Category Archives: The Middle East

Ici, on parle français

Upon leaving Morocco and landing in France, I found myself stumbling to produce the appropriate words to complete my sentences. There were instances when my vocabulary would scramble, for instance, shukran to replace merci or feen? to replace où?  There were also the cultural slip of the tongues, so to speak. Expressions that had become commonplace in my speech, such as the humdillahs and inshallahs, used to express gratitude and uncertainty respectively, which would smuggle their way into my sentences.

For a few days my brain seemed like it was totally scrambled and confused, and to add a degree or two of socio-political unease, the current relationship between Maghreban immigrants in France and the French could be described, from my point of view, as “rather intolerant.” Thus, I was a loaded gun ready to offend not only the French with my shukrans, but also the Maghrebans who would inevitably look at me and assume my mix up was mockery. Awesome.

It raised some rather poignant questions for me, however, about the fluidity of languages across borders, especially concerning the hot topic—immigration. As a third party, neither French nor Arab, how would those around me take my use of the Arabic language? Would it be taken with malice? How would my Caucasian appearance play a role? What is it like for immigrants and their descendants living in France? What languages do they speak? Where? When? And WHY?

A small anecdote so as to not bore you with my linguistic identity obsession:

While riding the metro I witnessed a rather loud disagreement take place in Arabic. Admittedly, it’s rather annoying in any circumstance to listen to people shout at each other in a confined space, but this peaked my interest the moment it became a attack on the two Arab men’s choice of language. From the other side of the train a man shouted aggressively,

“Ey oh, on est en France, ici on parle français!”

“Hey, we’re in France, here we speak French.”

This marks the stereotypical viewpoint of the French towards foreign languages in their country, especially towards immigrants from the developing countries of North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.

To be specific, I don’t claim to be a specialist on matters of European immigration. My interest is merely how people identify themselves by their language, and how we (and others) identity our social status within society based on our language. But as our world becomes increasingly more globalized, it is inevitable that we will hear Arabic in France, Wolof in Morocco, and Spanish in the USA… Our borders are porous, and as much as that might dismay some, it’s the future and we better get ready to embrace these cross-cultural/linguistic exchanges as opportunities for learning and growth.

Perhaps the publicity for the Paris Museum of Immigration says it best,

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Our ancestors were not all Gaulois.

We are who we are, and should be allowed to identify freely without fear or hesitation and with respect for all peoples and all languages.

*So much to catch up on! More to come very soon!

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Twenty-13

Dear Lizzie,

I was about to wish that your every dream come true. That you find yourself surrounded by friends, laughter and good times. I almost wished that your every cup runneth over financially, romantically, spiritually, and creatively. That good health be your faithful companion, peace your guarded ally, and love your perpetual guide. When suddenly, it dawned on me that as an infinite, powerful, fun-loving gladiator of the Universe, with eternity before you and the power of thoughts to shape it….It’s you, Lizzie Guerra, who will be granting wishes this year.

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The Universe

Dear Universe,

Thanks! I appreciate your eternal support and confidence in all of my endeavors. I will continue to place one foot in front of the other with a smile on my heart and swagger in my step. I can’t wait to find out what kind of wishes I will be granting this year!

Always and forever,

Lizzie

Happy New Year to all my friends, family and fellow earthlings. What are your New Years resolutions, reflections, conclusions, new beginnings? This year I am going to take to the kitchen and concur my fear of grocery shopping!

Facelifts all around, starting right here with my blog…I’ve revamped the layout and the title so that they better reflect my current life style. Though don’t be misguided by the photo either. I’m not living in the sandy dunes of the desert. The new cover photograph was taken on a trek through the Sahara last year. My subject was our Berber guide; a fitting picture to go with the title Nomad–emphasis on the OM.  I will continue with my posts, but expect more music and photographs, and (inshallah) some recipes of the new cuisines I will be learning to cook!

P.S. If you liked my note from the Universe sign up to receive them yourselves from tut.com! They’re amazing!

