid Institute twice a week. Tajweed means pronunciation, which is vitally important when speaking Arabic, as a simple mispronunciation could lead you to saying an entirely different word. (You really don’t want to mix up the words for “elections” and “terrorism”.) I made many assumptions about my Tajweed lessons before I began them. My first assumption was that they would be group lessons, as my other classes are. My second was that we would be working on practicing my pronunciation of vocabulary I am currently learning and using in my Modern Standard Arabic class. The third was that through these lessons, I would feel some grand sense of accomplishment at the end of my lesson. Instead, twice a week, I sit in a room with a professor who requests for me to repeat the alphabet to him and occasionally instructs for me to move my mouth or tongue in a certain way to achieve the desired results. I can’t always tell what these results are, but I know that he has something in mind. I don’t feel accomplishment. I mostly feel silly.

Like every dentist appointment, in which I naively assume that my dentist will praise me for finally brushing well and flossing enough. When my professor frowns deeply and says “No, that’s wrong,” emphatically, embarrassment sinks in unapologetically, like I am back in kindergarten and am being scolded for not flossing regularly. Only now, I am just discovering that I haven’t been practicing my letters correctly, and must start again from the beginning. My Tajweed professor repeats the alphabet slowly and carefully, and I am distinctly reminded of a man in rubber gloves with stickers on his lab coat holding up a toothbrush and floss for me to bring home, and directing me to pick a toy from the bin in the corner of the room. In the small classroom with my professor, the only physically tangible prize is the elegant Qur’an sitting on the corner of my desk next to my intermediate level textbook, reminding me that I have a long way to go before I am able to read any kind of classical Arabic text.

Correctly pronouncing the words my Tajweed professors asks me to often feels as difficult and confusing as trying to act complicit in my role in my personal dental care. The language my professor uses to explain what I need to improve sounds as foreign as the terms my dentist uses to describe all the things I need to be doing to care for my teeth. My learning curve is slow. You aren’t taught the word for “tongue” in Modern Standard Arabic class, just as they don’t teach you the word “bicuspid” in elementary school. At least my dentist gives me instructions in English.

Every dentist visit and Tajweed lesson, I think, “This is it. This time, I will be good enough. Today I won’t be told I need to floss more. Today I won’t have to practice the alphabet again.” But I forgot that these are the most important aspects of health and success, respectively. Like in dentistry, the details are the foundation for everything else in Tajweed, and I too eager to move past them, which I think will make me feel like an accomplished adult. However, without daily bushing and flossing and regular doses of flouride, we would get cavities and struggle to maintain our oral hygiene. And in Tajweed, proper pronunciation of the alphabet and basic letter combinations facilitate accurate pronunciation of all words.

If you visit the dentist regularly, they can check to make sure you are brushing and flossing properly in order to prevent cavities, and to prevent you from having to visit the dentist for more than semi-annual cleanings. In Arabic, if you receive regular Tajweed instruction, your linguistic base will never falter and you will never forget how certain letters sound or are formed by the mouth. You will not have to regularly ask your professor how a certain word is pronounced when any given letters are combined, and your Arabic studies will continue more rapidly and smoothly.

Maybe I feel silly sitting in front of an intellectual, accomplished adult piecing together their instructions, making funny sounding noises and doing things I consider myself too advanced for. But the basics are important, and are worth spending more time on. Like any college student, I don’t enjoy being treated as if I am just a kid in elementary school. But I try to remember that my dentist and my Tajweed professor don’t think of me as a child and aren’t making fun of me for my lack of perfection. They are only there to help me achieve my full potential, which I should try to appreciate more often.



The Arabic alphabet and the pronunciation of the letters.



Where the sound for each letter is supposed to be formed in your mouth.



A copy of the pronunciation chart my Tajweed professor has on the classroom wall.


الأمم المتحدة and bananas

Despite the growing number of people in the United States and across the planet studying Arabic, it still remains a fairly small world. It is possible to study Arabic at hundreds of universities across the United States and internationally, but there are about ten elite schools (list included below) which maintain a reputation for being the top institutions of training in the Arabic language. The farther you continue in your Arabic education and the more advanced you become, the fewer students remain among you as linguistic peers. Training options decrease until students begin to matriculate into a small number of schools which offer courses designed to obtain near fluency. Additionally, for the most part, everyone in the US and abroad use the same book, a series called al-Kitaab published by Georgetown University Press. The universality of this book provides a practical guarantee that any two students of Arabic could sit down and compare their progress in the language and, accounting for their experiences with local dialects, understand exactly how much farther one is than the other in their linguistic education, and what one would have to do to catch up with the other.

When I first arrived at Qasid Institute, I was both intimated at how talented all of the other students here were and surprised to learn how much I had in common with a majority of the them outside of our linguistic education. I call us “passport addicted”- determined to acquire as many stamps and absorb as much culture as possible. Unattached to the concept of long-term consistency, instead valuing daily variation in experience. Back at UPS, there are only a few Arabic students remaining at my level, and so there isn’t much to compare in terms of career ambitions. But the ubiquity of our similarly lofty goals can be a uniting factor or a divisive one, and the lack of clarity in these social relationships can lead to an underlying tension which permeates the new friendships we attempt to build.

To further explain, there are approximately 450 students studying Modern Standard, Classical and Ammiya Arabic at Qasid this summer. We come from universities across the United States, Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. We all have different backgrounds in Arabic, but we are receiving reputably valued training from the same educational institute, a method of leveling the playing field to some extent. Most of us want to work for a government agency, non-governmental organization or reputable news source. Despite the multitude of existent potential future employers, the prestigious positions we seek are limited and highly competitive. Even if we value each other’s company currently, in just a few years, we will be seeing each other again, perhaps in this city, elsewhere in the Middle East, or in D.C. It has been nearly impossible for me to not view my peers in this program as, to some extent, my competition.

Here at Qasid have twenty to thirty hours of class per week. Even on our most poor performing days, when we stumble into the classroom at five-past-eight, quietly mumble “assalam alaykum” in greeting, and proceed to down three cups of coffee before becoming remotely coherent, this program is not a joke to anyone. Depending on how well we wield the skills and contacts obtained while we are here, this program can be a flying leap in our careers, a reality which no one is willing to overlook. Many of the students here have received scholarships in the thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars to be here from renowned institutions such as Boren or the State Department.

