Adjusting in Fes

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Suffering from extreme sensory overload. And funky stomach pains. And heat exhaustion. And excitement and nerves and bewilderment. Marhaban to Fes, the cultural capital of Morocco. Fes is famed for its fusion of cultures, preservation of Medieval Islamic history, world heritage site-status, Arab hospitality and religious tolerance. The right city for myself, inshallah!

Our group is composed of five girls and three guys all from the Midwest. Our first day was a whirlwind of exploration. ALIF, the Arabic Language Institute of Fes, is where we’ll be taking classes with over thirty other international students of all ages. The institute is situated in an authentic Moroccan riad in the Ville-Nouvelle part of the city, enclosed by lush gardens and inviting mosaic-walled classrooms. Riads are traditional Moroccan homes or palaces with an interior garden. ALIF also owns a riad in the medina area of the city near my family. We were fed a few meals between Moroccan Arabic crash courses (slightly different from the classical Arabic I’m learning at Tufts) in the beautiful classroom you can see in my photo, and tours of the medina and Ville-Nouvelle. Wandering through the over 9,000 narrow alleyways of the medina was incredible. Beggars curled up in the corners, shaded by piles of trash, shop owners persistently brought their silver jewelry to my attention, and food vendors accosted my nostrils with fly-infested sweets or fruits swarming with insects. We saw the tanneries, Al- Quaraouine (mosque and oldest university in the world), Quranic schools, traditional bread makers, metal shops… More on all this later. I was particularly interested in the Islamic architecture—so much detail and significance in every square meter.

I awoke Wednesday morning in our hotel feeling exhausted and sick, and could hardly make it up the stairs. The food has been a huge change compared to the diet I’m accustomed to. What I wouldn’t give for jarlsberg cheese toasted on thick whole grain bread with avocado, fresh tomatoes…Mangos on the side… A chai milkshake… Ah, a girl can dream. In Fes I am finding menus filled with meat, tagine, couscous, and pizza. No vegetarian options. I ordered the ‘Pizza Fromage’ Tuesday night (sounds promising right?) and it arrived in front of me full of hamburger! As a result, my diet consists of bread, occasional chicken, and melon if I’m feeling brave. My stomach has faced the consequences, unfortunately. Between munching on said pieces of bread, we sat through a lecture at ALIF on everydayness in Fes. Professor Naguib explained to us how daily life is permeated by modernity. He described Fassis as “cultural comedians” who easily adapt to other cultures. The hybrid of Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths embodies the identity of Fes, where all are welcome. As a child, Professor Naguib lived above a Jewish family in the medina. Their families exchanged Saturday’s Jewish cuisine for Friday’s traditional couscous, solidifying their peaceful coexistence. The fact that there are over ten ways to express gratitude in Moroccan Arabic is another indication of the warmth of maghrebi culture. 

I experienced this hospitality Wednesday evening when Zeinab, daughter of my host mother, picked me up to bring me to my new home in the Medina. I hopped into her tiny automobile sweating buckets and we stalled out about six times on our way to the car mechanic. We huffed and puffed through the narrow streets of the medina, delving deeper and deeper into the heart of the souks while dodging soccer games and dragging my suitcase over donkey poop, thousands of ants feasting on garbage, and remnants of fruit peels and wrappers. Finally, at the end of one particularly dark and isolated alleyway, we pushed open a heavy metal door and ducked into my new home. I was greeted in Moroccan Arabic by my host parents, maybe 70 years old, their grown daughters Salma and Zeinab, their helper Fatima and her husband, Salma’s two babies and Zeinab’s baby. The home was a riad style, the center surrounded by rooms on 2 floors.

My bedroom was separated from the other rooms by only a curtain, and the narrow “room” held 3 couches, one of which was my bed. My host mother cooked all day in the kitchen, and my insistence to help was met with confused expressions. The squat toilet was a bit rough, I must admit. I’m so used to large spacious rooms at home—my dad’s guitar the only background noise— this craze of crying babies and rapid fire Arabic was utterly overwhelming. The heat weighed me down further, and my upset stomach demanded I run upstairs and take some deep breaths to process this new, seemingly underground and hidden, place. For two years of studying Arabic, I was somehow left mute at dinner around 6:30. My host mother served bread, soup, fruit, tea, and dates. After dinner, Zeinab, Salma and their babies led me deeper into the medina to find toilet paper and bottled water. I nodded as if I understood their words to me, but I absorbed only a whirl of nonsense. As I brushed my teeth for bed around 11pm, I heard “Halima! Halima!” This was the family’s new name for me, much easier to pronounce than Lindsay. Dinnertime!? Ya allah! The real dinner, evidently. Our meal earlier was simply to break their fast. I pulled on appropriate clothes and sat on the couch meagerly chewing on bread as Zeinab’s baby threw up all over my back. This is all very hilarious in retrospect! My classical Arabic was understood this time around, which was encouraging. Back upstairs around midnight, I turned on my faucet to wash my face… and water proceeded to run all over my toes. Plumbing clearly did not exist and this sink of mine had a hole sending the water straight to the floor. Despite these mishaps, I ended the night ready to adjust and eager to hear of others’ families in the medina. From the beginning, I have insisted to myself that I eliminate expectations and embrace this new life. One does not travel to find comfort, right? I am ready to kiss constant technology goodbye for a few months, take advantage of this incredible opportunity to experience life as “Halima,” and improve as much as possible with Arabic.

Classroom at ALIF

Host Family in the Medina