Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Same World

Oh these Moroccan days…
Prior to coming to Morocco, I really did not know much about its history. Having been a history major in my undergraduate studies, I learned about the 700 years of Moorish rule in Spain and the role Morocco played during this historical period. Afterwards, the only exposure I got was through films such as Casablanca, The Bourne Ultimatum, and a documentary by Globe Trekkers. I came to Morocco excited to be transformed by a culture with which I was not familiar. In the five weeks I spent in this country, we, the Fullbrighters, have traveled to well over thirteen destinations. I was surprised to see such geographic diversity in a country slightly larger than the state of California. From the ancient city of Fez, the Roman ruins in Volubilis, the gorge in Dades, the Sahara desert, the souqs in Marrakesh, the laid-back mountains of Chefchaouen, the beach cities of Tangier, Essaouira, and Assilah, to the major cities of Casablanca and Rabat, I noticed Morocco was as diverse geographically as its people. This particular experience is one I want to take back to share with my family, friends, and more importantly, with the students I teach.
Morocco has granted me a perfect opportunity to educate minds in debunking myths on Islam and the continent of Africa. Traveling in Morocco does not warrant me the authority to speak for a faith or an entire continent, but at the very least, my experience in one Arab African nation can help change negative notions of this part of the world into positive ones by sharing what I have witnessed while traveling through this country. Usually when working on curricular units I try to make the content relevant to activate students’ cognitive skills. Research shows that using the affective emotion promotes cognitive development. By showing students pictures and video clips from my travels and the stories behind each person or place is a start in the right direction. For many of my students whose parents are from Mexico or a Central American country, the images I plan on showing are similar to the landscape in developing nations. As we drove through the countryside, there were countless times where I thought back to my own travels throughout Latin America. In particular, we stayed two nights in a town 15 minutes away from Chefchaouen. The getaway cottage tucked in the forest mountain reminded me of the state of Michoacan, Mexico, where my father’s family resides. Looking at the hillside brought back great memories. It is places such as Chefchaouen that helps to show people in my community how Morocco is similar to their own world. Now, of course, there are places unique to only Morocco but I first want to show the parallels between our worlds to begin dispelling some of the misguided perceptions of Arab African nations.
Another fascinating thing I noticed in Morocco is the diversity within its people. Many of the folk in this country look like Latinos; I saw plenty of my “relatives” and even my grandmother’s long lost twin! The historic melting pot of Morocco and even in Latin America is perhaps a reason for the similar physical characteristics. I want to show people from my neck of the woods that although the vast majority of Moroccans practice a different religion, when you look at them they do not look too different than us. My hope is to show people in my sphere of influence the “real” Morocco and begin a conversation of this beautiful place.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Conference of Birds

I don’t know when the thought first came to me. It was early on in the trip. Maybe it was when the whole bus was filled with raucous conversation and laughter, maybe at a particularly loud and boisterous dinner. We were usually a spectacle wherever we went, always the loudest group. But the thought popped into my mind: we are a “conference of birds.” Now “The Conference of Birds is a 12th century Sufi prose poem written by Farid Ud-Din Attar. Maybe the connection between a classic 12th century Sufi poem and our group does not seem the most obvious at first. It is not even written in Arabic but Persian instead. But let me explain. The poem begins with the birds of the world gathered together. They realize that the other creatures have kings but they have none. A Hoopoe (what kind of bird that is I have no idea) steps forward and offers to lead the birds to find the Simorgh, or king of the birds. Each bird has a weakness or fault that impedes him or her on the journey. The nightingale is enamored with roses, outward beauty and passing love. The duck is content with staying in the water and reluctant to go. The partridge has a love for precious stones, and the owl is corrupted by the love of gold. The Humay’s foible is ambition, and the sparrow’s is vanity and pride under a guise of humility. The Hoopoe’s role is to point these weaknesses out and guide them on the journey. On their journey the birds pass though many trials and tribulations, and seven “valleys:” quest, love, understanding, independence and detachment, unity, astonishment and bewilderment, depravation and nothingness. In the end only thirty birds make it. (Ok, so the number is not the same. Should be 14 or 15. ) They finally reach the Simorgh, but it was not what they had expected. When they look at the Simorgh they see themselves reflected back. They find “that they were the Simorgh and that the Simorgh was the thirty birds…and perceiving both at once, themselves and him, they realized that they and the Simorgh were one and the same.”

I’m not sure if I am doing the story justice. My knowledge of Sufism is limited and our “lost in translation” lecture on the topic was not much help. But like the birds, we were all on a search, a journey. We weren’t looking for a king, or God (well, maybe you were!) But we were looking for knowledge, insight, understanding, of both ourselves and the world around us. Like the birds in the poem I think we all passed through levels, or “valleys” in this journey. The valley of understanding was maybe the most relevant to our trip in Morocco. One of the lessons the birds learn in the valley of understanding is that knowledge is temporary but understanding endures. As Luis points out in his blog, we are by no means experts on Morocco, but hopefully we do understand more about Morocco and the Arab world. Travel is a wonderful opportunity to expand one’s understanding, and perhaps even search for enlightenment. In the end, like the birds, what we are searching for is reflected back at us, and we deepen our understanding of our own culture and ourselves as well. I will miss our “conference of birds.”

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Visiting versus Living

Ok, when it comes to abroad/traveling experiences, one thing you should know about me is that I am a snob. I have been fortunate and blessed enough to have been able to live in West Africa for an extensive amount of time, on top of being exposed to my parent’s childhood experiences in the rural areas of Mexico.

My time in Morocco, North Africa has been an incredible experience. Throughout this entire trip, however, I couldn’t help but feel unsatisfied. You see to me visiting a place and living in a place are almost entirely different; almost polar opposites. I loved that I got to experience Morocco for a whopping 5 weeks! But this is still not enough…for me! I kept fantasizing about what it would be like to speak conversational Darija (which is the Moroccan dialect of Arabic) with the locals. How would locals view me as result of speaking their language?

