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on December 3, 2011 on 12/3/11 from ,

Thanksgiving, Ifrane and Rabat

My days left in Morocco are dwindling (18 days) and every time I look at my calendar a wave of excitement washes over me (sipping hot eggnog on the couch in front of the wood stove, the scent of our decorated balsam fir Christmas tree filling the room, listening to my dad play guitar…) followed by a wave of panic, in which I frantically Google “things to do in Fez” to make sure I don’t leave with any lingering regrets. I’ll break this post into the most exciting recent happenings.

1.      Moroccan University. For our Gender Studies class, we piled into Professor Fatima’s car last Friday to attend her university “Women and Gender Studies” class—comprised of about 20 Moroccan girls and 4 boys. To give you a bit of background: in Morocco, all public universities are free, and stipends are available to help families who would otherwise need their children to stay home and work. Consequently, universities are overcrowded and understaffed and quality is seriously lacking. The discussion flowed seamlessly (in English) and we first conquered the touchy topic of the parliamentary elections, held that very day. The class was divided between those who supported the elections and cast their vote, and those who boycotted the election, choosing instead to protest the corruption inherent in any electoral process. The overwhelming disenchantment of Morocco’s government that was present in the class shocked me; I thought that their generation was largely optimistic and supportive of democratic progress, and that they would exercise their rights! The students spoke of their frustration with every political leader—how each would appear at the time of the election and make empty promises on TV, then disappear for five years until the next election. Another frustration is rooted in the political environment: instead of a two-party system like America, over thirty parties are competing for a share of the 395 seats in parliament. The expressions of dissatisfaction in the classroom shifted to those of the Americans when the topic changed to that of American stereotypes. The nodding of heads and conviction that the Moroccans showed upon Professor Fatima asking if they believed the stereotype that “all Americans are rich.” This enraged me, but I had to remind myself that wealth is relative. Speaking about harassment and gender roles, I was once again infuriated to hear the few Moroccan men in the class explain that validating a man’s comments on the street, sexual or otherwise, takes simply “looking at him twice.” The same 25 year old man who may follow me in the street calling me beautiful and “niiiiiice” while grinning at me is the same man who would want to kill any man treating his sister the same way. Professor Fatima explained that Moroccan men are sexually repressed, thus they “bark like dogs” in the streets. The mint tea we were served mid-class eliminated a bit of my resentment, but I still left the university frustrated with Morocco’s social and political system.

2.      Thanksgiving. We’ve been dreaming about apple pies, sweet potatoes, and fresh garden salads long before last Thursday. After a week of planning, delegating, and grocery shopping, our Moroccan Thanksgiving came into fruition and was a mighty success! The security guard at the student villa kindly brought us two freshly slaughtered turkeys from the souks and Kadijha took over in that realm, even baking a classic stuffing to go with! The eight people in my program, Elias the Norwegian, Vanessa the Bruneian, a few other Americans and Europeans made about 20 mouths to feed. A full day of cooking ensued, as is appropriate, and the meal was one of the more memorable of my 20 Thanksgivings. Besides the turkey, stuffing, fresh garlic bread and several bottles of wine, we feasted on pumpkin squash, rosemary sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, homemade macaroni and cheese, a plethora of raw and cooked colorful veggies, my tomato-mozzarella stacks, cooked seasoned carrots, cinnamon apple crisp, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, an INCREDIBLE Norwegian cream-layered dessert, lemon bars, homemade caramels, chocolate pie…the list goes on. Yup, I fit every single one of those dishes in my belly. Okay, so I may have lay motionless on the couch digesting for two hours after, but I haven’t eaten such a delicious meal in months. Everyone worked so hard to recreate the holiday we associate most with home and family, and I’d call it a huge success. I believe there are still leftovers… On a more important note—the day reminded me how blessed I am to be living safely abroad here in Fes with such love and support from home, surrounded by friends here.  

3.      Photography in Ifrane. On Saturday, I signed up to travel with the ALIF Photography Club to the town of Ifrane about an hour north of Fes. Omar Chennafi is head of the club and is one of the most ambitious, dynamic people I have ever met. He has photographed for The Telegraph, the Ministry of Tourism, and was the official photographer for the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music. I knew nothing about the trip besides an alleged “sunset photo shoot in Ifrane!” and ended up meeting two Fulbrights, Ian and Tosho, and Moroccan photographers from Fes. On the squished, breezy taxi ride there, Omar described to me how his affinity to photography ignited before he had a camera; he used his eyes like the shutter of a camera. He has huge dreams for the future: opening his own photography foundation in Fes and bringing in experts from all over the world; opening an exhibition room; and ultimately fostering the relationship between Moroccans and foreigners through art. His most recent project involves distributing disposable cameras to women in rural Moroccan villages, and empowering these women by holding a public exhibition displaying their photographs. Another of his future endeavors will be painting ten donkeys and leading them through the old medina. Donkeys in Morocco are ill-treated, malnourished, and considered nothing but a “means” (to carry goods/trash/people), not as life, or of value. I agree with Omar that it would be fascinating to see people’s reactions at painted donkeys marching through the medina as symbols of beauty and art.

