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Tales from Morocco: TPN abroad

courtesy+of+Elaina+Zachos+
courtesy of Elaina Zachos

courtesy of Elaina Zachos

courtesy of Elaina Zachos

By Elaina Zachos / Staff Writer

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In the pre-colonial pocket of modern Rabat, the walls of the Moroccan city’s Old Medina weave between slippery stone streets.

Doors of varying heights, colors and sizes decorate these corridors, concealing homes within. The pathways corral the mangy, scrappy cats rummaging through trash and roaming the stone maze.

I’m one of 68 study abroad students who have been living in Morocco for the past month, and I’m the only one from Pitt. Sixteen of us — including myself — are studying journalism and Arabic through a joint program of SIT Study Abroad and the nonprofit Round Earth Media. The goal of the program, which will end in May, is to write a feature-length article for a major news outlet. Alumni have gone on to publish in USA Today and Al Jazeera.

As students, we come from colleges all over the United States, brought together by our offbeat interest in this developing country.

We are each living with a host family for the next two months. I’m with the Ougaamous, who hosted two students before me. My host mom’s name is Malika and my dad is Mohamed. My two surrogate sisters — standing in for the two I have back in Connecticut — are named Ghizlane and Btissame. Combined, the Ougaamous speak the two main languages of Morocco: Darija, which is the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, and French. Only Ghizlane knows a smattering of English.

After a weeklong orientation, my new parents have come to pick me up from the Center for Cross Cultural Learning. The CCCL resembles a traditional riad, with yellow pillars soaring through a courtyard-like area and colorful tiles spreading across the floor. Waiting for my host family, I’m vaguely reminded of waiting for my mom to pick me up from elementary school. But this time, I’m 20 years old and neither of my host parents speak English. I’m anxious to meet the people I’ll be calling my family for the coming months.

Eventually, Malika and Mohamed come to get me and we leave the CCCL. I follow these two elderly Moroccans down the Medina’s narrow streets to my new home. My bursting backpack and red duffle bag wrap around my torso, poised to snap this lanky American girl in half. Malika wears a red-orange djebella printed with a kaleidoscope design over her squat frame. A bright red scarf encircles her head, covering her henna-dyed hair. Mohamed has slouchy posture but walks with a bounce in his step. He leads the way in a pinstripe black jacket that clashes with his light brown shoes.

We walk for eight minutes in semi-awkward silence that I will attribute to the Arabic-English language barrier. I’m thinking about my real family members, who are probably huddling in their heated homes thousands of miles away in snowy Connecticut. An average February day in Morocco is between 40 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

After a series of right and left turns, we reach a tall, dark red door with a fist-shaped knocker. Mohamed unlocks the door and we enter a dark, short hallway, flanked on the left by a small kitchen. The hallway leads to a common area, which is sort of like the Arabic equivalent of an American living room. Speckled tiles converge into an orange, white and blue star design in the middle of the room. A more vibrant motif runs up the room’s walls. Sky blue shutters block off four adjoining rooms and sheets of milky, industrial-strength plastic make up a ceiling. One square opens up directly to the sky, which will be a problem when it finally rains in a few weeks.

Mohamed shows me to my temporary bedroom, which is one of the adjoining rooms. Two beds hug the walls, with a dark brown TV table and a bamboo mat in the middle of the space. I drop my luggage on one of the beds before going back into the living room to perch myself on the blue L-shaped couch there. Ten square, white pillows line the back of the sofa, and I don’t lean back for fear of messing them up.

I’m not alone in the room. It looks like I’ve recently acquired a nephew. He looks at me from his stroller with curious, big brown eyes. I’m certain this infant knows more Arabic than I do.

But I’m trying to catch up. At the CCCL, I’m learning Modern Standard Arabic, or Fus’ha, which is the dialect of broadcasters and academics. It’s different from Darija, the colonization-induced offspring of MSA mixed with French. Darija speakers can understand Fus’ha speakers, but this doesn’t often work the other way around.

Learning a language is kind of like playing a game. You have to be OK with pronouncing words incorrectly and struggling through conjugations.

It’s a game that requires you to be OK with losing — I’m not always OK with losing.

While I’m sitting on the couch, Mohamed asks me something in Darija. I repeat every sound he’s saying in the hopes that I’ll somehow miraculously be able to understand him.

In the background, statical loudspeakers project the call to prayer from a mosque a few blocks away from the house. The call is from the Qur’an, which is written in Modern Standard Arabic.

Malika joins the conversation, and eventually, I can draw the word “atay” from her speech. This means “tea” in Darija.

As a Muslim country, Moroccans generally don’t drink alcohol. Instead, they consume enormous amounts of mint tea, which they call “Moroccan whiskey.” The drink is a combination of gunpowder green tea, handfuls of fresh mint and a few blocks of sugar. It’s a cultural staple symbolizing the hospitality of cultures in Maghreb, the region that makes up Northern Africa. Moroccans drink mint tea with just about every meal and serve it when guests come over, often a few times per day.

Malika goes to the kitchen to boil up a batch of this concoction. After a few moments, I get up and follow her.

She dumps a pre-made pound cake on a plate. I take it to the living room and set it on the white plastic table that serves as our dining space.

After a few minutes — in which my nephew continues to stare at me — Malika returns to the common area. She sets down a silver tray carrying oversized shot glasses and a metal teapot next to the pound cake. Then she picks up the pot, raises it about six inches above one of cups and pours the tea. Steam rises while the drink collects in the cup, frothing from the fall. Then she sets down the pot and pours the tea from the cup back into the kettle. She repeats this two more times.

The cycle is meant to mix and cool down the tea. On the third time, she fills up a glass about three-fourths full and offers it to me.

“Shukran,” I say, which means “thank you.” It’s the most common expression I’ll use in my pitiful Darija vocabulary. Other favorites include “shuhbat” — “I’m full” — and “la” — “no.”

Before leaving the States, I thought I would rely on email and video chatting to keep in touch with those English-speaking folks back home. That was before I learned that the Moroccan government has a ban on video services, such as Skype. The loophole lies in Facebook Messenger, which still works. But to use this, I need Internet access, and unfortunately for me, the Ougaamous don’t have Wi-Fi. Pair that with the five-hour time difference between Rabat and the Northeast, and real-time communication is incredibly inconvenient.

I’m learning that a bunch of things in Morocco are incredibly inconvenient juxtaposed with my American privilege. Living here, I’ve had to swap my veggie-heavy diet for one dominated by bread and sugary tea. I’ve learned that 10 p.m. is a normal dinner time for most Moroccans. I now know what a Turkish toilet is — spoiler: It’s basically a hole in the ground. The Study Abroad Office warns of culture shock, but their advice can’t prepare you for the real experience.

Right now, I’m adapting to the Ougaamous being my surrogate kin. I can’t hold a substantial conversation with these people I now call my family. But maybe kind actions speak louder than foreign words.

Malika slices a piece of cake and plates it for me. She gestures for me to eat and I do.

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Tales from Morocco: TPN abroad