Casablanca and Cleanliness

Any good adventure should serve two purposes. To allow you to appreciate a new place and culture, and to teach you to appreciate the place and culture you come from. Even though I will be recounting my excursion to Casablanca, I want to open by explaining how grateful I am to be gifted with an amazing home stay family. They are everything I could have wished for in hosts, and I feel relieved to have a comfortable, welcoming place to come home to after this past weekend. Even when I experience shock or discomfort adjusting to some of the new customs of a traditional Moroccan household within an ancient city, or when I cannot help but feel guilty over my lack of linguistic proficiency, they are patient and forgiving when our communication is halted and awkward. They also are very interested in learning about America and where I come from, and seem accepting when our opinions on controversial topics differ. So far, living with my host family has been the ideal cross cultural learning opportunity, and I am extremely optimistic about how extensively changed I will be once when I return home.

On Saturday morning I woke up around 6:30 and got ready to meet my friends to go to Casablanca for an overnight trip. Despite the early hour, especially for a Saturday, my family members all got up early and had breakfast with me before I left. I think that they assumed I wouldn’t be eating for the next 30 hours, because they brought out pounds of bread and treats for me. I ate quickly and left a little after 7:30 to meet my friends on Muhammed V (one of the main market roads in the Rabat medina). Once everyone arrived, we walked down the quiet street to the train station, and proceeded to struggle with the difficult tickets machines, which refused our credit cards and demanded that we pay for our tickets in exact change. Eventually we dug out the right amount of money through various methods of comping each other for tickets, with promises to pay each other back the next day.

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The train schedule at the Rabat Ville train station.

Once we were on the train, after a significant delay in the arrival of the train which I attribute to “Morocco time”, we had to fight past the hoards of travelers trying to find seats. My friends and I had purchased first class tickets because we were told that splurging would guarantee us seats. However, we accidentally boarded in the second class section of train cars, and could not manage to elbow our way through the masses to the first class car. We ended up standing in the aisle of a second class car through the first few stops, until enough people got off the train to allow us to find seats. Though I have been conditioned not to make comparisons between countries, the train situation we found ourselves in felt oddly like a cross between riding the Euro Rail and the trains of Mumbai, due to the combination of efficiency in travel and extreme overcrowding.

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We arrived at the train station in downtown Casablanca and after stopping in Starbucks (we were all thrilled to discover a complete drink menu and a wide range of pastries), we decided to walk over to Hassan II mosque before checking into our hotel. The journey over was very simple, and we briefly walked past the medina on the way. Within our first hour in this new city, my friends and I gained strong impressions of the city, predominantly negative. I was overwhelmed by how much larger the city felt than Rabat. I never would have been able to contextualize my observations about the city without the input of one of my friends that day after we returned. She reminded me that Casablanca is the second largest city in North Africa, second only to Cairo, and feels as such. As we all walked through the city, I was surprised by the ethnic diversity I witnessed, especially the significant presence of a population from sub-Saharan Africa. Owing to the size of the city, Casablanca also felt much more commercialized, and less religiously oriented than Rabat. Though I can’t recall ever hearing the call to prayer, as I do five times a day in the Rabat medina, the blatantly knock-off brand name goods overflowing from the stalls of the medina in Casablanca were clearly marketed to gullible European tourists.

Seen around Casablanca en-route to Hassan II Mosque. 

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I was floored when we finally reached Hassan II mosque. It is the third largest mosque in the world, the two largest mosques existing in Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Due to the restrictions of entry into Saudi Arabia, its cities, and the mosques there, I assume that this was the largest mosque I will ever see or go in. Its jeweled minaret looms over the expansive, tiled terrace surrounded by tan Arabian archways and rows of palm trees. Upon stepping onto the terrace, I was blinded by the reflection of the sun off the smooth tiles, which had been polished until they gleam. I practically slid over the tiles gliding backwards until I could finally capture the entire moment in a picture. Once I had taken sufficient panoramas of the glorious white building, I rejoined my friends who were taking photographs outside the mosque.