In Niger I learned to speak Zarma/Djerma which is dialect of Songhai. Zarma was my language for 2 years. I bargained, haggled, greeted, joked, cheered, expressed condolences, excitement, sadness, had intellectual conversations, and in some cases flirted and cursed in Zarma. I was almost, literally fluent. I also began to THINK in Zarma, once you begin to think in another language that is not your original 2 languages, you know you are truly living in this place and adapting and assimilating pretty well. Even Nigeriens would get confused about my origins. On a consistent basis Nigeriens would think I was Arabic, Lebanese, or Taureg, whom are closely related to the Tamazighr people of Morocco. In fact, the biggest compliment I ever received in Niger was being told by Nigeriens that I myself was Nigerien! They said this because of the level I had reached speaking Zarma. What a compliment right? I never knew how to respond to that compliment, it always humbled me, and I would simply respond with… fofo… thank you.

Living abroad has been by far one of the most life changing & powerful experiences of my life, and visiting foreign places provided that desire. This brings me to the next topic:

This has always been my gripe with Americans and Angelinos who say, feel, and believe that America is the only place for them. How would individuals know this to be a fact when they haven’t even gone outside their comfort zone to see and experience other places that they actually might like? Plus many, who do decide to move, move to another state, which is obviously still within the US, so I cannot count that as an abroad experience.

How can we be certain that life in the US is better? I guess it comes down to what you value personally. Personally I do not value the fast pace living where social life is limited to just your immediate family. Seeing your close friends 2 or 3 times a month because of our hectic lifestyles seems like an injustice. We have given our selves-up to the grind or money in order to pay off the bills, make ends meet, and as a result humanity is lost within all these growth industries and the supply and demand side of economics/capitalism.

This is our lifestyle here in America the Beautiful. Go into debt for College (not including Grad school). Purchase various vehicles and pay them off in the incoming years. Get a loan for the ‘dream home’, and further inundate yourself with debt. Maybe, perhaps you get sick, now start paying those bills, and if you didn’t have insurance, sell your home because getting sick in America can be one of the most expensive things you purchase (forget all the hard work throughout your life).

Walk into the grocery store and pick from an abundance of ‘choices,’ various cereals, cheeses, wines, snacks, etc, but yet we as Americans, we can still only ‘choose’ from 2 political party systems; Cheech and Chong… oops! I meant to say Republicans and Democrats. Plus there is all the bureaucracy for the most trivial things, and not to mention a political system that wants us to vote for candidates who will get into office so they can keep raising money for the next campaign! It is always about getting re-elected, and beginning their next campaign (raise-money, campaign, win, and perpetuate this cycle); meanwhile nothing gets done for the common folk (especially minorities).

It is tough to swallow all of this. Still not sure if I want this for my life.

Transitioning back to Morocco, sorry for the rant. It was those moments outside of the group where I felt the need to live in another place again. On a random night when Ben, Joel, and I wanted to go out and see the night life, Joel asked a pretty well dressed looking dude where we could go to just enjoy a drink or 2 (I dared Joel to ask him). His name was Moulay and he responded with, “I’ll take you guys to a great spot.” We got in his car, and it was a great lounge with nothing but Moroccans! On another occasion we visited a small town market which was different from all the medina’s we had visited. There I got lost with Ben and found Abderrahim chillin’ having some meat and tea. He asked us to join him, we did. Just sitting there watching men preparing the meat, tea, wetting the dirt so the dust would not fly up and get on their product, that in itself was very tranquilizing and a great break from the constant moving around with our group. Lastly, our day visit with a host family! Abdul hosted us, he was great, he fed us like Kings, we met his kind and friendly family, and then we walked around his neighborhood and met his friends. I also got to use the Turkish style toilet again, which convinced me to design my own restroom once I have a home; a bidet with a Turkish style toilet! Awesome can only do so much to that experience, but it also stirred memories from living in Niger. Those experiences that were unplanned and spontaneous were perhaps the most memorable for me, and provided glimpses of what it could be like to live in Morocco.

Once again, visiting another place in this beautiful earth has inspired me to strongly consider leaving America again, and live in place where the lifestyle isn’t so fast pace, money is not glorified as much, and hopefully I get to spend the majority of my time with those I love...

Sunday, August 8, 2010


We arrived at Merzouga in very good humor, albeit punchy from hours on the road. The sun was a bit warm, but the day was winding down so we had the good fortune to miss the most intense heat of the day. We rushed to check in so that we could catch the sunset while sitting high in the camel (dromedary - one hump) saddles, in the Sahara desert no less.

The Kasbah Tombouctou sports two camels kissing by the entrance. Hmmm, suggestive? Once I stepped beyond the lobby though, I felt I had entered a more ethereal place. Something was very different about this place, and it wasn't just the fine sand creeping into every crevice. Maybe, I'm just a sucker for an astoundingly beautiful landscape, but even in the rush to the camels, I felt like I was gliding over the path. The mood at the Tombouctou, however mercurial - because the mood is different depending on the time of day, or night, was energetic at the anticipated sunset camel ride. We would go through several moods before we left Tombouctou, none of them unpleasant, at least for me.

My camel, I think Jimi Hendrix was his name - they were all named either Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley, was pleasant enough. He lowered himself obediently, and I climbed on and we were off. Paulette was in front of me, and Ben was behind me. The camel saddle has an interesting attribute that I've never noticed on a horse saddle, maybe it's because the camel lowers and raises himself - very different from mounting a horse. My eyes struggled to take in the scenery. It's as if I couldn't physically see everything at once. Too much to possibly take in with mere human eyes. The sun was setting, and we were all glad to be taking the sunset ride rather than the sunrise ride. The weather was perfect, the group was in excellent spirits, it was all quite perfect. We left our camels and climbed a sand dune, and stood around, reduced to few words - unusual for our group. Youssef, Paulette's and my camel handler, buried me in warm sand up to my waist. The sun sank behind the dunes slowly, and photo and video opps presented themselves, and we just stared at where we were, and marveled over what we were doing. Finally, some of us ran down the dunes to the waiting camels, some slid, some walked, we all came down in one way or another.