Sometimes our classes feel relatively normal. We play memory games, like Hangman and Hot Seat, to help us remember vast amounts of vocabulary, do grammar drills, and give presentations on history and culture. Frequently we watch short video clips, such as the montage from Up, and write different endings to the stories (in which Ellie lives). But occasionally, class feels like more than simply that. When we have debates about current events, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, or discuss complex political struggles, such as the search for solutions to the Isreali/Palestinian conflict, I feel like we are doing more than just attending class. We are actively learning how to craft our personal arguments in order to be able to more fluently add to the ongoing dialogue about the Middle East.

When our professors instruct us to focus on using new vocabulary and not articulating events or facts accurately, it is even more clear when an opinion is being expressed within a class discussion. It is obvious when someone feels strongly enough about a particular subject to take the time to say with correct grammar. You can feel the tension in the room when we attempt to debate issues that are currently affecting the lives of people are the globe. We are, in reality, training for careers in diplomacy or journalism. Sometimes even learning the correct pronunciation of a single word feels like a tangible step toward creating our paths in the worlds of politics, economics, or media in the Middle East. Within a single given hour, you can witness our futures taking shape in front of us.

With all the stress of the multitude of hours of daily class, and the consistent questioning of new friendships, it is vitally important to find something to bring joy into the day, especially in middle of our four hour blocks. Given our near universal use of al-Kitaab, Arabic students (yes, in general around the globe) have a running joke that even professors are in on. Due to the political background (professors at SFS at Georgetown) of the authors of the al-Kitaab series, when choosing a phrase to use to teach us an important grammatical concept that must be learned early in the first year of Arabic, they selected ‘United Nations’. Now almost every Arabic student finds it amusing to point out that he or she knows the phrase for United Nations and still doesn’t know how to say ‘banana’. Even though we are continuing with the al-Kitaab series here at Qasid (through the end of Level 3), our administrators promised that in addition to words like ‘discrimination’ and ‘protest’, we would learn finally learn how to say banana.



A Selection of the Best/Most Well-Known Arabic Schools in the World

School of Foreign Service at Georgetown (D.C., United States)

University of Texas at Austin (Austin, Texas)

Middlebury College (Middlebury, Vermont)

Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (Monterey, California)

Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (Monterey, California)

School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London (London, England)

American University of Cairo (Cairo, Egypt)

Qasid Institute (Amman, Jordan)

Sultan Qaboos College (Muscat, Oman)

Salam wa Lawh Center for Arabic Studies (Rabat, Morocco)

Looking for Home – Reflections on A Semester Abroad

If you spend more than a day at University of Puget Sound, you will probably hear it. No, not the clatter of baristas providing everyone with their daily caffeine source, the constant whirring of the lawn mowers that trim our fields, or the trill of instruments wafting through the air from the music building. One specific word. Home. It is peppily chirped as an alluring hook by admissions officers, thoughtfully considered in discussions held by students about campus climate, and consistently promoted in every brochure. Our administration emphasizes that above all else we acquire from Puget Sound, perhaps even more so than our outstanding liberal arts education, we get a new home, the first one most of us are truly able to actively craft for ourselves as adults. Regardless of whether any of us were looking for that home, it is almost universally accepted on our campus that any student will admit that Puget Sound has become their home in some shape or form. The word home is so widely used to describe the atmosphere on our campus that every year at Convocation the returning students would count the number of times that our former President Ronald Thomas (affectionately known as ‘Ron Thom’ by almost everyone on campus) used the word in his welcome speech.

In stark contrast to the visions of affection and inspiration that the concept of home conjures, people at Puget Sound often also refer to the campus as “The Bubble”. Needless to say, this phrase isn’t employed quite as often to advertise our university. Funnily (but not so coincidently) enough, the Bay Area (where I grew up) is often referred to as “The Bubble” as well. I attribute this to the immeasurable privilege and security offered by the institution of Puget Sound and the abundant prosperity of the Bay Area. Despite the vast array of negative connotations that this phrase carries with it, I consider both places home, as they have both placed integral roles in my personal development. I have witnessed Puget Sound students (including myself) benefit greatly from this phenomenon. My personal experiences at Puget Sound have led me to conclude that due to Puget Sound being framed to the students as not just a school but a home, our staff play a variety of roles in the lives of the students which, in the most ideal circumstances, counteracts the insulating effect of “The Bubble” on students, in an indirect manner. Professors, administrators and other staff members act as educators, mentors, and even friends. Puget Sound students, with the right nurturing and education from staff, grow into strong, brave human beings, and willingly invest their time in breaking out of “The Bubble” and leaving behind (at least temporarily) the shelter that our campus offers in favor of becoming more independent. When students chose to return to Puget Sound, the campus is a refuge, a place to feel safe as we take our first steps into adulthood.

When I arrived on campus freshman year, I immediately felt welcomed by the students and staff into what would become both my academic community and my personal home. Within two years, Puget Sound had become my home in a multitude of indescribable ways. I had grown from an excited yet timid high school graduate to a bold and adventurous college student under the tutelage and care of my professors and the Puget Sound staff. I both embraced “The Bubble” and pushed against it. Over the course of twenty four months, I became increasingly willing to venture beyond the confines of our campus community. I was incredibly curious what the world could teach me, and I felt more confident in my decision to study abroad knowing that Puget Sound and the home it offered would always be there for me.

Puget Sound taught me to find home in a place. On campus, this could be amongst the bright commotion of Diversions, the gentle peace under the redwoods groves, or in the deafening silence of the library. With this concept of home unconsciously crafting my conceptions of my future endeavors abroad, I embarked on an adventure in search of what I naively imagined would be my new home. It took me until now, approximately nine months later, to realize that those conceptions of home were feelings or experiences which were connected, but not inextricably tied, to the locations from which they originated. I could never have imagined that by providing me with a place to call home and the opportunity to leave (and later return) to that home, Puget Sound would also teach me to feel at home without a permanent address. In reality, home does not necessarily have to be a physical place. It is instead the people who support you, the memories you carry with you, and most importantly, the confidence you create within yourself.