Following Omar’s orders, the ten of us coming from Fes each brought a flash drive with ten of our “best photos” to “share at lunch.” Little did I know, this day was going to turn into a formal photography luncheon and workshop with the official photography club of “Morocco’s Harvard”—Al Akhawayn University. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but the twenty members of the university photo club were some of the most talented photographers I’ve met and many of their pictures awed me. All the Moroccans were fluent in English (one of the prerequisites to entering this private university) but gave their presentations in Arabic, French, or a mix. I gave mine in English. I desperately needed to articulately defend my amateur photos, and using Arabic would have been impossible. And probably taken me 45 minutes. What really blew my mind was seeing one of the Fulbrights, Ian present his ten photos in flawless classical/darija Arabic. He spoke abstractly, richly, and naturally about each photo, and I think he shocked everyone in the room. There’s my inspiration!

The afternoon transformed into a photo “workshop”—walking through the town, coming across a wedding, exploring the park and eventually settling into a café all while snapping hundreds of photos. Just observing the group I was with was quite entertaining: about 25 wealthy Moroccans holding bulky fancy cameras, taking pictures of people taking pictures of people taking pictures; Their resulting photos were unbelievable. I really enjoyed practicing my Arabic and seeing this other side of Moroccan society.

4.      Rabat. Monday was the Islamic New Year, thus class was cancelled and Caitlyn, Remi, Jesse and I took the 2.5 hour trip to the capital. Between Caitlyn, who lived in Rabat two summers ago, and Remi’s friend who currently lives in Rabat, we were in good hands all day. The fact that the local economy doesn’t depend on tourist money makes it a whole lot more relaxed from a westerner’s perspective than cities like Fes and Marrakesh. We stopped for delectable strawberry, mango, and avocado-almond smoothies before entering the medina—open and orderly compared to Fes. We wandered through an open food market, shoe stalls, textiles and jewelry souks. At one point, we heard a large mass of people chanting and passing quickly through the medina; we were pushed against the side of the alley to make room for about fifty men and women carrying two bodies on a frame on their shoulders, covered only by a transparent colorful cloth. We were a bit bewildered and are still unsure of the significance of the march or the corpses.

We emerged at the estuary separating Rabat from the sleepy town of Sale and ate lunch on a patio. Next stop: the Hassan Mosque and Mohammed V Mausoleum. The minaret of this Almohad mosque is considered a masterpiece of Islamic architecture and was built in 1195—the same period as Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh—but it remains unfinished. The intricacy of blind arcades and interlacing curves speaks to the beauty of Islamic architecture.  Next was the Mausoleum, built with traditional Moroccan technique with brilliantly surfaced marbles and spiraling designs, decorated by fabulously costumed royal guards. Inside lie the tomb of Mohammed V and a man squatting next to it who reads from the Quran. We then explored the Kasbah des Oudaias and were thrilled to stumble across a broad terrace commanding views of the river and sea. We breathed in salty air, soaked up the sun, and watched brave surfers take on the swells next to the lighthouse. It’s the closest I’ve felt to Maine.

In the evening, we headed back to the Ville Nouvelle, passing the Parliament building and catching the tail end of a February 20th movement march. Rabat’s Ville Nouvelle offers way more enticing and diverse options for dinner than Fes. We ended up enjoying baba ganoush, hummus and falafel before grabbing the train back to Fes. My overall impressions of Morocco’s capital compared to Fes (which was once indeed the capital): more professional/administrative, better food, more manageable souks, more comfortable, liberal, and modern environment.

5.      Family Life!  I’m trying to soak up my last weeks in Fes with family time. Mama Hakima has been on a very strict diet—I recently discovered that she has been living with Type 2 diabetes for about five years now, so keeping her sugars low has rather critical implications. Her doctor instructed her to eat no fruit and limited bread, but enjoy as much olive oil and as many olives as she desires.On the bright side, I announced my own “no-bread” diet and for every meal since, Mama Hakima and I are given special dishes of fresh, plain cooked vegetables! I am still presented with chocolate layered cake pastries, biscottis, and pound cake for breakfast…but mixing my own yogurt and granola instead, heading to the track a few times a week, and filling my tummy with veggies instead of heavy bread and oil has done wonders to my energy level. Even better—I discovered that McDonalds serves hot Earl Grey teas to-go! I cradled it protectively in the taxi only to have my driver insist upon trying it, which I allowed albeit reluctantly. I spent the rest of the ride trying to explain to him why there is no sugar in my tea.

Ah, and yes it is still cold in Africa. I often sleep with the tea kettle because it’s much warmer than the mug. Big thanks to my parents for sending me wool mittens and a hat, a soft cashmere sweater, and those mini bean bags that heat up in the microwave. Boy did those baffle the fam! I still find other ways to keep warm, though, whether I’m dancing in the living room with Myriem and Salma as Amina and Mama Hakima clap; drumming on Salma’s new tabla; playing chess and drinking coffee at a café; or just eating a little extra of Amina’s couscous on Saturday afternoons.

I have a few more things to check off my list before I’ll feel ready to leave Fes. We recently spent an evening in the medina exploring a leather tannery, drinking raisin shakes, enjoying samples from the honey market, and entering Mederesa Ben Youssef. Yesterday we hiked up to Borj Nord to see the Merenid Tombs, and this weekend will be filled with unearthing new corners of the city, visiting Fes’s most famous chocolatier Jeff de Bruges, attending Jesse’s piano concert, and picking out the perfect tea pot to bring home. Big hugs to all of you and may you be reading this without a hat on!