 

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Mi-chemin; at the intersection of tradition and modernity

“Morocco is…,” is a  statement I try to avoid making, because it is cumbersome, stereotypical, and leaves no room for the brilliance of our imagination and the diversity of reality. Frankly, I don’t know what  Morocco is  at all. There are so many different Morocco’s, as each person lives and experiences this country in a different manner.

I live my life on what the French call “mi-chemin,” which literally translates to “mid path.” I love the idea of always being mi-chemin — on a journey — somewhere in the in between. But I also think that this word can translate  to an intersection or the crossing of two paths. In this case, I’m also living at an intersection; one of culture and identity, and more specifically, one of tradition and modernity.

Recently, I’ve begun observing a fascinating juxtaposition between tradition and modernity. The more I think about it, the more aware I am of how these two worlds weave their way through the lives of those who call Morocco home. Tradition versus modernity? Not neccesarily. It’s not completely a versus — not black and white. Rather, it’s more of a mi-chemin. An intersection.

At this point I find myself with the necessity of defining modernity and tradition. This is a feat in itself, and one I do not wish to over simplify. Therefore, instead of defining it, I will give you examples of how I have experienced these these criss-crossing worlds.

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1. A donkey on the tram

A friend recently told me he saw a man trying to bring his donkey onto the tram. The tram, which runs two lines across Rabat, is the very essence of modernity for this city. Not only does it look like a silvery gray spaceship, but for a minimal price you can conveniently commute across town. When he told me about what he saw, I laughed because it was simultaneously ridiculous and exactly the kind of thing that would happen here. The donkey, of course, is a symbol of tradition; it’s the very antithesis of rapid, convenient technology. And yet, these two worlds collided mi-chemin as this brilliant man attempted to coax his ass onto the tram. I don’t blame him for trying.

2. Micky D’s and conterfeits

Commercial colonization has penetrated itself into Morocco. That’s to say, those who can afford Western name brands, which include both fast food chains and clothing stores, are gung-ho. McDonald’s, for example, is one of the most adored restaurants in this city. It’s posh and American and oh-so-fantastically modern. It’s always chock-full of customers dressed to the nines. Right down Avenue Mohammed V, where McDonald’s and big stores flamboyantly boast their presence, there’s the medina — the old city. Where a westerner such as myself feels like they’ve stepped backwards in time. It’s bustling and chaotic and noisy and the informal economy reigns supreme. Vendors sell their goods from stalls or in the streets and anything is possible if your patient and willing to haggle. The informal aspect of the economy  is what I consider to be the keeper of tradition in the medina and throughout Morocco. Though McDonald’s hasn’t stamped its name in the Medina (yet), many other name brands can be informally purchased there. So friends, place your orders for the newest software and technology, because copyrights do not exist in Morocco. You can purchase the most expensive up-to-date products for a fraction of the cost in the Medina. A true (and amazing) intersection of tradition and modernity.

3. A Moroccan wedding

Last weekend I attended a “traditional” Moroccan wedding. I was a guest of the brother of the groom, and he advised that I wear the traditional costume, a takcheta. All the women would be wearing one, and I would stand out  if I wasn’t properly garbed. It was fun, and I felt a bit like my 7 year old self, as I dressed up in my princess gown for the ball. Upon arrival, it was clear that I had made the right decision to wear the takcheta. All the women were decked out. But as I looked around the room, there was one lone man wearing the traditional white jalaba. Every other man was wearing his nicest suit and tie. Again, an intermingling of old and new.  The fashion here in Morocco, is very much a melange of these two narratives. You see both men and women wearing traditional Moroccan clothes, as well as those who wear western name brands. They are not mutually exclusive, however, and many people mix it up depending on the day. I, myself, have been on the hunt for a jalaba and I just purchased my very first pair of babouche slippers. I have a feeling they will soon become a staple in my wardrobe.