I loved my house, the safe place that sheltered me from the hot sun and the noise of the medina, in Morocco. But it was a house, not my home. The family that hosted me, the love they had for me despite any linguistic or cultural differences between us, that was my home. I could have made myself comfortable in nearly any house, but the people in my family in Morocco were integral to feeling that I was welcome in a new country. The Center for Cross Cultural Learning was a beautiful old riad in the heart of the medina, but the true academic home I discovered in Rabat was in Tammam and Taieb, my Arabic teacher and the Academic Director of the SIT program, both wonderful human beings who were willing to go to any lengths to help me and the other students on my program adapt to life in their country.

Not every moment in Morocco was perfect (and the same can be said for my time on the Puget Sound campus). I sat through some boring and rather useless classes, had disagreements with a variety of other strong-willed students on the program, and at times struggled to adapt and make the concessions necessary to smoothly integrate into daily life in a foreign country. I occasionally felt out of place in Moroccan society and did not always like all of my American classmates enough to crave their company on a daily basis. However, I learned more than I will ever fully be able to understand about traveling and living in a foreign country, and I value all of my experiences there, good and bad. They taught me more than I ever expected and began my introduction to the reality of the world.

I have given up the illusion that any place in which I only intend to reside temporarily should feel perfect or provide me with the ideal home. I don’t need the most fascinating classes, a beautiful house, effortless communication with my host families, or a nearly blood-bonded group of guaranteed life-long friends. I have been both sheltered and challenged in a variety of locations by an eclectic host of people upon whom I came to depend and who also taught me to depend upon myself. I have derived invaluable personal growth from the imperfections which I have encountered throughout my academic career, both abroad and stateside, which have served to highlight the moments of success and joy. I cherish the experiences and memories I have gained more than any conception of a perfect home that I could ever envision. I am no longer looking for home in a place, but rather in myself.

All the countries I have visited.

All the countries I have visited.







Pumpkins In My Dreams

I did not originally think I would write an entry for this week, as nothing close to an adventure occurred. However, many small events add up to one long, busy week worthy of being recorded. And my internet is currently being sapped by the fifteen emails I am sending to my university’s international programs office with high resolution photographs bound for our study abroad photo contest. So I might as well write.

Let’s start off the entry happy- with cats!

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This week in school was fairly low stress. We began the week with a lecture on colonial and post colonial art in Morocco. Though the art was relevant to the history we have been learning in class, the presenter spent all three hours of the presentation clicking through one slide after another until my mind was dumbfounded and numb from all the information. The post colonial art was deep and meaningful, entrenched with statements taking back possession power and culture. I was pleasantly surprised that I personally considered some of the post colonial pieces of art pretty, because I generally don’t enjoy modern art, much preferring literal artwork such as landscapes, portraits, or black and white photography.

On Wednesday we took a tour of an institute for Amazigh culture and language. Beyond the actual information that I absorbed during our time there, what stood out to me strongly was the stunning architecture of the building. It struck me vividly as exactly what you would see in California, with a fishbowl atrium lobby that provides visitors with a floor to ceiling view of the courtyard, the perfectly chilling temperature maintained by sliding glass doors. After briefly visiting the small research library, we were paraded outside for a photo-op, the guides informing us that we “must see the grounds in order to gain a better understanding of the institute’s mission” in a meek attempt at disguising the fact that they wanted to document our visit. I didn’t mind much, because as soon as the second set of glass doors we walked through that day opened,  I was back at home in California, swept away into a vision of drought-tolerant plants set against an adobe colored building and a rich blue sky.

Once we had adequately “oo-ed” and “aw-ed” at the landscaping for the camera, we went sent back inside to listen to lectures on the history of the Amazigh people, culture and language. Our first presenter wasn’t particularly engaging, and so despite the fascinating material he was speaking on, I found myself drifting off quite often. Our second presenter spoke in a tone that was just up-beat enough to hold my attention, teaching us the lengths the institute has gone to in order to standardize the Amazigh language and therefore preserve it for the future. At the end of the presentations we were given books on the Amazigh and released to begin our trek back to the medina. That evening I was completely exhausted from the trip and went to bed almost immediately after I got home.

The week concluded on Friday with a lecture on Sufism. I know very little about the subject, so I appreciated when the instructor began the class with a basic overview of the history of Sufism, but I don’t feel that I understand that actual practices of the religion any more now than I did before. However, due to my lack of knowledge, I don’t even know the questions to ask to find out more. I’m not very concerned because I’m not particularly interested in the subject, and if I ever needed to gain more depth on the subject the internet will always be there.

This week in Arabic we had skits on Thursday and brief speaking quizzes on Friday. I’m sure I messed up the pronunciation of loads of difficult words, but my professor often gives points for effort, so I doubt my grade will take a significant hit. On Monday we have our oral proficiency exams in Arabic and on Thursday is our final written exam, so I will be spending the majority of the weekend reviewing vocabulary and grammar lessons.


Crates of fruit in the medina souq this week.

Mini Adventures…

My friend Helen and I have had our own mini-adventures this week. On Monday we were both hungry after class, and she was craving chicken nuggets, something we intended to get over the weekend but didn’t get around to. Since we had minimal homework, we wandered over to Ville Nouvelle and looked for a cafe or fast food restaurant that would sell chicken nuggets. We ended up at ‘Sandway’, Morocco’s version of Subway. Despite the assumed intentions by Sandway to mimic Subway’s concept of health food and sandwiches, and the similarities between the two retailers’ logo designs, Sandway did not sell customizable sandwiches, instead offering chwarma, burgers and chicken products.

After class on Friday Helen wanted fries and thought I could do with some chocolate, so we strolled along Mohammed Vth in Ville Nouvelle. On our way to Helen’s favorite cafe, we stopped in a bakery I spotted, and I got a pastry that I thought was mint. When we arrived at the cafe I opened the box and upon trying the pastry, I discovered it wasn’t mint, but some bizarre flavor infused in thick whipped cream. Rejecting the foul tasting empty calories, I settled for munching on some french fries and stopping for a small scoop of gelato on the way home.