The Hassan II Mosque. 

It was built between 1986 and 1993 to commemorate the lateKing Mohammed V, who passed in 1961. It was commissioned by King Hassan II and was completed in time for his 60th birthday in 1993. It is the largest mosque in Morocco and Africa, and the third largest in the world. It has the tallest minaret in the world, standing at 689 feet.

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We all took half an hour to pose around the fountains and archways around the mosque, before heading downstairs to see if we were allowed inside. Though this is the only mosque in the country which non-Muslims are allowed to enter, everyone is required to purchase an expensive ticket (by Moroccan economic standards) for a guided tour, in addition to restrictions that dictate that women must dress conservatively. My friends and I were reluctant to go on a guided tour, but rationalized spending the money due to the fact that we might not ever have the opportunity to go inside a mosque again. Our disappointment only grew deeper when our grumpy tour guide discouraged us from practicing our Arabic with him, and shepherded us through the various rooms of the building as quickly as possible. Judging by his lack of regard for our interest in his country’s religion, language and culture, his only investment in the job was its salary.

My friends and I outside Hassan II Mosque. 

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A long hallway outside Hassan II Mosque.

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My snazzy self wandering the hallways outside the mosque. 

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Annie, aka Drew Barrymore

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Dancing Kat 

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Ellen and Maddie 

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Ellen

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Maddie

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Ellen and Maddie take engagement photos ❤

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My friends are the cutest!

Group photos. 

 

 

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Inside Hassan II Mosque. 

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Look up!

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Annie, inside the cavernous hall that hosts up to 20,000 worshippers.

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The stain glass window near the front of the mosque.

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The basement and hammam in the mosque.

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My final impression of this immensely famous religious mecca is that of deep admiration for its beauty, but lack of comprehension of the monuments role in the city and its society. The mosque is built on a piece of land elevated above the ocean and is separated geographically from the rest of downtown and the medina of Casablanca by a long strip of empty high-end apartment buildings overlooking the water, as well as a large wall which blocks a neighborhood of crumbling slums from the place of worship. I felt incredibly isolated from the rest of the city when I was in the courtyard of the mosque, and therefore protected from the danger I perceived the city presenting. Due to the geographic separation of the grounds of Hassan II, as well as the money that the tours rake in, the mosque is impeccably maintained, while the streets of the city are covered in trash and debris. The culmination of all of these factors is the conclusion that society in Casablanca does not, in fact, revolve around the mosque- rather, life in the massive metropolitan area is very disconnected from the religious mecca.

After our tour of the mosque, we began our trek to the hotel. At this point, we were all hungry and quickly became filled with anxiety over the fact that we were journeying a long distance, down unfamiliar streets filled with leering men. Eventually our hunger got the best of us, and we found a small restaurant which we found acceptable enough to eat at. Once we had a meal we all felt more enthusiastic about continuing to walk to the hotel, and maintaining an awareness of our surroundings felt less mentally taxing. Upon our arrival at the hotel, we discovered that the hotel charges an extra twenty Euros for every person after the first two people staying in a room. Since there were six of us, only two of us formally checked in, and the rest of simply followed the two of them up, under the guise of “hanging out”. After checking in, all of us collapsed into bed and altered between attempting to nap and connect to the spotty hotel wifi.

Elaborate street art we saw outside the medina while walking to our hotel in Casablanca. 

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Neither Kat nor Helen were very happy about this picture.

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Walking along the outside of the medina walls in Casablanca on the way to our hotel.

An hour or so later, we all pulled ourselves out of bed and wandered over to the medina. We explored the winding streets for a few hours while there was still daylight. I was surprised, as I mentioned earlier, by how commercialized the main streets were. Though the streets were cleaner and more modern than those of the Rabat medina, the buildings were less colorful and had prominent cracks down their walls, seeming to be crumbling in on themselves. I was very put off by the seemingly unfriendly nature of the stares my friends and I received from the men who worked in the shops. We were continually cat-called in a noticeably more vulgar nature than  that which we had received. The highlight of our adventure was our venture through the medina equivalent of a farmer market. There were piles of fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as towers of  fragrant, colorful spices and dozens of people in traditional clothing peddling their wares. I snapped as many pictures as I could while trying to be aware of my obvious presence as foreigner and attempting to be subtle and respectful of the fact that in some cases, locals consider it rude to take their pictures without their permission.