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It doesn’t feel abnormal to me. In fact, I actually think that it’s really cool that Moroccans have found  so many ways to retain their heritage while simultaneously transitioning between the stark and contrasting worlds of tradition and modernity.

Need anything from the hanooot, eh? The little Moroccan conveniences.

One of my favorite local conveniences here in Morocco is called a hanut (pronunciation: hanoot). A hanut is the Moroccan equivalent to a quickie mart, and there are multiple on a single city block, which offer a plethora of quick and convenient buys. I love the idea of the hanut for a variety of reasons, including it’s pronunciation, which I believe is best pronounced by Canadians.

More seriously, however, I love the idea of small businesses in Morocco. Everyone here dabbles in a little bit of everything. When asked, many Moroccans will tell you that their occupation is “business,” which to my American ears sounds as Shady as Slim. To their credit, however, I truly believe that Moroccans have an innate ability to network and seize opportunities; the hustlin’ spirit of entrepreneurship runs in their blood. Therefore, the hanuts, were particularly interesting to me because they take the business concept of a superstore and condense it into one small roadside market.

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On our street, we have two juxtaposed hanuts. We began frequenting the larger (super) one due to its relative proximity to our house, though the other one is literally a few steps further. From my doorstep to the entrance I have to walk a grand total of 50 paces. Its exquisite convenience aids my lazy cooking habits and my late night chocolate cravings. Food is not the only thing offered at the hanut, though. If you  so wish you can buy cell phone minutes, cigarettes, cleaning products, bread, toilet paper, shampoo, razors, assorted nuts, milk, propane gas, eggs, vegetables…Everything. Kolshi as they say in Darija.

I love the melange of products, the small local environment, and of course my hanut friends. My interactions in broken beyond repair Moroccan or Berber languages with the hanut boys have become some of my favorites. They try relentlessly to teach me the words for eggs and bread and butter, and then they humor me when I pretend to have understood. They never (openly) judge me when I show up in my pajamas looking for milk or eggs, and they have even gone out of their way to retrieve products from neighboring hanuts if they are lacking. I’ve developed a sense of fierce loyalty to my hanut and would now go out of my way to shop at their store even if it wasn’t convenient, just because I enjoy seeing their smiling faces thrice daily.

Last and least, because I can never resist a good metaphor, I like to think of the country of Morocco as a hanut. Aside from it’s obvious inconvenient distance from home, the country itself if fabulously convenient. Here, I feel like I can have it all with small compromise. Morocco, is a super synthesis of all my interests: Africa, France and the Middle East. Include a big kid job, great roommates, a cheap standard of living, and a unique cultural experience in the equation and I’ve begun to feel like I could stay here as long as the convenience serves my higher learning. How long will that be (surely the question on my parents lips as they read this) ? Time will slowly reveal the Master plan.

Salaam.

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In Good Faith; Eid al-Adha

Muslim’s worldwide celebrated Eid al-Adha today by sacrificing sheep.  This traditional Islamic holiday celebrates the prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his youngest son, Ishmael, to God. As a result of Ibrahim’s good faith, God allowed him to sacrifice a ram instead.

Let us be grateful for the sheep who gave their lives today, and reflect on the moments in which we put our complete faith in the will of the Universe.

Amen, right on, shalom, salam, namaste.

Out with the bath water

An integral part of Moroccan culture is the hammam.  Also know as: bathhouse, steam room or sadistic torture chamber.

Do I have your attention now? OK, because I want to tell you all the graphic details of my trip to a traditional Moroccan hammam last week. Might I add that this particular hammam I visited was no swanky spa with fluffy bathrobes, private tiled steam rooms or fine overpriced Moroccan argan oil products. Oh no, this place was the real freaking deal. No bells and whistles—just a few dozen pleasantly plump naked Moroccan ladies, 3 steam chambers of different intensities, hundreds of plastic buckets filled with scalding hot water and mountains of sloughed dead skin.