When we returned, and walked from the camels resting place to Tombouctou, we gathered our things from the lobby and started to our rooms. I had room 11, a single, for the night, and Eddie and Daniel had room 12 right beside me. We couldn't find our rooms at first because they were the only two rooms that were not included on the signs. So we decided to go for the numbers that were at least close to ours. The entrance to the hallways was fanciful and we were fairly enchanted right away. However, when we entered, it was so dark that we couldn't find our way at all. Eddie and I went ahead, feeling the walls to try and find a light switch, but to no avail. We were walking carefully, and climbed a couple of stairs which Daniel couldn't see as he was a distance behind us. He said, "Oh, my god, it's so dark, it looks like you guys are floating above me." We found our dreamy rooms, turned on the air immediately, and started the settling-in process.

Later, we went to dinner - the most succulent, incredibly sweet apricots that have ever passed my lips . . . We were in an incredible setting, the desert beyond us, and great conversations, including a particularly memorable bit of talk about movies with Eddie and Youness, this stands out as one of my favorite dinners of the entire trip. Afterwards, as we all lounged around savoring the atmosphere, company, and drinks, the drummers came. Everyone took turns drumming, but I just wanted to listen and savor, so I lay on one of the benches off to the side and stared at the stars and, okay, sublime may be the right word for those particular moments.

Later, after everyone had gone to bed, I took a walk out to where the camels were resting. The beauty is almost too ephemeral to hang on to, much less describe. Looking up at the milky way, and seeing the desert meet the sky, the camels here and there - I think I'll struggle my entire life to keep that image accessible, and not to let it diminish with passing time. Even now, I can't write about it without getting teary.

Later that evening . . . soon to be sobered up from the intoxicating desert experience, I was lying in bed reading with my door unlocked when Eddie burst into the room dressed for bed. He raised his arms to the air conditioner and said, "Yes! it's cool in here!" Daniel, also dressed for bed, followed and I invited them to climb into the spare bed in my room. (I didn't realize that the beds were two different sizes and poor Eddie and Daniel shared the double, while just I was in the queen.) They tried to have their air conditioner fixed, but to no avail that evening. We spent the first night in Merzouga roomies: Daniel chatting in his sleep, me - restless, going out for a later-night walk, Eddie sleeping without moving a muscle. My restlessness began that night in Merzouga and hasn't quieted since.

Now, watching one of the world cup games the next day in the warm, sultry tv room after an extraordinary experience on the 4 x 4s in the desert was an excellent afternoon as well. Both those things would have been fabulous on their own merits just because we all had so much fun. The singing of "Buffalo Soldier" with Sherri, Eddie, Joel, Youness, and our awesome driver at top volume while jumping over sand dunes was perfection, and watching the match with everyone sprawled around talking smack was so completely comfortable and yummy - and was sort of the icing on the Merzouga cake.

I'm not going to say Merzouga was magical, because that seems too easy. Also, it doesn't quite work - there's so much more. Maybe it's where we all were, physically and emotionally, that made it so incredible. Whatever aligned to make it what it was, memories of Merzouga conjures something in me that I hope never goes away.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Close Tie with Paradise

The Oasis
The drive from Merzouga to Dades proved to be another treat. Between the Atlas Mountains is Tineghir; a wonderful oasis. It was difficult to fathom miles and miles of lush, green vegetation blossoming right in the middle of what had seemed to be a barren, God-forsaken desert! Our driver stopped the bus along a steep cliff to allow us to take pictures. Wow, how can I describe this paradox? It looked as if God took Her finger and carved her name into the hard, rocky, earth forming deep, winding canyons (much like we’ve all done on a much smaller scale in the sand at the beach). Except, everywhere Her finger touched, produced a thick blanket of palm trees. If this vision I see before me were in a competition, it would run a close tie with “paradise.”
Shortly after, we met our guide, Said (pronounced Sah-eed), which is Arabic for “happy.” I found his name very appropriate for his disposition. He greeted us alongside the road with his camels. I remembered that one’s name was Jimi Hendrix, and he suspiciously stared at me from the corner of his eye as if to say, “Come a little closer so that I can show you how accurately I can spit on tourist.” I moved in a little closer to take a picture, but quickly recognized the hint for him to maintain his space. As we descended with Said into the canyon, I noticed how the temperature comfortably dropped to provide relief. Among the rich foliage were alfalfa plants used to feed the animals, fresh mint for the tea that has been our staple beverage, rows of cabbage, corn stalks, and peach and pomegranate trees. We walked carefully along the narrow dirt path that was accompanied by the serene sounds of the irrigation stream that nourished the crops. While we walked, Said would occasionally stop to pull fronds from trees in between jokes, songs, and chat to weave the ladies in our group flowers or snakes, which we proudly adorned our heads. I was so impressed to learn that he spoke several languages: Tamazight, Arabic, French, Spanish, as well as a little Italian and Japanese. It made me wonder why I had spent so much time in school, but never bothered to acquire another language. Here he was in the middle of “nowhere” and could communicate easily with people from all over the world, while I have accented my wall at home with college degrees and pray most of the time somebody speaks English. Hell, my own students can linguistically “leave me in the dust.”
The Ice Cream Man
Anyway, I was totally immersed in the sounds, fragrances, and light-hearted conversation. From a distance, I could hear a man cry out on a loud speaker to the surrounding homes embedded in the sides of the cliffs. We asked Said if it was a call for prayer, as is customary in all of the cities we visited. His response was cute. “No, he is asking the women to shop at his store,” he replied. I’m pretty sure he was serious, but it would have been great sarcasm if he wasn’t. I thought to myself, “The Loud-Speaker Man functions like the Ice Cream Man without the annoying muffled Disney show tunes.” It brought back memories of scurrying around the house to find an adult to take me to the ice cream truck. I wonder if that experience was happening in a similar way in one of those cliff side houses. I imagine that it probably does. Perhaps in a small, beautiful village in the middle of a Moroccan oasis, a child is running to meet “The Ice Cream Man.”