The decidedly NOT mint pastry. Thankfully, it was only one dollar.

Random occurrences this week…

On Thursday I found a logic puzzle book in our school’s library. I was not able to check it out, but I enjoyed doing a puzzle while waiting for my independent project consultation. The small joys make a big difference in how you remember a day.


Another small joy this week- seeing this picture online of all the pandas born in China this year.

On Thursday my host brother and father seemingly disappeared. After not seeing them for two meals in a row, I asked my host sister where they were, and she told me they went to the family’s vacation home in Marrakech because my brother has time off of work. When I inquired about their intended returned date, my sister shrugged and informed me that it may be next week, maybe earlier or later. As is common in our household, very few definite plans are ever made and  even when they are, they are still subject to last minute change. I hope that they will be back by the end of this coming week, because (depending on where I go for my independent study period) I have very little time left with my host family.

Thursday evening at eight the movie ‘New Year’s Eve’ came on tv and since neither of my host sisters were actively watching a show at the time, I was able to watch the movie. Even though it’s very cheesy and unrealistic, I love movies in which there is a multitude of storylines and all the characters are connected in some way. Even more than that, I love holiday movies, and there is no movie that expresses the thrill and joy of a holiday celebrated in New York City than this one. This made my entire evening, but also prompted me to realize just how much I relish spending the holiday season with my family and how I miss being home during the time when the weather gets chilly and everyone gathers near with the people they care most about.


A medina street completely silent early on Friday afternoon. Everyone goes home to eat couscous with their families.


Couscous Friday

This weekend is intended to be calm and restful, both because I have two Arabic exams this coming week, and because I have been traveling the last five or so weekends. Last night my sisters and I watched yet another episode(s) (I am unsure of how many because each “episode” spans a few hours) of their favorite Bollywood soap opera, in which people get married, have affairs, fight with their families, kill each other, all while comically dramatic music guides viewers’ emotions, as if the yelling and crying on screen wasn’t enough. While tuning one ear to the rapidly spewed Arabic on tv, I occupied myself with sending in my photographs to my university’s study abroad photo contest. Though it took upwards of five hours for all the high resolution files to finally make it through my university’s mail system, my computer indicated this morning that they all arrived intact. I sent in the maximum number allowed (fifteen), and I am going to be waiting in suspense for the next month(s) until the winners are announced. It sounds trivial, but I have always dreamed of hanging a photograph of mine displayed publicly.



Tajine for lunch today.








Today is Halloween, so while I do my Arabic homework and studying I will be listening to a collection of spooky music, and later I intend to go to the grocery store to pick up some chocolate to munch on. Sadly, there is no candy corn or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups here, so I will probably have to settle for a KitKat or another non-Halloween/peanut butter related candy, much to my dismay. That pretty much sums up my personal holiday celebration. I expect that Thanksgiving will pass with even less fanfare because it falls during our independent study period and I will likely be living on my own for those few weeks. I might investigate whether a large hotel that caters to tourists will be holding a Thanksgiving dinner, because I certainly am not able to cook anything you eat on Thanksgiving other than a pumpkin pie, but there aren’t any pumpkins in Morocco. (Imagine my disappointment when I found that out!)


What is an American with a sweet tooth to do when stranded in a world of Mars Bars and Kinder Eggs? Indulge her inner child and read delicious articles about Halloween. 

National Geographic – History of Candy Corn



The only image I could find on the internet related to both Halloween and Morocco, that wasn’t the equation of a traditional Moroccan cultural event with Halloween.


Look out Halloween 2016 – I’m making plans for you! 

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Coming in my next entry… Finals Week! (Yes, in the first week of November.)

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round…

Yet another week in Morocco has passed. In the last four weeks our program has traveled to many of the major cities in the north and south, as well as to the Sahara Desert and to a Berber village in the Atlas Mountains. Even though I barely do any real exercise, I can’t remember the last time I was so tired. I haven’t been home for an entire weekend in six weeks, but I have a spectacular array of photos from a variety of locations across the country.

Between our stay in the Berber village and our excursion to the north of Morocco this past weekend, we had five days at home in the medina of Rabat. Sunday through Wednesday was spent resting and catching up on emails and homework that I wasn’t able to do in the village. I wrote my midterm paper for my thematic seminar class, worked on developing my ISP topic and decided where I will be living next semester back in Tacoma. Having accomplished most of the tasks on my To Do list by the end of Wednesday, I went out to a late lunch/early dinner with my friends at a Syrian restaurant nearby. I ate an entire plate of hummus with pita bread, a bowl of falafel, and namoura (semolina flour-cake coated in rose water syrup). When I first got to Morocco I was surprised that people here don’t eat hummus (chickpeas are actually called hummus in Arabic), and it was a pleasant treat to be able to order it in a restaurant.




Namoura (also called Basbousa)

On Friday we had Arabic class in the morning before leaving for our Northern Excursion in the afternoon. It was obvious that most of us had minimal motivation to actually have a linguistics lesson, because as soon as the class grew restless after we finished giving our presentations on Ashura, our professor sent us out to the streets of the medina to pick us some snacks. We gladly spilled out of the classroom and laughed as we breathed fresh morning air on our short stroll around the souq. Stopping at a fakia hanoot (a small shop that sells a variety of dried fruits and nuts), we bought dates, dried apricots and almonds and returned to our classroom to have a small party for Ashura. During our celebration, we played Hot Seat in Arabic. Thankfully, I was asked fairly neutral questions, mostly about my summer job and what I miss about America, and was not interrogated about my love life in another language, as some were.

After picking up my bags for the weekend from home and eating a quick lunch of couscous and fruit at school, all the students piled on to the bus and settled in for a long afternoon on the road. During the five hours of driving we read, napped, listened to music, and played dozens of rounds of ’20 Questions’. Our first stop on our short journey was M’Diq, about five hours north of Rabat on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco. By the time we arrived it was getting dark, and while my friends went to put their feet in the sea, I opted to take a shower and relax. Though the temperature of water never rose about lukewarm, it was refreshing to feel clean. A little over an hour later we sat down to dinner in our hotel. The restaurant served fantastic olives and bread for an appetizer, which tempered our hunger while our food was being cooked. Over an hour later, everyone was either impatiently squirming in their seats or falling asleep in their soup as we anticipated being served our entrees. Though I am thoroughly convinced that no pizza should have corn, green beans and carrots on it, it still tasted fairly decent because I was very hungry.


