Thursday, February 17, 2011

Culture Shock

Well, let me tell you, this place is something else. I've kind of just been thrown into the fire of sorts. Since I arrived late the people at IES essentially just took me to my host family and said "goodbye." I have a host mother, Aziza, who visits often, a host sister, Hesna, a senile host grandmother who I have nicknamed "Rose" from the Lebanese movie Caramel, and a quasi-host brother Rashid who is a little sketchy. Only Hesna and the grandmother live with me all the time though Aziza visits quite often. This is their first time hosting a student in their home.

Rashid is the only one who knows English, mainly because he is a surfing instructor and tour guide. So, I've used more Arabic so far in Morocco than I ever have! It's really cool but frustrating too. I've been speaking a combination of Modern Standard Arabic (formal), Egyptian, and Moroccan. Moroccan has been fairly easy to pick up on so far. However, the Moroccan I learn in class is not the Moroccan Arabic Hesna speaks. Hesna speaks a mixture between Moroccan Arabic and Berber (the language of the small mountain villages and towns) but she understands formal Arabic and pure Moroccan Arabic so we have been communicating well. Also, unlike Egypt where the 2nd language is English, the 2nd language here is French. I know a few basic phrases in French but that is it. Even if you speak to someone in Arabic, because you are white, they respond in French. It's frustrating but useful. People have to talk to me in Arabic because I know more Arabic than French.

There's been quite a bit of culture shock as well. My host family is not well off. In fact they are rather impoverished. However, they are very nice and feed me the best food ever, even if it is pretty meager. In our home there really isn't an "inside." Everything is kind of outside. So, when it rains, it rains "in" our house as well. I walk out of my room and it's raining. Our clothes are washed in the sink and hung out to dry on the terrace. Aziza and Hesna essentially wear the same clothes everyday because they don't have any others. Which made me feel really bad when Hesna was helping me unpack my suitcases full of clothes. The bathroom was a bit of a surprise as well. The toilet is a crouch toilet which means it is simply a drain in the bathroom. The shower is the same drain as the toilet and consists of two buckets to pour water over yourself. I do live in the Old Medina which is just winding narrow streets of markets and homes. I get lost all the time. I still don't know exactly where I live on a map but it is definitely the place to be.
Other notes: The other American students here immediately compared me to Daniel Craig, which is becoming quite common wherever I go. However, all of the Muslims and host families I have met have assumed I'm Jewish. Makes for interesting first impressions and even some discrimination when walking around the streets of the Old City. My host family was actually trying to find me a synagogue before I was able to tell them I'm Christian. Speaking of which, there are several Catholic churches to go to and my host family is more than happy to help me go on Sundays. I have also observed that Morocco is much more liberal than Egypt. There are lots of bars and nightclubs as well as prevalent drug and prostitute industries for tourists. Also, they don't use forks here, just fingers. Anyway, more to come.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Welcome to Morocco

Well nothing like a good protest to welcome one back to the Middle East. Of course, at this point it seems like an unusual day if there aren't any protests. Luckily, the experts tell us that what happened in Tunisia and Egypt can never happen in Morocco (funny, they said that about Egypt too....). I really don't know what to think of it but apparently Standard and Poor's rated Morocco the least likely to have political unrest. Cool. From what I've gathered, things are much freer in Morocco than they were in Egypt. However, as I write this I can see and hear quite loudly the protesters parading around and chanting in front of the Moroccan Parliament. I've also gathered that the King of Morocco is quite popular. Officially, it's a Constitutional Monarchy but the King has sweeping powers to dissolve the government and appoint officials including the Prime Minister. All I can say is, I'm ready for Round 2.

Other observations: Rabat seems like a quiet little beach town compared to Cairo and Alexandria. It is home to about 2 million people but you would never know it. Rabat's streets are clean and the air is actually breathable. The traffic is nothing like Cairo either. I'm getting pretty excited about living here (now that I'm here) though I'm still a little nervous about the whole host family experience. Getting to Rabat was somewhat interesting as well. I had to take a train from Mohammed V airport to Casablanca then another train from Casablanca to Rabat. Needless to say I just kind of stumbled through it with the dumb tourist expression. But, here I am. Welcome to Morocco.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

What happened over there?