My roommate, Shaakira, and I arrived at the hammam in l’océan midday sporting our newly purchased plastic shoes, (somewhat reminiscent of the Jellies of my youth) and carrying our shampoo, towels and a change of loose fitting clothes for after our scrub down. We paid the nominal charge of 10dh (1.3$) to enter, and I purchased my very own instrument of torture, the exfoliation glove. Though Shaakira is a pro at the hammam, I am still somewhat of a newbie. I’d been once before, and had an idea of what to expect, but on this particular day we decided to be “high maintenance” and pay for a Moroccan lady to scrub us.

We stripped to our skivvies, filled up our buckets with hot water, and entered into the steam room. I could feel the eyes of all the ladies piercing my soul as I awkwardly found a place to set up shop. I chose carefully. I wanted to be right at the top next to the water tanks, because the room is on a slant, and my clean-freak self is perturbed by the thought of everyone else’s hair and/or dead skin running by me in streams of dirty bathwater. At the hammam it is not uncommon to sit directly on the floor, but thankfully Shaakira read the message of horror displayed plainly across my face, and handed me a small plastic step stool to sit on. In enters the Moroccan lady we’d paid for a scrub. She was mean muggin’ me hard core, and I got the impression that what was about to ensure was not going to be the most pleasant of experiences.

The only way to describe the sensation of being scrubbed is that it hurts so good…? (Emphasis on the question mark). Imagine all the dead skins cells on your body being sloughed away by a mitt made of small shards of broken glass. Add to the equation a gruff Moroccan grandmother all up in your business who is throwing you this way and that, and it all equals out to be the least relaxing event of your entire day. In the process I probably swore in obscene English that I would never do this again, but I couldn’t help but be amazed at the beautiful natural glow of my raw skin upon leaving the steam room.

So there I was, Lizzie the lizard, shedding layers of dead skin in a Moroccan hammam—how freaking symbolic. Now is a beautiful opportunity to cleanse and purify as well as to shed the things in my life that aren’t directly benefitting my higher purpose. And though it can sometimes be a painful experience to let go, it can also be incredibly rewarding and uplifting. So here’s to renewal and regeneration!

It is common to hear this blessing:

Besaha w raha (Biss howr ha) — to your health

Followed by the response:

Allah ya 3tek saha (Allah ya tik saHa) — and may God bless yours also.

The Agdal Hillbillies

Class distinctions in Morocco are visible on many levels. I’m incredibly aware of my privilege here, and becoming evermore aware of how I fit into the hierarchy of Moroccan class, which I’ve come to find is divided by race/ethnicity, what part of town you live in, languages spoken, and annual income.

Much like in the U.S., or anywhere, really, different socio-economic classes inhabit different neighborhoods; everything from rent to the price of a tomato varies accordingly. During my last visit to Morocco in December 2011, I spent the majority of my time in the Rabat neighborhood, l’océan, which is a working class community. The streets are loud and bustling with kids playing soccer, mechanics fixing cars and small storefronts. It is not uncommon to see graffiti or feral cats or garbage in the streets. L’océan neighbors the old medina, where you can buy almost anything you could possibly need; cellphones, shower curtains, artisan crafts, fresh figs and clothing are all widely available and relatively cheap depending on your haggling abilities. Inevitably I never get the real Moroccan price for anything, but things are affordable nonetheless. In l’océan I definitely stand out amongst the Moroccans, who are not as used to seeing foreigners in their hood. In neighborhoods like l’océan and the medina a young white woman, such as myself, will get heckled, but I’ve never felt unsafe in my surroundings. My roommates, Kaitlin and Shakira, lived in l’océan last year, and they established a rapport with the locals at the souk (market) and the hanuts (small general stores). They have some serious street cred in that part of town, and their Darija (Moroccan Arabic) skills are impressive. When I landed here in Rabat this time around, I spent a few days in their apartment in l’océan, and it was pretty clear to me, that whilst they had l’océan swag, I sure as heck did not.

