Morocco – New Friends and Movie Sets

I have made it to Morocco! Below is an account of my first week in Rabat.

On Friday, the day before I left, I woke up and packed my bags, and then my dad picked me up and we went to his girlfriend’s house to spend the night. We had dinner and watched a movie, and then I repacked my bags so the one I intended to check was under fifty pounds. I eventually managed to sleep for a couple of fours before waking up around 4am. My dad and I left for the airport slightly before 4:30, and arrived a little before 5. We were both expecting the airport to be pretty calm, but it turned out that there were loads of people trying to check in at the Delta desk. After quite a saga trying to check my bag and getting my boarding pass, which involved attempts at using the automated machines and then getting transferred to a special service line. By the time we got done, my flight was leaving in half an hour. Luckily, I got through security in about five minutes and my gate was just steps away, so I got there just as the boarding process was starting.

Once I got on my plane to Atlanta, I managed to take a short nap and then began reading a required book for my program. After finding my gate at the Atlanta airport I had just enough time to listen to some of the distinctly Southern people discuss football and their latest European travels. Once I was settled into my seat on the airplane I continued reading my book until they served dinner, a chicken dish which was pretty good for airplane food. I slept for about two hours after dinner and then woke up and spent the next four hours finishing my book. I got off the plane in Paris, took the tram to the new terminal, picked up my boarding pass, went through security again, and then found a comfortable leather chaise lounge next to the floor-to-ceiling windows to watch the sunrise and relax for a few hours.

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A man looking for his flight at Charles De Gaulle Airport.

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The sunrise over the Charles De Gaulle Airport.

I eventually decided to head over to my gate and see if there were any SIT students waiting for the plane. I expected there to be one or two, maybe three, but when I arrived I was faced with a buzzing swarm of 20 (-something) year olds which filled close to half of the gate waiting area. Everyone was either hanging over the back of a chair or sitting on the floor, whipping their heads back and forth to follow conversations various group around them were having. Everyone exchanged names, hometowns, schools, and majors, as well as how many flights they had been on so far and how many hours they had been traveling. Over the course of the next two hours before the flight boarded, around 10-15 new students ambled over, each new individual or clump of students approaching the rows of chairs we were occupying with less and less hesitancy (likely due to the increasing decibel level we were generating). By the time we all got on the plane, there were close to 40 SIT students taking up almost a third of the plane.

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Rabat-Sale Airport.

Once we landed, we all had to pass through immigration and customs, and then we picked up our luggage and proceeded to the lobby to wait for our program advisors to pick us up. Luckily, everyone’s luggage made it to Morocco without any problems. We sat in the lobby for quite a while waiting to picked up, but once our program advisors arrived to pick us up we had to wait another hour for other students to arrive on later flights. During the down time our advisors let us sit on the air-conditioned tour buses and eat food they provided (Moroccan bread, packaged cheeses, and orange juice). After everyone was checked in, we drove from the airport to our hotel, picked our rooms*, and were allowed about 45 minutes to get freshened up. My roommate and I both decided to shower at a later point, mostly because we didn’t have a lot of time and knew we would just get sweaty again. It turns out, soap and deodorant do wonders in a pinch.

*This was shocking to me, because on high school band trips to Europe, we were assigned roommates before we even left for the trip. I was stunned when our program advisors told us that they didn’t care what room we chose or who we wanted to be our roommates.

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The snack on the bus provided by our program advisors.

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My roommate’s bed in our room at Hotel Darna in Rabat.

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My bed (on the right) and my roommate’s bed (on the left).

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The view from the terrace of Hotel Darna, “Shaaria Lalou”.

When we had reassembled in the lobby our program advisors walked us over to the CCCL (Center for Cross-Cultural Learning), where we will be taking our classes. It is an intricately tiled, three-story riad with two rooftop terraces on the edge of the medina (the old city). We met all of the program directors and our instructors, and then were given some time to explore the building before we were sheparded to the third floor (referred to as floor two) to have dinner in the “cafeteria” (one large room with a counter to serve food from and a bunch of tables, attached to the first/lower of two rooftop terraces). The second/higher rooftop terrace (on the equivalent of the fourth floor) has the most spectacular views of the entire city of Rabat, the ocean, and across the river to the city of Sale. Everyone snapped a few pictures before digging in to dinner. We were all surprised at the variety of food served, as well as how good it was. They served a meat cooked in curry sauce, as well as rice, potatoes, bread and other sides. I will elaborate and include extensive pictures of food later.

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First dinner in Rabat.

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The main hall at the Center for Cross Cultural Learning, my school in the Rabat medina.