Located in the southern region of Morocco nestled inland, is the popular city of Marrakech. Marrakech was at one time one of the four capitals of Morocco. The main streets resemble a combination of Phoenix (because of the reddish earth tones of the original structures), Miami (because of the thick, stalky palms that line the streets), and perhaps Vegas (because of the luxurious nightlife). It seems that someone is aware of the resemblance because many nightclubs have “Miami” somewhere in the name. I even saw a “Café California” in Fes, which is a far-reaching stretch of the imagination.

The most intriguing part of Marrakech is the medina of course. We spent hours weaving through sweltering alleyways shopping and negotiating prices, walking space for scooters (pedestrians beware), and language. It was a true experience of the senses; rows of colorful fabrics, jewelry, leather products, fragrant spices, incense, and soaps. The sound of lively music, and persistent merchants, who can spot a “sucker” a mile away keep you on guard. The rancid smell of mules, fish, urine, trash, and sewage all crashed together in my nose. When you first enter the ancient red gates, you will notice the king’s (presently King Mohammed VI) Kasbah and a mosque (a famous name of which I can’t remember at the moment) with a huge minaret to call out the daily prayers. As you pass a couple of streets lined with horse-drawn carriages, you will enter an enormous square, called Djemaa el Fna that radiates the most excruciating heat known to man.

The day we explored Marrakech, it was about 114 degrees Fahrenheit. During the day, the square, or grand plaza, as it was commonly referred, is wide open. A few vendors (who I think must be nuts) bake in the unrelenting heat peddling henna art, monkey handlers looking for “victims” to swindle a few dirham by setting a monkey on your shoulder, some musicians, storytellers, and snake charmers. Nighttime is another story. The square transforms into a lively beehive of families, entertainers, and of course tourists. Carriages are converted into fresh juice stands; along with fresh nuts, fruit, sweets, and other delectables…Did I mention the snail cart?

Traversing Worlds

 Casablanca is the perfect place to end our stay in Morocco. Already I feel as though I have left behind the small towns, the farms, the donkey carts, even the smaller (maybe more Moroccan?) cities. Casablanca is a major metropolitan area that feels, at times, much more like LA or New York than any other place we have been in Morocco. But a walk around the downtown reveals a city that is quite Moroccan, just also a city of contradictions and what I will call different “worlds.” In one afternoon of walking Joel and I passed through several these “worlds.” We were largely on foot, but even when we jumped in a taxi we stayed within a radius of a few miles. We started out from our hotel, right downtown near the old Medina. We started walking up one of the main streets, Avenue Muhammad II. Joel wanted to see the commercial district so we headed that way. We passed a huge church, a rarity in Morocco. Oddly it looked like a mosque, much less ornate than most large churches. We strolled through a park and had some afternoon tea and coffee at an outdoor café. We soon arrived at the business district in Casablanca. Really, it could have been LA. There were busy intersections, bustling crowds, streets lined with shops, and high-rise buildings. The shops were not what we had seen in Morocco. They included Dolce Gabbana, Mango, and Adidis, all corporate, all upscale. The fashion, the styles, as well as the prices, were the same as in the US. At first I didn’t notice, but then it dawned on me that the advertising, the billboards were quite familiar. Often the models were white, and much of the text was in English. Globalization, and Americanization at it’s best. At this point in the day we could have been anywhere. I had to remind myself that I was in Morocco.

So that was one world—corporate, global, consumption oriented. But we were about to go to our next “world.” We hopped a cab to the Habous district in the area called the New Median. I was expecting a bit more. The Lonely Planet guide had referred to the Habous district as a Disneyland type of medina. The French built it and there were no twists and turns and endless alleys like in the usual medina in Morocco. But it was hardly Disneyland. It was pretty much a run of the mill tourist medina with nice artisanal goods from Morocco. The new medina lacked the tennis shoes, the suitcases, and the kid’s toys in the medinas for locals. I did pick up a dressy pair of babouches since I knew we were going out on the town that evening. The new medina was nevertheless quite different for the last neighborhood. The medina had no cars, no highrises, and the goods were not global. Perhaps all that was shared was shopping, just for very different goods.

Simply by accident we entered out next “world.” At the end of the new medina there seemed to be a street market set up. I wondered if Saturday was market day in Casablanca. So we started wandering through the stands of the street vendors. Here we did get to the local goods: shoes, used clothes, herbs, whatever one wanted to buy. The artisanal crafts gave way to more practical goods, the goods people needed to buy on a daily basis in Casa. The styles and the prices were much different from the high-end stuff in the business district. The goods and wares did reflect a type of globalization, a flea market globalization, a street globalization, with lower priced goods, name brand knock offs, and stuff made in China. At one point we saw a doorway that looked interesting, and inside was a whole food market! There were luscious tables of fruits and vegetables. The olive tables were spectacular. The were so many colorful varieties, many more than we had seen at restaurants. They glistened on the tables. The herb tables were colorful and fragrant as well. We finally passed into the meat market section. I noticed a table full of lamb’s heads and that was as much as I wanted to see. And the vendors did not want thier pictures taken, so we left. The food at this market was far removed for the corporate food we eat. It was probably mostly local produce and there was virtually no packaging. Worlds apart from our corporate grocery stores.

Outside the food market once again the street market continued as far as the eye could see. The streets were packed with people, wall to wall in every direction. No market we had seen in Morocco even came close to the size of the one in Casablanca. I couldn’t take the crowds anymore and I wanted to turn back and return to a vendor I had seen earlier. He was an old man wearing the blue robes of the desert. He actually looked a bit out of place there in Casablanca. His goods were spread out on a blanket in front of him. At first I thought it was food, but then I realized it was mostly beads and herbs. I had passed it by the first time, but wanted to return and buy a few of the beads. Each time we had seen him there was no one buying his wares. I picked out a few red beads then went for the amber ones. We were having trouble communicating the price; my Arabic letters little help at this point. He called someone over to tell us the price, and slowly a crowd gathered. We had already stopped a couple of times to buy things but for some reason this time we were a spectacle. We were not really sure what happed. The crowd made me want to leave, but the price seemed too high and I put some of the beads back. The whole interaction seemed strange. We wondered if the beads had some spiritual significance. Hmm. For that moment we had crossed into another world—but not so seamlessly. As we headed back to the hotel, my mind was full of the colors, smells, and images from another full day in Morocco.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Appreciation for those learning Languages

Oh, these Moroccan days…
As part of the Fulbright Fellowship we were expected to take Arabic classes, which totaled to 40 hours of instruction in ten days. At first most of my fellow Fulbrighters struggled with trying to properly pronounce all 28 letters of the alphabet. As time progressed, learning Arabic came naturally to some or perhaps it was also due to people’s studious nature of completing daily homework assignments, in either case, I was not one of the aforementioned. Instead, I struggled to learn the independent, initial, medial, and final position of each letter. On the days where I did do the homework, I still found myself catching up with the rest of the group. I began feeling disappointed with myself at those moments in class because everyone else seemed to be able to decipher the language. I could not help but think, while sitting in a classroom at the Universite Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah, in Fes, about the English Language Learners (ELL) I teach.