In l’océan, French is not the primary language spoken, Darija is. So anytime I open my mouth and to ask for something, it becomes rather clear that I have no idea what I’m doing. I have mostly been keeping my mouth shut, while Shakira and Kaitlin haggle for me in the Medina, catch cabs, and buy our vegetables. Needless to say, I need to work on my Darija so that I can do some of these things on my own. I’ve got a few dozen words and can now count to 50, but my accent is rather comical, and if anyone talks to me in Darija I just stare blankly back at them.

Though I’m pretty useless on the streets, my French speaking skills have come in handy for more formal transactions. We recently made our move from l’océan to our new (BALLER) apartment in Agdal. Agdal is what Kaitlin and Shakira call “cheeky bzaff,” which means super posh.  (Note that cheeky is a derivative of the French word “chic”). So basically I live on the “Upper East Side of Rabat.” For the girls, they are also navigating living in a new part of Rabat. Here their street cred is taken less seriously, and I can move around with much more ease speaking the language of the colonizer. My French has come in handy when we needed to turn on the water and electricity and to set up our internet and phone connections for the apartment. It has also helped to make inquiries at the bank about setting up accounts and to meet a few expats from France. But speaking French here is a politicized act, which connotes privilege. Many upper class Moroccans use French as a way to show their socio-economic status, to identify themselves as more “western” and especially to separate themselves from the working class. I am acutely aware of how I come across to different people when I speak French, and often wish that I could speak both French and Darija so that I could move more fluidly between communities. Thus, I signed up for Spanish classes at the Cervantes Language School… I guess it’s my way of waving a linguistic white flag.

Though I can blend much more easily into my surroundings here in Agdal, my teacher salary (which I will not begin see until after my first month of work) leaves me on relative budget. The cost of living here in Agdal is much more than in l’océan, so we’ve been making trips back to Kaitlin’s old stomping grounds to buy food and random household necessities like light bulbs. We bought all my furniture from the second hand market, and Kaitlin and I rode in the back of open bed truck holding my mattress and night stand down. We got honks and stares and laughs as we rolled up to our new place. I joked that we were the Agdal hillbillies, because nobody on this side of town would EVER consider buying furniture for the second hand souk. Though we might conserve money on such items we are also privy to the flip side of the coin. Labor is so obscenely cheap here that we can afford a house keeper/cook to come clean for us once a week. For literally 150dh a day (approx. 17 $) we can have a lovely Moroccan woman come keep us company. She came last week to help us get the moving grime off all of our furniture and carpets and to clean my bed (which I’m still a little nervous to sleep in). We are all so unaccustomed to the idea of hired help that we had no idea what to do with her when she showed up. Not only did we not have cleaning supplies, but we also didn’t know what was appropriate to ask her to do for us. Kaitlin ended up telling her something along the lines of, “do what you do…you’re the boss.” She was surely laughing at us on the inside.

So where do I fit in here? I would say somewhere between the lower bracket of the upper class and the high bracket of the middle class. As a young teacher with a good salary by Moroccan standards, I will be able to afford a high quality of life here with many luxuries. I am not, however, used to living highbrow life styles like those of the people I am surrounded by in Agdal, though I obviously show my privilege by the color of my skin, the languages I communicate with, and the lovely neighborhood/apartment I live in. I am cognitive, however, of this privilege, and do not take it for granted. Humdillah (thanks be to God), I am extremely grateful for the lifestyle I am able to lead here and for all the interesting cultural exchanges I will have.

Here are some photos of the new abode and my roomies!

Moroccan magic

Everyone, Morocco is where it’s at….

I landed in Casablanca Airport on January 16th and traveled that evening to Rabat to settle down in Kaitlin’s apartment. After catching up on the events of our lives during the past three months, we set our minds to planning my 15 day stay. The first stop on our map, coincidentally, was Tarifa, Spain. Kaitlin, risking being an illegal immigrant in Morocco, has to leave the country every three months to renew her visa. So we hopped a train to Tangier, took a space ship looking boat across the Strait of Gibraltar and spent four hours in the cute port town of Tarifa. We gorged ourselves on paella and drank a pitcher of Sangria, laughed at our pitiful knowledge of the Spanish language, hit up a local bar for some live music and a few drinks and then to the boat back to Tangier. We spent the night in a beautiful Moroccan riyad, and woke up the next morning in order to make our way to our second destination, Chefchaouen.