Passing by the hills of Tetouan.

The next morning was woke up very early and had breakfast at the cafe in our hotel. I ordered a coffee and was pleased when it was made fresh in a fancy espresso machine and was incredibly strong. After gorging ourselves on msemen bread and cheese triangles (everyone should try this), we hopped back on the bus to drive just a few miles to the border of Ceuta, one of two Spanish enclaves in Morocco. We completed our immigration forms and passed them, along with our passports, to our academic director who was tasked with giving all of them to the customs agents while we sat on the sidewalk and waited for them to be processed. Close to an hour later, equipped with a new stamp in our visa pages, we passed quickly over the border into Ceuta and were officially in Spain. We had a quick bus tour during which we visited the farthest northeast part of the enclave’s peninsula and took pictures of the Strait of Gibraltar and the southern coastline of mainland Spain.


Taken right after passing over the border in Ceuta, Spain.


Looking at the city of M’Diq, Morocco from Ceuta, Spain.


The view of the Strait of Gibraltar from the hills of Ceuta.


The Ceuta peninsula on the left and the Strait of Gibraltar on the right.



A temple dedicated to a saint on op of the tallest hill in Ceuta.

After our tour we were given a few free hours in the city. My friends and I had lunch and drinks at a tapas bar before spending some time shopping. I bought a few shirts and a new sweater at a Spanish clothing store before picking some artisan chocolate from Madrid. On the way out of Ceuta we repeated the border crossing process and were issued new Moroccan tourist visas.


The palm lined sidewalks of Spain.


My friend Helen outside some sort of an important building in Central Ceuta.


Salmon smothered in the Spanish equivalent of BBQ sauce.


Cinnamon amaretto shots and raspberry cream puffs for dessert at a tapas bar in Ceuta.


These were sooo delicious!

Once we left the Spanish enclave we got back on our tour bus and drove to Chefchaouen, arriving around six. We were given about an hour of free time before dinner, during which my friends and I did a brief preliminary exploration of the medina in preparation for the next morning. Dinner at a local restaurant was, thankfully, significantly shorter than the night before. The best part of the meal was indubitably the olive oil and bread before the entree and the fruit salad for dessert. After dinner my friends and I cuddled up in warm blankets and watched The Arab Voice before going to sleep.

On the road to Chefchaouen. 

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A brief exploration of Chefchauen before dinner. 

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The next morning I woke up early and watched the sunrise over the mountains before going downstairs to have breakfast in the hotel lobby. All of the food was fantastic, and we all enjoyed the bottomless buffet before departing to go exploring. My friends and I spent our three hours of free time wandering around the medina, taking pictures and shopping. Owing to the early hour, only a few of the shops were actually open, which did not hamper our ability to search for souvenirs, and in fact made for a pleasantly quiet morning in the beautiful blue streets.  I purchased a large blue tapestry, as well as many soaps and lotions. At some point my friend Helen and I split off from the group and we continued up and hill until we arrived at the highest point in the medina. We stopped to cool down and admire the hills before carefully made our way down the steep, winding streets back to our hotel. All of us grabbed a cookie on the way out of the lobby in preparation for yet another long bus ride to our next, and final, destination.

The fairy tale streets of Chefchauoen. 

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My friends and I enjoyed posing in archways around the medina. 

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The winners of the “Coolest Door Contest”. 

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For as beautiful as this writing is, it actually just informs people not to throw trash on the streets.


The magical soap shop, which sold soaps and lotions made with argon oil, incense and spices.


Ellen made a new friend.

My favorite alley in the medina. 

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A Helen-sized door!


In case it wasn’t obvious, Chefchauoen is built into a mountain.


The view from behind the Kasbah wall, the highest point of the medina.


Feeling accomplished (and sweaty) after walking to the top of the medina.


My friend Katherine wandering into an alley in the medina.


A woman in red against the walls of blue.


Wandering the winding streets of the medina.


I would have loved to stay in this hotel.


Some beautiful buildings in the medina.


The main square of the medina.

Two hours later we arrived in the medina of Ouarzan and carefully drove our bus through the narrow streets until we reached the house of a close friend of our academic directors. We had a glorious feast in the main salon, consisting of bread and olive oil, bowls of olives, plates of beets, potatoes, and carrots, potato soup as an appetizer, an entree of chicken and olives, and piles of oranges for dessert. After we ate we were given a brief lecture on the saint who founded the town we were in, and were shown around a developing museum based on the saint’s life. We also were able to view the property’s olive press, only to be disappointed that the extra virgin olive oil produced there was not for sale. The owner of the home served us Moroccan mint tea and allowed us to pick oranges from his trees before we left, departing happily with arms full of fresh citrus. My friends and I read, listened to music, and discussed our plans for the rest of the program on our final bus ride of the semester, as the sun sunk below the horizon and cast warm light across the land for as long as the eye could see.

Finally on the road home.

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Lunch in Ouarzan. 

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Pictures of the hills and city of Ouarzan. 


A panorama of Ouarzan from the terrace of the house at which we ate lunch.

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Amazighs in the Atlas

The second Sunday in October brought yet another program-directed excursion, this time to an Amazigh village in the Atlas Mountains. We left around nine in the morning and arrived close to one. We were quickly dispersed to our host families and sent to our new houses to have lunch. Thankfully, my host family’s house was very close to the makeshift bus stop, meaning I didn’t have to lug my bags very far. During this trip, there were two students placed in every family, and my friend Helen and I chose to live together. Once we had put our bags in our room, we were invited to explore our yard and soon after, have lunch with a few members of our host family. We had a feast of stewed peppers and tomatoes, french fries, bread, grapes, pomegranates and mint tea. During our meal we got better acquainted with our new mom, grandmother, and brother, who were currently present. After lunch we were graciously excused to our room to have a nap after an exhausting morning of traveling.