I teach at Theodore Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles. Roosevelt has 4,100 students and two years ago was one of the most populated high schools in the nation at 5,100 students. My school has a large immigrant population predominantly from Mexico and a few Central American countries. I have taught bilingual world history in the past and continue to have ELL students in my classroom. Sitting in the classroom in Fes learning a new language reminded me of the experience my students must be going through. For many immigrants, at the high school level, coming to the U.S. is not a choice it is a necessity. I have had numerous students tell me at first they did not want to come to this country but were forced by their parents who came looking for a better life for them. To think of the many obstacles they face in their lives, adapting to a new culture, being a teenager, and learning a new language, I developed a deeper respect for my students. Often, I feel teachers tend to forget the personal struggles students have to deal with outside the classroom especially when classrooms are 30 students or more and the attention/pressure is to cover all academic standards in preparation for high-stake state tests. Sometimes teachers forget they are teaching human beings with emotional concerns outside academia. It is refreshing to be a student in Morocco learning Arabic because it puts things into perspective. This experience has made me cognizant of the fact that I need to do a better job differentiating my instructions for ELL learners and affirming their journeys in mastering the English language.

Also I noticed being a student of Arabic, how at the very least, almost everyone in Morocco is bilingual and speaking three or four languages is common. The state of California or the United States, for that matter, is behind the rest of the world when it comes to teaching languages in the public school system. Students are expected to take two or three years of a foreign language in high schools throughout California, which in reality is a travesty when compared to the amount of years other countries expect their youth to learn a foreign language. In the U.S., we need to move away from the xenophobic monolingual movement. In Fes, a local Professor responded to a question on the U.S.’ movement to eradicate bilingualism in the public education system with, “Why would you deprive a society of its many cultures?” Instead of seeing people who speak other languages negatively we should learn to appreciate our differences as part of the beautiful diversity that makes the U.S. unique. To see my fellow Fulbrigthers in Morocco appreciate a society where everyone speaks more than one language was a comforting feeling and I truly feel the vast majority of American society is due for a strong dosage of how global societies should be, multilingual. On returning to the States, I do plan to continue learning either Arabic or another language because I admire multi-linguists.              

“The Garden”- by Cut Chemist

Oh, what a smile can do!

Oh, these Moroccan days…

I began writing this blog a week into the trip in Merzouga and it started something like this … As we leave our desert hotel “Timbouktu” and traverse through what appears to look like the surface of Mars’ rocky terrain I can’t help but look back at the Saharan sand dunes at a distance. As I peer out the window of a charter bus, the bright shining sun forces me to close my eyes and I think about the past two days in this majestic place. The Sahara has given me a deeper appreciation of life. In a place where my existence feels insignificant compared to the sheer size of the desert, where I realize how quickly I can disappear from existence if I lose my point of reference camel riding from dune to dune, then feeling a sense of relief when I look down at a friendly smile from an Amazigh named Mustafa guiding my camel on foot brings value back to my life.

I knew people throughout history passed through the Sahara on trade routes, but I never expected to see nomadic tents and homes along the edge of the desert. As we raced by tent homes in 4x4 Jeeps with nothing else in sight for many kilometers it was the children who came out of these homes running toward our cars that brightened my day the children would smile and wave as we whizzed by their world…. Now fast forward to a month into the program and I noticed a strong recurrence as I went from city to city having similar experiences as in Merzouga. On a daily basis I was greeted by friends and strangers with a bright smile and I began to think how nice a good smile makes me feel. Smiles are contagious and powerful. Research shows smiles makes things happier, relieves stress, lowers blood pressure, and helps you stay positive.

It was a comment from Azeddine, our Moroccan director, sitting in a discussion at the African Studies Department in Rabat that drove home this point on smiles. After answering countless questions on the differences between Morocco and the United States, he stressed how even when trying to fish for differences we have many commonalities as humans. To summarize his overall message in a nutshell, “people are pretty much the same throughout the world we all smile the same and we all have teeth, for the most part”. Although, I can only communicate in a few words in Arabic its beautiful to be able to express such genuine emotions with a nonverbal universal gesture like a bright smile. There have been many times where I struggled to speak to someone so I used hand signals and at the end we both smiled when I was able to communicate something as simple as asking for water. Also, I began to think of all the wonderful people I felt I made a connection with while in Morocco and for each person Youness, Abderrahim (bus driver), Abderrahim (language professor), Wissal, Mohammed, and others - their smiles are the first thing I think of when I picture them in my head. I guess it’s the simple things in life that give greater value to life. For as vast as the world is, I feel a sense of satisfaction in knowing there are human qualities we all share no matter what country anyone is from and it all begins with a smile!
Listening to
“Cellphone’s Dead”- Beck

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Day Thirty-Three: This Is Morocco (pt. 1)

We are currently on our way to Ksar el Kabir after a weeklong stay in Fez followed by a series of two-day stays in Ouezzane, Chefchaouen, and Asilah (including an awesome day trip to Tangier). We are but a few days away from the end of this magical journey – a weekend until the end of suitcase livin’ and the readjustment back to reality. As our trip comes to a close, I’ve had some time to think about my experience(s) here in Morocco. I have to say that overall, this trip receives two enthusiastic De Le-thumbs up! What we have seen and experienced has surpassed my expectations in every which way. However, given the fact that a trip is, in effect, just a trip – something temporary – we, like most people, will only scratch the surface of this country. Though we will have been in Morocco for five weeks, there is much left to be explored and discovered.

