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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