After a terrifying bus ride up the side of the Rif Mountains, we arrived in Chefchaouen, the most picturesque little town on the face of the earth. Built into the side of a mountain, Chaouen is known for its beautiful blue medina. The people of Chaouen are the most laid back in the world… perhaps because the town home to Morocco’s leading producer of hashish. We met some characters in Chaouen to say the least. A cool artist who invited us to share a tagine for dinner. We met “Hat Man,” who sits in a little shack all day smoking hash and knitting brightly colored hats, socks, and mittens. We bought up a great deal of his socks to use as stockings for Christmas day. We also bumped into a British man named Simon, whom we’d actually also met in Tangier…small world, and he recounted to us his incredibly original idea for a recipe: 2 tortillas, sprinkled with cheese and spices, grilled in a large pan. AKA a quesadilla. We had a good laugh at his expense. Maybe they don’t eat a lot of “Mexican” food in the U.K. The rest of the time we spent hiking in the Rif Mountains and exploring the little blue enclaves. Chaouen was a dream.

We were sad to leave the little blue city, but it was necessary to get back to Rabat to prepare the house for the arrival of Kaitlin’s family. We took an early morning bus to Fez, briefly explored its world class medina and then caught the train back to Rabat. We had an incredibly early morning departure to pick up the fam in Casablanca. As soon as they arrived in Casa we got in a cab and made a 3 hour journey to Marrakech, where we were scheduled to meet our guide to take us on our Saharan desert trek.

In order to get to the desert we had to pass through the snow capped Atlas Mountains. Safe in Jamal’s 4X4, we screamed up and around the twisty mountain pass. It took a day and a half from Marrakech before we made it to the sand dunes. Upon arrival we took a sunset stroll atop our dromadaires (one-humped camels) and we sang christmas carols–as it was christmas eve.  That night we sat by a huge campfire as our Berber hosts played the drums and sang us traditional Moroccan songs. They taught us to identify constellations under the most magnificent snow globe sky. I saw Taurus for the first time and a slew of shooting stars!

We parted early Christmas morning on camel back heading for more sand dunes. Bigger sand dunes. Enormous orange f-ing sand dunes! We made it to our next campsite late in the afternoon, and we set out to climb the highest dune we could find. Making it to the top was a magnificent accomplishment and I watched the sunset with a feeling that I was on top of the world. The desert was humbling and powerful; a place where the wind erases your footsteps.

Leaving the desert took us a full day of driving (half of it was off-roading) to get back to Marrakech. We met up with a bunch of Kaitlin’s friends in the city for dinner in the tourist trap main square Djemaa el Fna. We ate enough food for 16 people. The next day we spent exploring the medina and buying souvenirs. Then we set up the apartment we had rented for a dinner and a fête. Buying alcohol in Morocco is shooma (shameful)…but it’s a key ingredient to any Locascio party 😉 so we went to the big super market to stock up.

We ended the voyage back in Rabat, and the reality of going back to France hit me pretty hard. I felt at ease in Morocco. Not only was I in the best company, but something about the country felt right. For me, Morocco is the perfect mélange of my studies and interests. I loved having the feeling that I was in the “Arab world” while also being able to communicate at any given moment in French. Traces of French Colonial identity are still very prevalent in Morocco and that fascinates me to no end. It was hard for me to leave, but I feel like I’ve been motivated to commence studying here in France. I don’t mean I’m enrolling in school, but I’m starting some projects. It’s been 7 months since I’ve done any sort of research, and I think that it’s about time that I start again. I’m in the perfect place to learn about French-Maghrebian identity politics so I am going to take advantage, while I’m here.

As for Morocco, I’ll be back. Insha’allah.