Our Fulbright program – like all organized programs – is somewhat of a double-edged sword. On one hand, the Fulbright has afforded me the rare opportunity to see things I never thought I would ever see in my lifetime (and for that I will be eternally grateful!). From the arterial veins of humanity and history that are medinas to the gates of the Sahara, snacking on snails in Marrakech’s Djemaa al-Fna to attending a traditional Moroccan wedding in Rabat (until seven in the morning!), I have had incredible access to the country and caught a very special glimpse into its culture and peoples, an access that would never have been possible had I done this trip by myself and on my own dime.

On the other hand, organized trips sometimes leave some things out. Such is the nature of the beast, I suppose. Adhering to timetables and itineraries, rules and regulations, the engaged traveler must make a special effort to not lose out on “the adventure” – those opportunities to become fully consumed by the culture, take the road less traveled, and engage with the people on a person-to-person basis. Over the past few weeks I have attempted to do just that within the bounds of our program. In my following posts I hope to chronicle some of those memorable experiences.

On our second to last night in Fez, a few of the guys ventured off with our language instructor, Professor Abderrahim E. A small man with a big personality, I always found his presence magnetic. Mustachioed and always sporting dress pants, a short sleeved button up, and sandals, his chain smoking self always reminded me of Scrappy Doo, Scooby’s young nephew (interesting trivia tidbit: Scrappy’s middle name is Cornelius. Seriously.). In class he was the stately professor always pushing us to exaggerate the long vowels and correcting our pronunciation (much to his amusement). Outside of the classroom, Professor Abderrahim was simply “profesor” to me. He picked the four of us up in his old Fiat Uno with his good friend, Mohamed in the front seat. Six fully-grown men (some of us of the pudgy variety, mind you) in a tiny Fiat hatchback?! Adventure was imminent.

We drove over to the Hotel Merenid on a bluff overlooking Fez’s famed medina for a few beers and solid conversation. Sitting out on the open air patio overlooking the medieval city just a few meters below was at once exquisite, surreal, and sobering. Here we were drinking beers in a five-star hotel spending with abandon what many Moroccans earn in about a week. As Morocco’s finest flowed (Flag Especial only – made in Fez from Fassi water, as we were taught), so did the conversation. After a few rounds and some laughs we left for our second stop but not before a quick detour to profesor’s home so that he could change.

Sporting a crisp pair of capris and a t-shirt, profesor looked more Santa Monica Beach bum than fashionable Fassi – quite the funny sight. He suggested a spot where locals patronized so we took a dark and isolated back road into the hills on the outskirts of Fez. After a few minutes of driving through the forest with Mohamed leading us in the singing of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” we arrived at this resort-ish-type place that only Moroccans went to. As we approached the doors we could hear and feel the music pulsating from within. We took a seat behind the band playing a Berber variety of music and the (belly?) dancers. The dancers danced beautifully transfixing me with the swaying of their hips. We’d seen belly dancers in Marrakech at a fancy shmancy restaurant, but they were of the Hollywood sort: fair skinned, buxom, showing liberal amounts of skin, and made up. The dancers at this joint couldn’t be more different. With varying shades of browns and creams, they were fully covered ankles to neck in what looked like a loose fitting djellaba. Their blemished faces and pretty smiles conveyed a sense of realness, a far cry from the done-up women in Marrakech. While one of them sang in a high, off-pitch shrill (the microphone and old speakers only further augmenting this quality), the other two shook in a way that was beautiful, hypnotic, and incredibly sensual. They appeared to me as inverted bobble head dolls; their upper and lower torsos looking disconnected and their garish, golden belts making it seem as if the two halves were hinged right at the waistline.

We sat and enjoyed the beautiful night, all our senses piqued. Snacking on a mixture of nuts, olives, and chips, we bonded over successive rounds of cigarettes and beers. We shared stories (profesor’s father had him when he was 90!), laughed raucously (every heard the elbow joke?), talked politics and philosophy (the monarchy, socialism in Morocco, and the state of the Western Sahara, past, present, and future), and just… connected. After a jam packed day (three and a half jam packed weeks, for that matter) we were tired, a feeling exacerbated by the fact that we had to be at the bus bright and early by 8:30 am. Though our hosts appeared as though they could (and would want to) go longer, we were simply drained. We paid the bill, crammed into his Fiat, and headed back into the Ville Nouvelle singing traditional Moroccan music all the way home. If ever there was doubt that an amazing time had been had the night before, peep this: Professor Abderrahim arrived to class an hour late the next morning.

Currently listening to: LCD Soundsystem - This is Happening

Western Lense, American Cubicle. Part 2

Next phase: It is important to understand that because of our, for lack of a better word, ‘elitist’ tendencies. Misunderstandings are bound to occur, or are inevitable. As much as we are alike with the people of the world, we also must recognize and tolerate the differences.

During one of our scheduled lectures on Sufism, the professor giving the lecture would communicate in Arabic, then a man would translate in English of course. At one point while the translator was speaking, the professor received a phone call, which interrupted the lecture, and much to our surprise, the professor answered the call and had a quick 30-second conversation (as the translator continued to speak to us, as if nothing had interrupted the lecture) then hung up.

Now this would never occur in the US and probably most other countries I would assume. We in the US have cell phones off in these types of settings (most of the time), and would never imagine such an action to occur at a lecture, especially by the professor. We’ve developed a protocol over the years.

I think I may have been the only one who thought this was hilarious. I’ve seen this plenty of times. A friend of mine did Peace Corps in Ghana, myself, I served in Niger, both countries in West Africa. In both countries, what happened with the professor here at the University in Fes, Morocco, is very common in the 2 countries previously mentioned. It is also very common for professionals and even figureheads to be late at their own scheduled meetings!!!

A part of me appreciates this break from punctuality. I like that things are so relaxed within the culture that we get to enjoy time rather than live for time. Things are so rigid in the US, which I understand, but like I said, I can see and appreciate both sides.