Wandering the Casablanca medina…

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“Farmer’s market” of the Casablanca medina. 

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Spices from various حانوات (bodegas) in the medina. 

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This moment is brought to you, completely unscripted, by my crazy friends. All I told them to do was stand by the statue.

The next morning we all dragged ourselves out of bed around 7:30 in order to sneak down to breakfast. As none of the staff members at the hotel seemed awake enough to register that some of us were unregistered guests, we didn’t have to be unnecessarily covert. We were all pleasantly surprised by the variety of options at the breakfast bar, and we helped ourselves to scrambled eggs, scrumptious pastries and fresh squeezed orange juice. We returned to our room to check out, and then wandered back toward Hassan II mosque in order to take pictures by the water. We didn’t stay long, as the actual beach seemed out of reach and we quickly grew weary of wandering around the large city. We decided to simply return home, and on our journey back to the train station we were accompanied by police officers on motorcycles, who informed us that it was their job to fight crime in the local area, a portion of which involved tourists being robbed when they aren’t paying attention. Though the escort initially made us uncomfortable, once we were able to communicate with the officers well enough to understand their intentions we felt grateful for the extra watchful eye.

My friend Ellen goofing off in our hotel room.

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En route to the water. 

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Completely empty luxury apartment complexes alongside the water in Casablanca.

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Small tin shacks, used as woodsheds and furniture repair shops, built against a large wall surrounding a navy base.

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Setting the scene… the coast of Casablanca. 

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I believe that this ingenious person went swimming.

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The Hassan II Mosque as seen from a coastline walkway. 

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Look down- there a people swimming in the water below the mosque.

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My favorite picture from the trip!

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Ellen got about five seconds of warning before I took this picture.

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Annie, looking out toward the sea.

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This is what they did when I told them to “act engaged”.

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SQUAD!

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I almost didn’t ask for my own picture- now I’m really glad I did!

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We arrived at the train station with enough time to catch the 12:20 departure, and made an effort to sleep on the train before shaking ourselves awake and walking back home. I was incredibly grateful that my family waited to eat lunch until I got home at about two, and then allowed to me to shower, nap and do my homework at my own discretion. Everyone was very curious about my adventure with my friends, but allowed me to share when I felt mentally acute enough to attempt my stories in Arabic.

On Monday morning I pulled myself out of bed and went to Arabic class. Though I would normally not be overly excited for to abandon sleep, I anticipated it being an abnormally entertaining day. It was really interesting to hear about the variety of ways that people spent their weekends. Many of the students in my program went on an overnight trip because it was our second weekend in Morocco, and most people spent their first weekend here with their family. A group of people on my program went to Meknes, and another to Tangier. All of them said they had a fantastic time, so both of those places are on my list of things to visit as soon as possible. Later that day we had a guest lecture on women in Islam. The same woman who gave our lecture on street harassment gave the presentation, and tied in a lot of important topics, such as western perceptions of women’s dress and how to approach women in order to talk with them about their religious beliefs.

Back in Rabat…

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Helen next to a door on our favorite road in the medina, Cat Road (thus named because of the newborn kittens that live in a box on the street).

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Helen on the terrace of her house.

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Study abroad = nap time? Kat and Ellen snoozing in the lounge chairs on the ground floor of one of our school’s riads.