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Looking down on the main hall of the Center for Cross Cultural Learning from the second floor balcony of the riad.

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The view of the second floor balcony in the Center for Cross Cultural Learning.

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A classroom in the Center for Cross Cultural Learning.

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A classroom in the Center for Cross Cultural Learning.

After dinner we were sent back downstairs to receive our orientation schedules, and then were escorted back to the hotel. Most of us were unsure if we were allowed to go out after we were unceremoniously dropped off on the corner nearest to our hotel, but since we were right next to one of the main streets which runs through the Rabat medina, and it wasn’t quite dark out yet, large groups elected to at the very least wander down the chaotic street. I ended up talking to a girl who had spent the previous summer in Jordan, and she gave me a few good tips regarding safety and linguistic acquisition. Both of us were very tired, so as soon as we got to the end of the street we turned around and went back to the hotel. It felt amazing to take a hot shower after more than 28 hours of traveling, plus the short introduction to our new city. Even though I had to negotiate the Moroccan shower*, it barely felt like a big deal to me, more like an minor adjustment relative to everything else that I will have to get used to being different. After I changed into my pajamas I spent a few hours brushing up on my Arabic, as we had placement tests scheduled for the next day.

*In Morocco, if you are lucky enough to have a shower in your house, it will likely just be a hose attached to the wall above a small square set a few inches deeper in the floor with a drain. There are no shower curtains, and so it is impossible to avoid spraying water everywhere across the bathroom. Once I am adequately clean, there is inevitably a small ocean on the floor.

My roommate and I got up around 6:30 the next day and went to breakfast. We were told it was starting at 7, but I think our program advisors were thinking optimistically, because there wasn’t any food put out until at least 7:45 (I don’t wear a watch here, nor do I carry my phone with my everywhere, so I won’t always know the exact times events occur). Breakfast was, in my opinion, very adequate and fairly delicious. They served sweet bread (basically pound cake), Moroccan bread, slices of tomato, marinated olives, jam, honey, roti (fried flat dough), hard boiled eggs, coffee, mint tea*, and orange juice. We were all surprised when the waitress continued to bring dishes out and place the food items on our plates, as we thought what was initially put out was all there was, so we had piled our plates high with what we saw first. Needless to say, we all ate pounds of bread that morning.

*A Middle Eastern favorite- sweet green tea with mint leaves and loads of sugar, served in a tea kettle with extra cubes of sugar on the side, which you can add yourself. You can order a personal sized kettle of mint tea in a cafe for the equivalent of 80-90 cents.

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A standard breakfast in Morocco: bread, sweet bread (basically pound cake), roti (basically fried dough), tomatoes, black olives (not pictured), hard boiled eggs (also popular at dinner), honey, coffee, and mint tea (not pictured).

After breakfast we were escorted to one of the annexes (other buildings) that are part of the complex for the Center for Cross Cultural Learning (the institution which hosts SIT students). The students in the MultiCulturalism and Human Rights Program* went up to a conference room and were given a general introduction to the program, and then went to back to the main CCCL (Center for Cross Cultural Learning- I will refer to it as this quite a bit) building to have a brief overview of our Arabic program. The Arabic schedule is quite intense. During orientation week we have two two and a half hour “Survival Arabic” lessons, during which we learn the key phrases necessary to get around in the city and how to satisfy our most basic needs.

*There are three SIT Morocco programs: Multiculturalism and Human Rights, Migration, and Journalism. Multiculturalism has 35 students, Migration has 15-20, and Journalism has 10-15.

This coming Monday (9/7) we start our regular schedule of classes, which means three hours of Fus’ha (Modern Standard) Arabic (8:30-11:30) on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, with an extra half an hour on Wednesday (8:30-12). On Fridays we also have a 45 minute lesson on Darija (Moroccan colloquial Arabic). In addition to this, we have a quiz every week, written mid-terms and finals, as well as oral presentations and conversational exams, all of which get longer as the semester continues. Not to entirely sap the joy out of the program, our instructors take us out to cafes, teach us calligraphy, bring in costumes and native clothing for us to try on, and give us cooking lessons in local cuisine.

Sometime in the morning Monday my group of friends began coming together. I think we were standing in the courtyard of the CCCL and talking about what we were doing for the rest of the day when we decided to form a group. By lunch we were sitting together, stressing for our Arabic placements exams later that day, and making plans to go out and buy phones and new clothes together during our free times after the exams. By evening we had a tentative group name and were discussing who else we should attempt to bring into the group. I thought it was incredibly fast, considering we had been in the country less than 24 hours, but when we were sitting around drinking tea at a cafe that afternoon we all observed that despite how alarmingly quick it might feel to become close friends with someone within a day, almost all of the other students were slowly migrating into defined clumps. We all realized that it would only get harder to change the groups once we have all moved into our host family’s homes and aren’t around each other for every meal of the day.