Home Sweet Home – My house for the week in Tarmilate.


My new room. My “bed” is on the right.


Our feast: french fries, stewed peppers and tomatoes, bread, pomegranates, grapes and mint tea.


My grandmother slicing a “roman” (pomegranate).

Our family’s animals. 

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When I woke up after a brief nap, I wandered into our yard and through an open gate in the fence leading to a large hill behind our property. I met my second brother, and discovered that two of my brothers were watching our herd of sheep graze on the hill. The three of us spent a while hanging out on the mountain, taking pictures, talking and singing, before I went back to my house to wake up Helen, eager to show her our goats back in their pen. We continued discovering our family’s animals throughout the afternoon- I eventually tallied: 30 goats, 4 cows, 4 dogs, 1 donkey, 1 mule, and 12 chickens. That evening we explored the hill behind our house with our youngest brother, who was eager to skip along beside us as he showed us all of his favorite trails carved into the mountainside. When we returned to the house, exhausted and sweaty, we had dinner and met our oldest brother, and then spent the reminder of the night drawing and making paper airplanes with our two youngest brothers.


Helen getting her country on in our new yard in the village.


Our dog- I never learned its name, but I’m not sure that our dogs had names, as I never heard them referred to by name.


Our donkey- I doubt he had a name either.

Our goats. 

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Baby goats are the cutest.

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The terrain of the mid-Atlas Mountains.


My little brother Yusuf.

Yusuf, Badr and I goat herding in the hills. 

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On Monday morning Helen and I woke up to the whistle of the wind outside our room. We bundled up in sweaters and scarves and gulped down hot mint tea for breakfast before heading to one of the houses in the village to have class. That afternoon we had lunch and took naps before going on a tour of the local water processing factory. Sidi Ali bottles water from the Atlas Mountains which is then shipped across Morocco. Though before the tour I wasn’t particularly exited to spend the afternoon roaming around a grey, metal filled factory, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the experience. Our tour guide presented to us in French, and one of the students from my program translated the intricacies of the factory workings into English. The noise of the machines, what is assumed was hundreds of decibels, in the vast warehouse was deafening, but I was equally as overwhelmed by the the sheer number of bottles created and filled at the plant every day. At the end of the tour our guide showed us the laboratories where they test the various water products, and our group was allowed to sample the carbonated and flavored waters. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the factory, so you will have to settle for the picture below of my friend in the hairnets we all had to wear.


This was Helen’s face every time we were served bread.


A warm feast on a cold afternoon.


My friend Katherine in a bunch of hairnets given to us on our tour of Sidi Ali.

Despite all hopes and optimistic weather predictions, the winds only blew harder come Tuesday morning. However, not even the impending storm could dampen my mood because in Morocco, Tuesday is “souk day”. After a hearty breakfast, our host mom shoved our littlest brother’s feet into shoes and we all walked down the dirt road to the taxi stop. We managed to pile all six of us into a single taxi, Helen and I squeezed into the front seat sitting on seat dividers and belt buckles. When we arrived, all four Americans climbed out of the taxi, but before we had the opportunity to stretch out our uncomfortably twisted limbs, our host mother nudged us quickly out of the way of incoming traffic. The streets surrounding the gates of the souk were jammed with cars, taxis, vans, push carts, and donkeys- all methods of transportation releasing a steady stream of people armed with grocery bags and ready to get their weekly shopping doing.

Helen, Hannah, Dakota and I spent the first hour or so closely tailing our host mother down the twisting lanes between the pup tents, beneath which practically every consumer good imaginable were for sale. Our mom methodically pursued clothes and toys for our youngest brother, stopping occasionally to greet friends and vendors, before proceeding on to collect fruit and vegetables. The stop-and-go motion gave me a chance to snap pictures of the items for sale, and to request pictures of locals. Eventually our mother deposited the four Americans and our brother at a small stall selling cookies and instructed us to remain there, under the careful watch of our oldest host brother. Slightly bored and curious to discover what lay in the souk to interest us, we wasted no time in asking our brother if we could explore on our own. He seemed to share our thoughts, so the six of us walked from stall to stall, picking out treats and souvenirs.

The streets of the souk. 

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Eventually we concluded that we had seen all of what the souk had to offer, and with hunger gnawing at our stomachs, we wandered back to the cookie cart to see if food was in our near future. Our mother, having been waiting for us to return, guided us to one of the larger tents, under which rows of picnic tables were lined up. Soon after the seven of us sat down, we were handed a stack of newspapers, three large loafs of bread, and a basket of fried fish. With appreciation, each of the Americans took a fish and followed our family members, who simply split the fish open and piled the meat on top of the bread. Despite constantly having to pick bones out of my teeth, this was one of the most delicious meals I have had in Morocco. When we  finished eating, we made our way back to the entrance and planted ourselves on the curb to wait for a taxi as rain began to pelt from the sky with increasing ferocity. Within twenty minutes, we managed to hail a taxi van, and intricately elbowed our way into seats against the hoards of shoppers swarming around the door to the vehicle. Though the van only had fifteen seats, there at least twenty five people inside.


Helen with the 10 cent bag of multi-colored kettle corn. We all bought a bag or two because it was so cheap.


Fish and bread for lunch.

Thankfully, there were no classes scheduled for Wednesday morning, and with the free time, the day brought with it dazzling rays of sun. Helen and I slept in, and after a leisurely breakfast, departed around ten to go for a walk around the village. The day before I had spotted a hill I was interested in climbing, so we headed in that direction. Along the way we passed the ruins of old houses, fields of lavender bushes, and many herds of cows, goats, and sheep. If it wasn’t for the occasional Call to Prayer echoing through the hills from a distant mosque, I could have believed that I was back at home, in the coastal chaparral of California. After traipsing through more than a few valleys, and probably accidentally trampling a plant or two, we reached the top of the hill I was determined to climb, only to discover that it was not the ultimate peak. However, we were both tired, hungry and potentially sunburned, so we turned around with a renewed determination to return home and be rewarded for our exercise with lunch.

Pictures from the hike that Helen and I went on Wednesday morning. 

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Helen blending in with her surroundings.