After the lecture some of my fellow Fulbrighters talked about how they felt disrespected that the professor had answered his phone.


This is NOT disrespectful, just a cultural difference. That type of phone protocol has yet to be established in places like Ghana, Niger, and apparently Morocco. If the professor thought he had disrespected someone, he would have apologized. Plus the fact that the translator did not stop and kept going on as if nothing happened, that in itself should be an indicator of the normality of the situation. There are far worse situations of disrespect that deserve attention, and this is not one of them.

Also, I was vindicated a few days later, when THEE University top head was giving his formal thank you and farewell speech, and all of a sudden, his phone rang, and he did not hesitate to answer… it happened again! Hopefully other Fulbrighters saw this and said, “Hey it’s not that big a deal or disrespectful after all.”

Lastly, I hope that are flaws do not hinder our experience or the communication we hope to start up with the rest of you back in the US once we get home. Many of us came to Morocco with very ambitious goals particularly regarding the Arabic language. I really hope none of us go back to the US and come off as experts on Morocco.

The reality is that Morocco is just as complex, complicated, and rich as the rest of the nations of this Earth. There are no black and white answers to many topics, heated and controversial issues are hard to propel to the national level (in terms of bringing them up for debate). Similar to the US right? We have many issues in our country, like the state of education, health care, immigration, etc… that will never be debated and/or resolved. And those are current issues; we have not mentioned the old ones or the history of some of America’s problems.

Well, Morocco is very much the same way…

Imagine taking 13-14 Moroccans, and sending them to the U.S. for 5 weeks (with ZERO English). Now would you expect those Moroccans to know the 300 years of US history? Obviously NO, but at least they were exposed to our country and they learned some things that will hopefully inspire them to maybe research a particular topic that really fascinated them about American culture or politics. Hopefully those Moroccans go back with solid general ideas and a better understanding of that particular region of the world. Guess what people, that is us, right here, right now. Hopefully. we go back to America with a good grasp on Moroccan issues, but by no means are we experts.

Maleikum Salaam.

On Language

Over the past few weeks, one of the most striking aspects of Moroccan culture has been the extent to which people here are multilingual. Arabic, French, Berber dialects, Spanish, and more echoed around us. I knew that there was a long history of interaction with France (and also Spain), but I did not expect to find French still so widely used in Morocco. It was particularly surprising to learn that it is generally the language of higher education.

One day in Fes, we were invited to a middle school in the medina. Our hosts welcomed us with an amazing reception featuring everything from tea and cookies to a camera crew. A group of students and teachers had come to the school during their vacation to meet us and to show us a Moroccan classroom in action.

We all crowded into a math classroom and watched as a lively teacher and his students used a digital projector to work through their material in a combination of Arabic and French. They all flipped fluidly between the two languages, seemingly equally at ease in both. By the time the students reached the university level, most of their classes would be entirely in French (particularly in the sciences).

Afterward, I found myself reflecting on my own language use – both professionally and personally.

At my school, foreign language classes are important but minimally integrated with most of the other subjects. How could I incorporate this aspect of my students’ culture more effectively into my curriculum? Since I don’t speak the language they study, I became determined to consult with my colleagues upon my return to the US. Could I start by adding target-language captions to my SMARTboard presentations? Would that really be a meaningful place to begin? How could truly integrate with the language department?

In terms of personal reflections, it was clear that my own “pretty good for an American from a monolingual household” French was nothing compared to the native-level speech I encountered here. Translating for my colleagues was fun, and I felt inspired to work harder and to continue improving my language skills. I also learned to trust my comprehension more. Each time I thought I couldn’t possibly have understood correctly since a description seemed not to make sense, it turned out I had, in fact, been right. “They’ll carry the bride in on a plate,” for example, was a pretty accurate description of one part of the wedding reception we attended.

As our trip progressed, it was equally clear that speaking French was a huge barrier to my learning Arabic. After all, why muddle through a conversation with my 10 words of Arabic when I could much more easily just flip into a language in which I can communicate clearly? I would definitely need to 1) dramatically increase my vocabulary so that I moved beyond the “playing charades” level of communication, and 2) put myself in a situation where French wasn’t an option. We’ll see how much I am able to continue studying the language when I return home, but I may need to visit a non-francophone Arabic-speaking country in the future.

Western Lense, American Cubicle. Part 1

It is important that everybody who reads this blog knows and understands that everyone who was chosen for this UCLA GPA Fulbright program in Morocco, is absolutely amazing! We have some incredible thinkers, great educators, and positive spirits in this group.

With that said, Salaam Alikum people of good will…

When thinking about this blog and what to write, I wanted to express my thoughts on specific concepts, and those concepts are elitism, perspective and our environment. The reason for these particular concepts is mainly because of what has transpired throughout this entire trip.

Personally I feel elitism is a class issue. You can be an elitist in one of the poorest countries of the world, like for example Malawi, and it probably means you belong to the upper class of that country. By the way, I’ll leave the term ‘elitist/elitism’ undefined and invite you to define it for yourself. I feel that after you have finished reading this blog, my interpretation of it will be clearer.

During one of our lunches together, a conversation broke out about elitism based on a few generalized comments about a particular Moroccan theme. The details of the conversation are not important, but what is important was this concept of elitism. At some point I remember someone stating that ‘elitism’ tends to be an American or Western characteristic (which got me thinking). When this was said, I felt as though it was said in a way that exempted us Fulbrighters from being elitists. Nobody wants to be an elitists right? A group of progressive peeps like ourselves certainly would not enjoy being tagged as elitists.

I think the majority of us fall under the category of progressives, not elitists.
Sometimes even amongst the most progressive people, letting go of those comforts that the western world (or sometimes class privilege) has provided us with is difficult. Adapting to our environment may not come as easy to us all; after all, we are domesticated human beings (part of that privilege Ben and I have referred to in other blogs). Concepts such as elitism and perspective, can become kind of cloudy and difficult discussions when you put strangers into a foreign place, with intense culture shock and a longing for home.