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My new friend Ellen.

After lunch on Monday we had had our Arabic placement exams. Each student sat in a room with two instructors, one who took notes and one who asked questions. The instructor asked me a myriad of questions in Arabic about my life, family and school, most of which I understood and was able to answer. After we finished with the question portion, she chose a role play card and had me act out a scenario in Arabic. I had to ask her questions about what I would need to know if I were her friend watching her house while she went on vacation. I felt fairly strong about that portion. I hope I got into intermediate, and am not placed in one of the upper-beginner classes. Once my friends and I were done with our placement tests we went back to the hotel and hung out for a bit, using the wi-fi, before getting tea at the cafe next to our hotel before dinner. Both of my friends liked the tea a lot, but I didn’t think it was fantastic. I now know that I would rather drink coffee instead.

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A typical lunch at the CCCL: the main dish (pork or chicken), some sort of vegetable, a few starches (usually bread and potatoes), and fruit.

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The girls, Ellen and Kat, during tea time.

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Moroccan mint tea.

We went to dinner at the CCCL not long after we finished our tea (which was quite a struggle to pay for due to the language barrier), and once we were done with dinner we went out and wandered around. First we walked down through a local cemetary toward the beach, and out along one of the wave breakers to watch the sunset. Then we walked back toward town, leaving the medina again and venturing into the new city. By the time we had passed the Parliament building we decided to turn around. On the way home my two friends and I decided to buy matching “pajama pants”*. We tried to ask for a lower price, but the shopkeeper refused, even after we walked away, so when we returned to the shop on the way back to our hotel we just bought them for full price. We got the pants for 100 dirhams* each (equivalent of ten dollars), which I think it was a pretty good deal in relation to what you would pay in for a similar style pair of pants in the United States.

*Loose pants made of silky material, often with bold, bright patterns on them. Very comfortable and conservative.

*Dirhams are Morocco’s currency. Each one is worth about 10 cents.

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The Mohammed V Esplanade in the Ville Nouvelle, one of the colonial-period neighborhoods in Rabat.

 

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The Squad.

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“Squad Pants”, taken the afternoon after we bought them.

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Each other’s “person”.

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Squad forever.

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On Tuesday we woke up, had the same breakfast as the day before, and walked over to the CCCL annex for our morning orientation session. Our first lecture was by a woman who was discussing street harassment, its history, cultural meaning, and how to stay safe. She offered a lot of insights into gender relations in public, as well as what levels of harassment and abuse is legal/morally permissible/socially acceptable in various kinds of relationships. By the end, I felt like I both learned a lot and I understood how to deal with different kinds of interactions with male locals. After this lecture we were given a briefing on how to stay safe and healthy in Morocco. Most of the advice was basic common sense: ‘be careful when crossing busy streets’, ‘get your body adjusted slowly to drinking the tap water’, ‘avoid eating street food when possible’. The doctor was very informative about what diseases are and are not a risk in Morocco- most can be prevented now by getting vaccines, cooking and refrigerating food, washing your hands and not touching the local animals (in case of ringworm and rabies).

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The view from the roof of the main building of the CCCL.

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Our lunch terrace at the CCCL.

After another delicious lunch my friends and I took a few group pictures in our coordinated outfits (pictured above) and then went out to the medina to buy cheap brick phones before we had to be back at the CCCL annex to have a lesson on haggling and bargaining. We were taught about the cultural norms of the practice, including when and where it is acceptable to do so, and what language(s) to use. Our instructors also taught us a few key phrases to use to bargain with shopkeepers in Arabic. After our lesson was complete, the instructors gave each students 20 dirhams* (equivalent of two dollars) and sent us out to the streets of the medina to practice our newly acquired skills. I didn’t do too well, because even though I knew which phrases to say, I couldn’t understand most of what the shopkeepers would tell me, making communication and haggling a deal very difficult. I ended up deciding I didn’t really need anything (especially before moving into my host family’s home), and that more clothing and any other items can wait. I just bought a bunch of postcards for my friends and family back home. However, many other students, particularly those who have taken French, were able to buy gifts and souvenirs for significantly less than the original prices.

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The streets of the Rabat medina.

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The streets of the Rabat medina.

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The streets of the Rabat medina.

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The streets of the Rabat medina.

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The streets of the Rabat medina.

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The streets of the Rabat medina.

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The streets of the Rabat medina.