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That afternoon we met at the village bus stop around four to meet local students at a high school in Oulmes. I was eagerly anticipating getting to know Moroccan students closer to my age, as the “children” in my host family in Rabat are in their thirties and forties, and the children in my host family in Tarmilat are all under fifteen. When classes let out for the day and the high school students were released into the auditorium, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of boisterous people pouring into the loud, cavernous room. After being briefly informed that almost all of the Moroccan students were science majors, and that we were allowed to discuss whatever we wanted, we were let loose to break into groups independently. Our instructors informed us of the approximate ratio of Americans to Moroccans, but let us determine our the size of each of our groups. I was thankful that our group remained small, only the few of us who initially clumped together, while some groups expanded rapidly to include pre-existing clumps of friends from both countries.

Pictures from our visit the high school in Oulmes. 


My small discussion group.


The huge group of all the students. Even though the photographer stood on a car, we couldn’t fit everyone in.

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Huddled in a corner in an attempt to escape the roar of close to 150 young adults attempting to exchange introductions, my group progressively drew closer together, until our knees were jammed up against each uncomfortably and our heads were bumping. Despite our proximity, we were still forced to shout in order to hear each other until the chaos calmed and the various groups settled into relatively quiet patterns of exchanging questions and answers. After rather hilarious repetitions of each other’s names, we talked about our educational backgrounds and our hopes for the future. Throughout our discussion our mutual instructors popped over to check on us, providing translations when necessary and offering up new topics of conversation when it was obvious that we had trailed off into awkward silence.

Upon reflection, there were three powerfully tangible moments in the dialogue. The first was when Jie, an American from my program, asked to see the notebook of a fellow physics major from Morocco. He was utterly convinced that despite the language barrier, he would be able to understand the equations, forgetting that the numbers are also different in Arabic. Despite his confusion, he was thrilled to meet other students who shared his passion for science, as most of the students on our human rights themed study abroad program are social science majors. The second two memorable moments both centered around America. The first occurred when my group had exhausted our current topic of conversation just as the Moroccan national anthem rang out from the group next to us, who had decided that both nationalities of students should sing their anthems in an ingenious effort of cultural exchange. We all paused to listen, and when they began singing The Star Spangled Banner, the Americans in our group joined in, in a small moment of patriotism. After the song ended, I apologized profusely to the Moroccan students for my awful singing voice, explaining to them how difficult it is to hit every note accurately for those of us without formal vocal training. The second moment was actually a series of statements made by the Moroccan students about education in America. Regardless of their field of study, every one of the Moroccan students in our group expressed profuse desire to go to school in the United States, proclaiming firmly that it was the ultimate dream of students in Morocco. I can’t remember the last time I felt so notably privileged, or so guilty that I could not share the privilege in the same way as I could share my pens, notebooks, and other school supplies with my young host brothers. I had no way to influence the direction of these students’ education. I could only hope for their happiness and academic fulfillment.

On Thursday we began our day bright and early, assembling immediately after breakfast at the bus stop, our official meeting place. From there we all the students in my program walked to the local elementary school, lesson plans and cameras in hand. Although Thursday was the Islamic New Year, and therefore a school holiday, some students at the elementary school came from far away and lived in dormitories there between extended breaks. The single day off of classes did not give these children enough time to return home to their families for the holiday, so we were tasked to occupy them for the morning. We divided up into groups, each group prepared a list of activities for a certain grade. As we filed into the cafeteria full of excitement to be welcomed by the children, I was stunned into silence when 150 pairs of eyes blinked back at me. Within seconds of our arrival, my anxiety rose as I contemplated what the students must be anticipating from me. The tension in the room was palpable, and the American students smiled nervously as they stared out at the sea of tables.

After the school administrators introduced themselves, they dismissed each grade of students, and with it, the “teachers” for the day. When my group arrived at the classroom we learned that because there was not actually a first or second grade at the school, the third grade class had almost forty five students. In conjunction with two other groups of study abroaders, we divided the children between ourselves, and Helen, Arthur, Jie and I led our students outside to play games. We spent the next three hours frantically trying to produce enough Arabic vocabulary to explain how to play ‘Duck, Duck, Goose’, ‘Musical Chairs’ and ‘Sharks and Minnows’, after realizing that the children did not speak more than a few words of French. A few only spoke Tamazight, but there was nothing we could do to verbally communicate with them. The children were predictably competitive during ‘Musical Chairs’- it turns out that kids all over the world find ways to cheat in this game. When we were trying to explain how to play ‘Duck, Duck, Goose’, I used the words for duck and goose in Arabic that I taught myself the night before, but when we began the game the first child stood up for her turn and tapped her classmates on the head, ducking and goosing them in English. At some point we herded the children into a classroom and tried to teach them ‘Heads Up Seven-Up’ and ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes’, both of which were relatively unsuccessful. However, I was shocked when they all enjoyed trying to best at each other at remembering how to say numbers in English. I never thought that if you turned education into a semi-competitive game, they would not only participate but strive to learn.

When our game time wrapped up, all the students took a gigantic group picture and then planted ceremonial trees before gorging ourselves on shortbread cookies and mango juice. Helen and I walked home as quickly as possible, consumed lunch, and crashed into bed for a nap before our next activity that afternoon. When we woke up from our nap we got dressed and headed back to the bus stop to wait for cars to drive us to the farm. As the sun dropped lower into the sky, we toured an apple farm in Tarmilat and were given an opportunity to wander the rows of trees and pick some fruit for ourselves. Despite the difficulty placed on the students in our program to translate the information regarding production and marketing of the crops from French to English, I learned a lot about agriculture and its relationship to climate and water use. I was also happy to see my new friends from the high school we visited in Oulmes, who chose to come on the tour with us.

At Baa, the apple farm close to Tarmilate. 

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Watching the sunset when we returned from the farm. 