Within our group we’ve had folks who dread touching the menus at restaurants because of how ‘dirty’ they might be. They consistently use hand sanitizers before every meal. Hand Sanitizer; on a microcosm level, this is the perfect product of what elitism can be; a product which is terrible for the environment, kills good bacteria, which help us Humans build immunities against the bad bacteria. If we want to keep our hands clean, I think water and soap would suffice, after all it is what most of the world uses. (Before I go on, I hope you all don’t see this as a judgment call, just think about the previous paragraph and the surrounding themes that were stated).

Complaints about begging children, “How many times do you have to say no to these kids?” My response, ONCE; once you ignore them they go away, beggars in the 3rd world are very common all over the world. There is no need to get frustrated or mad at them, plain and simple, what does anger solve anyway?

Another incident occurred with one of our waiters at one of the hotels we were staying. Maybe it was a bad day for this person, but when the line between respect and disrespect is crossed, that’s when my tolerance is breached. I’ve never been disrespectful to any waiter in the US, let alone would I do it here in a foreign place. There is no need for disrespect.

We have to remember how we are going about this experience. We are staying at very nice hotels, eating hotel food, staying away from street food, riding around with our own bus, and bus driver, who at the end of this trip will have been away from his family for a total of 5 weeks!

I’m glad that we are all on this trip because the people on this trip represent the America that considers him/herself a global citizen and who want to connect with other cultures of the world in order to build those bridges that divide us sometimes.
However it is important we distinguish and open our eyes to some of these ‘elitists’ characteristics or flaws that hold us back from really letting ourselves go…
After all, Moroccans do not use hand sanitizer, we got beggars in the US, and nobody likes to be disrespected.


The work of Moroccan artisans fuses Berber traditions with Arab, Jewish, Andalusian, and other European influences. The artisans mix local resources like stone, wood, metal, mineral and clay deposits, and supplies of leather and wool with imports such as marble and silk. Techniques are passed down through special guilds where a master instructs apprentices. Designs combine Arabic calligraphy, abstract geometry, zigzags, triangles, and squares of Berber origin. Artisans include: builders, decorators, tile makers, wood and stucco carvers, metal workers, weavers, and embroiderers. Put all of these artisans' work together and a beautiful environment is created. The Moroccan souks are full of ceramics, jewelry, clothing, and leather products made by these skilled artisans.

Buildings conform to a basic square or rectangle with an open court concealed from the outside by high walls. Three major crafts decorate and furnish Moroccan architecture. Woodwork, craved plaster or stucco, and ceramic tile work called "Zellij."Cedar wood from the forests in the surrounding mountains is used for woodworking. "Mashrabiyya" is an open work lattice of small turned pieces of wood joined by patterns. This lattice serves many purposes including: control of airflow, light filtration, and a separator of private and public space. Wood is used for frames, furniture, boxes which are often decorated with inlays of mother-of-pearl, copper and silver wire. Painted wood is very common and accents doors and furniture.
Carved stucco is extremely difficult to create, but the spectacular results can be seen throughout Morocco.
Metalwork is prevalent in architecture and furniture. Doors have knockers, wrought iron decorates windows, and teapots are made of silver and pewter. Beautiful jewelry is also made out of Morocco's metal.
The music of Morocco tells its stories. Political and social themes are expressed through Moroccan music. Moroccan music is ritualistic, celebratory, and social. It provides a vehicle for disseminating news to generations of rural dwellers who may have never learned how to read or write. Intoxicating rhythms hang in the air and range from Arabic Pop(chaab) to snake-charmers' obe-like "raita," to the call of prayer(muezzin) from the mosques.
The Gnaouan people are descendents of slaves captured by the Arabs in the 17th century and brought across the Sahara for trade to serve the sultans in Morocco. Gnaouan music is made up of call-and-response, blues, and its instruments. Its peristant rhythms of the metal castanets(qraqeb) is hypnotic. Tassels often swirl from the musicians caps and the groove induces a trancelike state. This music isn't solely for entertainment, but is deeply spiritual and has a healing purpose derived from the Sufi traditions of Islam and ancient sub-Saharan African rituals.
The Sahara nomads or "Blue Men's" music hypnotizes by using the drums.

Berber women weave blankets, rugs, bags, scarves, and clothes by using natural wool and vegetable dye.
Clay is fired in the kilns in the workshops of Fes. Fes is the center of pottery in Morocco. Polychrome decoration has simple borders and geometric motifs painted in green, blue, and yellow. Berber pottery uses brown and red clay to create unglazed items with simple designs using vegetable based colors.
The "jellabah" is a traditional robe with a pointed hood worn by both sexes, young and old. These are made in the souks out of wool or homespun yarn.

Tanneries transform animal skins into soft leather by using a four step process using ammonia, pigeon poop, washing, and dye. Camel, sheep, and goat are used for shoes, bags, cushions, and book covers. A rainbow of Morocco's traditional "slipper" can be found in every souk. The leather "babouche" is worn by both sexes of all ages. Styles range from pointed to round toed.

I admire the craftsmanship of the Moroccan artisans. I cherish their artistry and love that it is such an integral part of their culture.

The Doors of Morocco

The Moroccan saying goes, "a beautiful house is known by its beautiful door." Most of Morocco's architectural beauty lies behind the beautiful doors of its houses, medersas, and mosques. The doors themselves are what distinguish one establishment from another. They range from simple and practical often painted in blues, greens, reds and whites to intricate and fancy with brass knockers often of the Hand of Fatima, which protects the household from evil. The mosaic archway surrounding the door often makes the door stand out.
Aside from being visually stimulating and showing off the craftsmanship of Morocco's artisans, the doors represent much more. Behind every door in Morocco you find a different surprise. The doors immerse you into Morocco's past and present. They are a mixture of tradition and modern. Morocco is an exotic land filled with rich culture, amazing landscape, hospitality, and memorable experiences. Morocco is truly a "crossroads of culture." My Moroccan experience has been a gift that has enriched my life on a personal level and has broadened my world view. Thank you Morocco, for opening your doors!

Discussion Piece

Interesting...Click on the title of my blog to read the article attached