On Tuesday night “The Squad” and I walked around the Ville Nouvelle district of Rabat again and then went down the marina on the river between Rabat and Sale, took pictures of the carnival, and walked our way past the Kasbah wall and the neighborhood Oudaya back toward our hotel. Here are a few pictures from the evening.

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On Wednesday we all pulled ourselves out of bed a little earlier in order to get to the CCCL by 8:30 in order to attend a brief information session on the rules and regulations of the institute, led by one of the program advisors. After we wrapped that up, we were shuffled downstairs to the main lobby of the CCCL to await the commencement of an activity which our program advisors have cleverly nicknamed “Drop Off”, something they claim to be the highlight of the trip. In this orientation activity we are driven around the city of Rabat until we are confused and dropped off in groups of three. Each group is supposed to make its way back to the CCCL within the Rabat medina without a map or GPS. During “Drop Off”, each student is supposed to complete a small research assignment individually, and it is recommended that the groups of three split up when necessary, in order not to inconvenience, or rely too heavily upon each other.

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Laundry drying on the roof of Hotel Darna on Wednesday morning.

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I was dropped off in the middle of a neighborhood called Agdal, near one of the large public universities. My group members instantly went their own way, and so I began to meander in what I assumed was the general direction of the medina. I knew I was going the right way, but I didn’t know the names of any roads or whether they would all get me where I needed to go. The most difficult part of navigating Rabat so far seems to be that none of the roads form a logical grid, and all major roads converge into massive traffic circles around which cars drive at breakneck speed, hardly ever bothering to stop for pedestrians. I eventually made it back to school alright, but I was fairly lonely and confused covering the 2.5 miles by myself, and I didn’t have a lot of time to work on my research assignment as we were only given a little over an hour to find our way back. The most memorable, though not the most pleasant, part of the experience was getting yelled at by a national guard for taking a picture of the doors of the king’s palace. At that I time I had no idea what the building was, only that it was very pretty, and I was forced to delete the picture off my camera under the watchful eye of the guard, who insisted I should speak French to him, and looked disapproving of my explanation that I was a student from America attending a language center in Rabat for a semester and that I didn’t speak any French.

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The main public university in Rabat, located in Agdal, the university neighborhood.

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The Kasbah wall. Everything in the city essentially orients itself around this feature.

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A mosque just outside the Kasbah wall.

After all the students returned to the CCCL we held a debriefing session to discuss what we learned during the “Drop Off” exercise. We initially began reporting back on our research assignment topics, but that quickly spiraled off into a discussion of women’s rights and Islamization, the monarchy, and the various political parties in Morocco. Everyone was curious what the regulations were regarding women’s attire and attending political protests. While there aren’t a lot of clear answers, in this country it is safer to air on the side of caution and dress conservatively and never attend the protest of a party which does not support the king. By the time we realized an hour had passed, everyone was starving and so we ventured upstairs to the cafeteria to have lunch on the terrace of the CCCL. Everyone overlooked the fact that there was no meat dish with lunch because the chefs served couscous. Needless to say, everyone had two or three servings.

After lunch we were given a few free hours, so my friends and I briefly went back to our hotel to use the WiFi, and then went out to get SIM cards for our phones. The Maroc Telecom shop was only a few blocks from the hotel, and it only costs 30 dirhams (equivalent of three dollars) to buy a SIM card and have your phone set up. The man selling the cards was very funny and spoke English fluently enough to hold a conversation while he was getting everything set up for us. After we finished finding our new Moroccan numbers and modifying the language settings to English, we wandered back to the hotel and met up with some other girls to have afternoon tea at the cafe next to the hotel before our bus tour of the city.

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My new brick phone. Throwback to elementary school.

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Contrary to popular assumptions, this is not a mosque.

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The girls and I having tea at the cafe outside our hotel.

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My friend Helen blowing on her tea to cool it down.

A little before three we paid for our tea and went back over to the CCCL to board the buses. We were driven around the city for about two hours and given small history lessons about the sights we were passing. Even though Rabat is very pretty and I am interested in getting to know the geography of the city, I (and almost everyone else) fell asleep at some point during the tour. What I was awake for was fascinating and gave me a lot of ideas of places I would like to visit during the next few months.

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Hanging out in the CCCL riad pre-bus tour.

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Hanging out in the CCCL riad pre-bus tour.

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The esplanade of the Ville Nouvelle district of Rabat.

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The medina of Sale seen from the bus.

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Downtown Rabat.