Tuesday also brought a change in our usual schedule at school. In the morning, Arabic progressed as usual, with a 15 minute break in the middle of our 3 hour class to allow everyone to go to the local hanoot (equivalent to a bodega) to get a snack. Even though we continue to progress rapidly through our lessons, and the vocab we learn everyday sometimes feels overwhelming, I thoroughly enjoy my Arabic classes. My professor brings such intense enthusiasm to our class everyday, and obviously has a tremendous passion for teaching, which is what makes a great teacher. So far, he is the only (long term) professor or member of the SIT faculty I really like. The material, though growing in volume with each passing day, is also accompanied by whatever creative projects my professor envisions in order to help us absorb vocabulary and grammatical concepts. Examples of such span from the traditional, like skits, to the less conventional, to giving us money and instructing us to use our language skills to go shopping or get coffee. I really appreciate the variety of activities we partake in in Arabic class.

After lunch on Tuesday we had another guest lecture on Shari’a law. Though I already knew most of the information he was presenting, he delivered a very polished and organized presentation on the key points and concepts of Shari’a law and its basic origins and functions. The review was very useful, and I was very impressed with his efficient use of time. Even for those of us with some background knowledge of the subject, reinforcing these facts solidly is important because it provides us with the tools to disprove widespread misconceptions about Islam and religious law in the Middle East. Most of us will now be more hesitant to believe the lies and misconceptions we frequently hear in the media.

Once our Shari’a lecture was over, we went upstairs to our terrace outside the cafeteria to meet with Moroccan students who attend various universities throughout Rabat. We were divided up into groups so that there were one or two Moroccan students in a group with four or five American students, and then we were given a question to discuss regarding the global connections between political conservatism and religious fundamentalism. Though my group began by attempting to voice our opinions on the subject, we quickly became sidetracked by a myriad of other interesting topics that were connected to politics and religion. Since I and the other American students in my group didn’t have an extensive basis of knowledge of Moroccan politics, religion and cultural questions, we took the opportunity to ask questions about rules, practices, and structures we didn’t understand. I was completely overwhelmed by how open the students were, and how willing they were to answer any question, no matter how ignorant. I wish I had thought to exchange numbers with them, but I was assured we would see them again this semester.

Seen on the streets of Rabat…

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A street I pass on my walk to school.

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The view from Helen’s terrace.

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My street.

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Chickens roaming free along the streets of the medina.

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Eels being sold on the street.

I woke up on Wednesday with the preconception that I was about to sit through three and a half hours of Arabic. Even when you enjoy a class immensely, this is a long time. At the beginning of class, we played a rousing game of hangman with our new Arabic words and then our professor let us out of class ,after only two hours, with directions to go look for a newspaper to bring into class the next day. My professor is very creative with his teaching methods, and this was the equivalent of “Show & Tell”. I picked a newspaper that had a headline about the king of Morocco and the fluctuation of corruption within the government and its annual elections that are perpetuated by the king. We weren’t expected to understand the entire article, but simply explain the general concept to the class and point out any words we already know.

On Wednesday afternoon I came home from school stressed, tired and greasy. I hadn’t showered for a few days, with the hope that I would find time after class to go to the hammam (public bathhouse). Thankfully, I finished my homework fairly quickly, and my sister Hawla and I departed for our local hammam around 6:30. Even though I was early anticipating being clean, I was also very apprehensive. This would be an entirely new experience for me. When arrived we paid the entrance free of twelve dirhams (a little over one dollar), and went to the women’s locker room to put our bags away. It costs one dirham (less than a dime) to store your bag in a cubby which women in the locker room are paid to watch. I mimicked my sister, doing everything she did. At first, it was incredibly awkward to sit completely naked on a plastic mat on the wet, tile floor of a steam room with dozens of other naked women, but eventually it I overcame my feelings of self-consciousness and embraced the fact that all of us were there for the same purpose. It wasn’t entirely different from being back in high school, changing in the locker room after P.E., except I was no longer a pubescent teenage girl desperate to hide her imperfections from potential judgement. I was now a woman in a safe space with other women who had long since accepted that we come in all shapes and sizes and judgement accomplishes nothing.