What happened over there? This is the question I expect to receive many times in the coming weeks, months, and even years. However, it is also the question I expect to never be able to answer. What happened over there? I don't know what to answer or how to answer. No words, pictures, or videos can convey what happened over there. Sure, a revolution seems to be an obvious answer but there's so much more. How? Why? These are questions for historians and scholars so perhaps the better question is "What happened over there, to you?" Again, a question I expect to never be able to fully answer. As I begin to file the pictures and feelings of Egypt away in the recesses of my memory I am also attempting to answer that one question that can't be answered, "What happened over there?"

One week ago yesterday I was evacuated from Alexandria, Egypt with 11 other students and our program director. I eventually made it back to the US and have spent my time visiting the people I care about, my friends and my family. I imagine it will take me some time to fully digest and reflect on my time in Egypt. It's something I never hope to experience again. At the same time, it puts a lot of perspective on life here in the US. Many of the things we take for granted, like being able to call or email loved ones, can represent a daily battle in the confines of such an oppressive state. I definitely have a new appreciation for the communication aspects of the internet and the ability to pick up the phone and talk to loved ones.

I've not only received a new perspective on life in the US but life in general as well. In my room in Cincinnati I had a poster on the wall that said "Live like you'll die today but dream like you'll live forever." I've always thought it was a nice saying and something to work towards but never in my wildest dreams did I think that particular saying would hit home so hard. That saying filled my mind as I was confronted with the most dangerous and terrifying times of my life. Clearly, such an experience leaves a mark. Some changes may be obvious, others more subtle, and still others that may not be discovered for some time. I certainly learned a lot about myself and my ability to survive under the pressure of extreme circumstances. Nothing like a revolution to force one to grow up. One thing is clear though, I'm never going to take tomorrow for granted again.

While my sleep is no longer interrupted by gunfire and shouting, neither are my days spent with the 11 students, our program director, and the Egyptian resident directors I had grown so close to. I knew these people for 2 weeks but the experiences we shared bonded us in ways far beyond a 2 week friendship. 12 random students thrown into a situation full of adversity, relying on each other during some of the most trying times of our lives. I am so proud to call these people my friends and wish them all the best in whatever they choose to do with their lives. We share something many people will never understand.

There is definitely a special place carved in my heart for the Egyptian people, especially our Egyptian resident directors. I can never repay them for their caring and their courage. Arming themselves to protect their neighborhoods, their families, and a couple of American students they knew nothing about inspires me to live a better life and fills me with human pride. I learned more about compassion and caring from the Egyptian people than I can ever measure. At the lowest and most vulnerable moment of my life, I was comforted by the heart of a nation yearning for freedom. While we may think we are all very different, in our religions, our beliefs, our jobs, etc, there is far more that connects and unites us than divides us. Basic human instincts for freedom, justice, and liberty have no national boundaries and obey no government. The Egyptian people have realized their power and thrown off the yolk of fear to demand justice, freedom, and democracy.

What is clear is that in the week and a half I spent in Egypt I learned more about the Egyptian people and their culture than I would have learned in a normal semester abroad. I did all of the tourist things, visited the pyramids, the sphinx, and toured around town in a big tour bus but I also did things most tourists have nightmares about. I traveled to Egypt and back again like so many others before me but words can never describe my experience during this unique time in history. I went to Egypt expecting to stay for 5 months and instead I returned in less than 2 weeks with a little less clothing, a few souvenirs, and a lifetime worth of memories.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


Well I realize I haven't posted on my blog for several days but I promise there are good reasons. First and foremost, the Egyptian government shut down the Internet. Second, a revolution was taking place. More on that to come.

At this time I am in Prague and should be coming back to the US tomorrow. However, I am hastily trying to find a new Arabic language program in the Middle East to finish out this semester. As of now, it looks like I will be in Morocco sometime next week.

As I get caught up and attend to a couple of things I will work on getting some photos up on FB and reflecting on my experiences while in Egypt. Thank you for your support and prayers.