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On Friday morning Helen and I slept in as late as possible before eating a light breakfast and meeting our friends outside their house to go for a hike. We planned to climb to one of the tallest peaks in the area, from which we had heard had a fantastic view of the Mid-Atlas mountains. As we trekked toward the mountain, we roamed past olive trees and lavender fields growing on undulating, golden hills. Gulping water, we began our ascent of the looming rock formation. I stopped along the way to collect a handful of small, quartz rocks, before climbing precariously along the remainder of the steep face of the mountain. When we all reached the final peak, we sat down at the edge and admired the sweeping views of the mountain range. I felt distinctly like a bird, soaring gracefully over the wispy, white clouds streaked across the sky. Sweaty and sore, we descended slowly and turned back home for lunch.

Hiking through the Atlas Mountains. 

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We stopped on the way home from our hike to say hi to our friend’s dog. 

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The closer we got to our house, the more excited I became for lunch. Friday is couscous day, and our family had informed us that morning that couscous would be served for lunch. This is always my absolute favorite meal of the week, and I was not disappointed. Our mother brought Helen and I a bowl of couscous, chickens and vegetables for the two of us to share, and our grandmother hovered by the table in our living room, encouraging us to continue eating whenever we moved to put our spoons down. At one point she patted both of our stomachs and told the two of us that we were too thin. Though I really appreciate the concern my older family member continually express in relation to my weight and appetite, I am struggling to eat the massive quantity of carbohydrates they serve me.


Couscous for Friday lunch. This entire bowl was for me and Helen.


Helen and I just could not finish the entire bowl.

After a long nap induced by an overload of calories, Helen and I departed our house to go to our last school function of the week. Our program arranged for Tamazight dancers to perform for us and teach us some of their musical traditions. Because it was very hot, and many of the girls were given jellabas and slippers to wear from their families, most of us were feeling relatively apprehensive about participating in a large dance event. However, when the men began performing I was inevitably swept away with the beat into a mesmerized trance. After a few short songs, the performers began to grab students and encourage them to participate; this continued until we were all in a large circle, clapping rhythmically and singing call-and-response verses back and forth to each other. Once we had sung each of the songs a few times through, we were broken into groups and instructed to develop a short routine with songs and choreography to perform in front of each other. Though my group messed up in the middle of our performance, I enjoyed practicing with them and getting tongue tied over the difficult pronunciations of the Tamazight song lyrics.

Some students’ families dressed them up for the dance performance. 


SIT Prom 2015?

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Pictures of the Amazigh music performance. 

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My group performing our routine.


My friends were all in the winning group.


Me and my friends- Squad goals!

The male students and the male study abroad program directors after our dance competition. 

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Trouping back through the hills after the dance performance, my friends and I reflected on our time in the village and discussed how eager we were to go to the hammam when we returned home the next day. As the sun set through the layers of clouds and the last of the light departed for the evening, I cuddled our family’s friendly baby goat for the last time. The rest of the night was spent with my family. Helen and I met our host father for the first time (he works in Marrakech and returns home on the weekends), and after a pleasant dinner I spent a few hours teaching my twelve year old host brother how to speak English, at his request. I taught him close to two hundred words, spanning from food to animals to numbers. By midnight I was exhausted and collapsed into bed, only to wake up before seven the next morning to drive the three hours home.


The sunset in the village on the last night.




Random Photos from Village Stay



My friends being goofy. This is what happens when I ask them to smile for a picture.



Helen bundled up for the stormy days in the mountains.




My youngest brother Yusuf with our family donkey.


How we spent many evenings in the village…


Our family’s goats grazing on the hill behind our house.


My bother Yusuf loved to pretend he was taking pictures with his toy cellphone.


My brother Yusuf with our cuddliest baby goat.


My host mother out on the hill behind our house, herding goats.

My host brother Yusuf took these pictures of me and Helen goofing around with the goats. 

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Peace and Thanks on Friday

I begin this entry with a disclaimer- this is not my usual style of blog post. Because I didn’t go on any “adventures” this week, I didn’t take a single picture and thus have nothing to present this week. In order not to bore you all with a detailed description of my entire week absent of any accompanying images, I am just summarizing my stray thoughts.

One of my favorite parts of living in Morocco is Friday. Friday is the holiest, most important day of the week and there are a number of special practices that take place to emphasize this. On Friday, most people either have the day off work or work until noon. The men in my family spend extra time at the mosque, or at neighborhood prayer rooms, worshipping. My sister Hawla allocates a large portion of the morning to prepare the special Friday lunch, couscous, which is consumed after the men get home from their third round of prayers. When people aren’t busy cooking or praying, the rest of the day is spent resting at home with the family. It is common for extended family to come over to visit, especially if they live close by or if they would otherwise by alone (the case for some of the widowed women in my family). It is a day to thank God for what he has given you, and celebrate your family and what has been gifted to you.

For me, Friday is the perfect day for such reflection. It is invariably the day when I am simultaneously the most happy and tired. After a particularly stressful week, filled with an exceedingly large number of academic commitments and emotional challenges, Friday reminds me to be thankful for what I have and what is given to me. This week, I am grateful for my home here in Rabat, and the safe space that it provides me. Regardless of what happens outside the walls of this house, my family always welcomes me home and invites me into their space and lives. They continually accept the decisions I make about whether or not to participate in family activities, and are respectful of when I feel overwhelmed with the unfamiliar aspects of daily life here in Morocco. This week, I am incredibly thankful that they allowed me to retreat from socializing and spend more time working on my homework independently and rest when I was tired.

When Friday finally arrived, I again felt pulled, as I do every week, to revel in the comfort I feel when I embrace my family and our time together. For a reason that escaped me, but perhaps does not need explanation, this Friday was abnormally special. My family left early in the afternoon to go to my brother Abdullatif’s house to have couscous with the entire family. Even though I still struggle immensely to communicate with my family, the hours spent eating and socializing were by far the highlight of my week. My seven year old host niece Malak spent the entire meal trying to get one of the adults to allow her to try some of their special hot sauce, continually begging until my sister Asma finally gave in and handed her a small spoon. Malak intrepidly stuck the spoon into the jar and shoved a scoop into her mouth, shrugging when the heat of the sauce apparently had little to no affect. After our meal I sat in the living room with my brother Mohammed, laughing as we scrambled to pick up the toy blocks that my one year old nephew Adam threw around the room with glee that only increased upon sensing our frustration. The entire experience burst with smiles and glowed with love, a light of positivity I will carry with me for a long time to come.

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