Departing the buses, we had almost two hours left before dinner, and though we all were convinced that we would use our free time to our advantage, most of us ended up napping until ten or fifteen minutes before meal time. We arrived at the CCCL to a feast. The staff had told us that Wednesday night would be our welcoming dinner, and welcoming it was. There were more dishes than I could believe, piles of bananas, grapes, bread, potatoes, curried green beans, and cinnamon apples, along with the main dish, bastilla. If you have never had bastilla, I cannot explain the flavors adequately. It is essentially saffron chicken breast mixed with parsely, almonds, and cinnamon, stuffed in a filo dough crust and sprinkled with powdered sugar. It is typically served at special occasions, such as wedding and engagement parties. My friends and I fell in love with it and each had around two pieces, by the end of the meal each person periodically grabbing another slice and everyone else around them converging on their plate to share the delicious dish.

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Bastilla! My friends and I each ate at least a piece and a half.

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These are only the side dishes: grapes, bananas, green beans, potatoes, bread, and cinnamon apples.

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My friends and I were all fairly tired after a long day, but we knew we needed to walk off our large dinner, so we decided to go for a short stroll to the beach. We ended up hanging out on the rocks by the lighthouse for quite a while, before getting cold and tired. After showering back at the hotel, we migrated to the roof to hang out and edit our pictures from the week. It was very fun to share what images of our new city we had captured so far, and laugh over the bad pictures we had taken of each other. It was a gorgeous evening, crystal clear, in the high 60s with a slight breeze. I can’t begin to describe the wonder of sitting on a terrace and overlooking the ocean and the glittering lights of a glorious twelfth century city. In this moment, I felt luckier than I ever have. Even though I would no longer get to spend every evening sitting on a terrace laughing with my new friends like I did that night, I knew that the best was yet to come. I was soon to become a real part of this city.

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Local boys playing soccer on the beach.

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Ellen, braver then I, going out on the rocks at the beach.

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One of my favorite portraits I have ever taken.

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On Thursday, after spending hours the previous night getting my photos uploaded to Facebook, an arduous process considering the lamentingly slow speed of the hotel wi-fi, I pulled myself out of bed to have one last breakfast at our hotel before heading off to Arabic class. I am thrilled with my professor. His name is Tammam, which means ‘good’ in Arabic, which I am considering good luck. He is very enthusiastic and persists in teaching us how to say new words and phrases in Arabic without using English in his instruction. Only when we need clarification does he use English, and he encourages us to use as much Arabic as we can when asking questions and speaking to our classmates, be it Fusha (Modern Standard) or Darija (Moroccan Colloquial). This week we started Darija and will continue with it until the end of next week, when we will transition into Fusha. My classmates are great as well. One of my good friends from home and one of my new friends from the program are in the class, and it is small, only ten students. Everyone seems very non-judgmental, and we all laugh when we mess up.

After Arabic class everyone was sent back to the hotel to pack up our stuff and move it into one of the CCCL annexes to await pick-up by our families later that day. Once we had our things successfully dragged across the cobbled streets of the medina, we ate lunch and then had two final orientation lectures. The first one went over general information of our academic schedule in the upcoming weeks. I am including my class schedule below. Our instructor for the session played a few movie clips filmed in Morocco, and we had a brief discussion about how we will soon discover that this country is significantly more complex and three dimensional than the stereotypes portrayed in the media. I don’t know about everyone else in my program, but everything still feels very surreal to me. I cannot help but feel that this cannot be real life, and I wonder if I have accidentally walked into a movie set and one minute the walls of the medina will spontaneously turn into cardboard and fall down. However, as time passes and I adopt more Arabic words into my vocabulary and Moroccan foods into my diet, I am beginning to adjust to this way of life.

 

Monday

8:30-11:45   Arabic

11:45-1:30   Lunch

1:30-3   Politics Seminar

 

Tuesday

8:30-11:45   Arabic

11:45-1:30   Lunch

1:30-3   Research Methods Seminar

 

Wednesday

8:30-12:15   Arabic

12:15-   Afternoon off to do research

 

Thursday

8:30-11:45   Arabic

11:45-1:30   Lunch

1:30-3   Politics Seminar

 

Friday

8:30-11:45   Arabic

11:45-3   Couscous

3-5   Weekly research presentations and de-briefing

 

In the next orientation session our instructor reviewed a few traditional practices of a Moroccan family that we needed to know. Once we had been properly “oriented” into how to survive living in a Moroccan household, all of us were sent downstairs to meet our new families. I have been moved into my host family’s home for almost 24 hours now, and I am very happy. I would love to talk about it, but I have already written quite a bit in this entry and want to leave something for my next entry.

 

There are a lot of stray cats in Rabat. I take a picture of them whenever it is convenient. Despite how cute they are, they carry rabies and ringworm, so you can’t pet them.

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Miscellaneous pictures from around Rabat…

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