Once I was able to stop worrying about what others thought of my body and whether I stood out as a foreigner, it was immensely soothing to sit, breathe in the warm air, and scrub away all my dead skin. My sister Hawla would occasionally motion to me to refill our buckets of water, to cover my body with a layer of henna, or move slowly over the puddles covering the slippery floor of the hot, gently-lit room We talked about any topic which I knew the words for, and she told me about when she took her previous host sister to the hammam. An hour later, after coating myself with henna, scrubbing every inch of dead skin off my body with the Moroccan equivalent of steel wool, and having what must have been hundreds of buckets of soapy water dumped over my head by my sister, we finally rinsed ourselves in the cold room and went back to the locker room to dry off. I honestly felt like a new person as we stepped out onto the streets of the medina and the warm evening air blew through my wet hair. Never in my entire life have I been so clean or relaxed, and I felt like I could take on the world. I hope to return to the hammam again next week, if something so simple as learning about a new cultural practice while taking an elongated bath can leave me so at peace.

After class on Thursday a few of my friends and I went to an outdoor cafe and had some snacks. Kat and Ellen, who had just been to the gym, ordered burgers and tea, but I got a smoothie and fries, because I knew I would be eating dinner in a few hours. The foods was relatively inexpensive, at least by American standards, and it was very pleasant to be able to relax and enjoy an afternoon with friends. My friend Ellen wasn’t able to go because one of her host sisters had a baby that morning, and Ellen was invited to the hospital to go meet it. Her family has really embraced her presence, and it was regarded to be very important that she was there. She seemed happy to be included.

On the way home from the cafe that evening, my friends and I walked down what we call “Cat Road”, because of the newborn kittens who live in a box with their mother on the street. They were born a week or two ago, and there used to be four of them. Unfortunately, two of them have since passed away, and now there are only two left. We have named both of them. The smaller one, who is black, white and orange is called Illius, and the orange and black one is called Ginger. We call the mom Nicky (like Nicky Minaj). We stopped to take pictures with the kittens, as we are all fearful that in another week, there won’t be any alive. Unfortunately, stray cats, especially babies, don’t survive long on the streets, and those who can’t adapt quickly often starve or get run over by a motorcycle.

Cats on “Cat Road”. 

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Illius has always been the curious one.

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Mom and kittens in their new box.

Illius exploring Kat’s feet. 

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Meet Ginger, Illius’s sibling. 

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Kat holding Illius. 

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More of adorable little Illius. 

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Audrey holding Illius.

When I got home I finished my homework and studied for my Arabic quiz the next day before spending time with my family. My older brother Abdullatif came over and I listened while my family socialized for a while, and then I moved into the kitchen to watch my sister Hawla prepare dinner. She cooks with such unconscious physical awareness of her surroundings, crafted through the daily rituals she performs in the kitchen every day. At the same time, any precision of measurement seems to be entirely unnecessary. Instead, she cooks by taste and smell, as I imagine people did before the proliferation of recipes and cookbooks. At some point during the evening, she took a fish out of the refrigerator and told me that it was mine. Because she doesn’t speak English and my Arabic skills are hardly proficient enough to hold conversations, we mostly communicate through simple phrases and hand gestures. I was unsure if she was serious or joking, but it turns out she meant what she said. The rest of the family had fish for lunch, so they saved me one. I have no idea what type of fish it was, but it was delicious!

After dinner, my sister Asma and I retreated to our room and spent some time talking before we went to bed. She clarified what our family will do during Eid, a major religious holiday taking place next week. During the holiday, each family buys and sacrifices a sheep, which they then eat. We will buy our sheep sometime next week, and I have been reassured that I don’t have to watch the sheep die if I feel too uncomfortable. However, we will be eating almost all of the sheep in some manner, including the lungs, stomach and intestines. I hope that if I don’t know what I am eating, I will enjoy everything that is served. I will just have to wait and see. I also explained some of the stickers on my water bottle, focusing on my Cancer Sucks sticker from the UPS Relay for Life. I told her what the purpose of the event was, and I think she was pleased to hear that I am involved in supporting cancer research in some way because her mother passed away due to cancer last year. It seems to be a universal disease, affecting everyone with equal hardship and tragedy. I am grateful that she was willing to share these pivotal life events with me.

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