24 April 2011

T'en va pas

I’m scared to leave Morocco

I became a grown-up here

I was and am truly happy here

I found love here

I doubt my ability to be happy in the US

I’m scared of being too old

I’m scared of being alone

I’m tired of starting over

I’m scared of not being special anymore

I’m scared of becoming fat

I doubt my ability to go back to school

I have a hard time letting go

17 April 2011

Casablanca Part II

...And we're back!

The next few times I went to Casa was with my boyfriend of that era to stay with his cousin Rachid while we were traveling or doing “errands” in the city. This was when I began to forget about the cityscape and focus on what it would be like to live in Casa as a middle-class Moroccan. I saw the city for the first time by private car, when Rachid drove us around. I got to visit the Hassan II Mosque, the third biggest mosque in the world. I made his family cheesecake and walked around with his wife to buy the ingredients we needed. I got to see the cheap shopping I had heard so much about and big street markets where I could buy anything for half the price or less that you could find in Marrakech.

Most importantly for me, however, I got to celebrate Ramadan with Rachid’s family. Which meant that, after some heated conversation with my boyfriend, I got to visit their family in the shantytowns and break the fast with them. In Morocco, there is a tendency to want to hide from guests anything that is “undesirable.” Many people I know hate to talk about the poverty and drug use and other bad things in their country. They won’t talk about the problems they’re having at home. And since shantytowns are “bad places” where “bad boys” hang out, my boyfriend thought he was trying to protect me, the blindingly white girl who stands out wherever she goes, from whatever could happen to me there. But I needed to go, and I’m so thankful that he relented to take me with him there.

Shantytowns, especially in Casa, were just fields before people from the countryside came to work in the city. Because they had no money when they came, and couldn’t afford to pay rent, they acquired cheap building materials like concrete, tin, and rocks, and built what houses they could. And thus they grew and grew. Most Americans will have pictures of shantytowns in Sub-Saharan Africa in their minds, but, through my experience, these are a little less…end-of-the-world looking. There is trash everywhere yes, but that’s ubiquitous throughout Morocco. The houses look sturdy enough to stand a few rainstorms. And, it many houses, there are cement floors, and enough furniture for no one to sleep on the floor. Still, you could have anywhere from 6 to 10 people sleeping in one room, and most likely 6 or 7 families will share one toilet.

What really struck me when going to “break-fast” in the shantytown was how normally Moroccan, in my mind, anyways, these people were. They sat me down in the nice salon, fed me the guest food, talked about me in Arabic with my boyfriend in front of me, laughed and joked, and walked around outside after the meal. Much later, I saw a movie about these shantytowns that summed it up very well. “What is a poor person?” the young man in the movie asked. “He’s just a person that doesn’t have any money. He still has hopes, dreams, he still has dignity.” That Ramadan night really helped me appreciate what lessons Casa could teach me, and reminded me never to dismiss a place or a person based on first impressions.

From that last visit to Rachid’s family, I have tried hard to see the beauty behind the glaring ugly that is Casa. I thought I had completed my picture of the city, but recently I had to go down for the day to apply for a new passport. I got of the train in the pleasantly hot Moroccan sun, had the great fortune to have a friendly talkative taxi driver who didn’t hit on me, and arrived on the palm-lined Boulevard Moulay Youssef relatively unscathed. I got there late, and a guard at the consulate told me, no I’m sorry, you can’t go in anymore, because American Citizen Services closes at 3, and look, it’s 3:10. When he saw my face, and my dejected walk away, he called over the door guard, and asked if he could get me in, and they decided that it wouldn’t hurt to try. This is a normal thing to happen in Morocco, but based on my experience at the impregnable French consulate, I didn’t expect them to be so nice and so Moroccan about it.

After my appointment, my lunch of seafood in a sunny, breezy café led me to look around and realize that I could actually picture myself living in this city. If I had a job. If I had friends. If I had a family. That was a such a surprise that I almost dropped my fork. Maybe it was because I had gone back to the States this time, maybe it was because I am living in Rabat now, a grimy crowded city itself, maybe it was the breeze or the summer feel in early April. Whatever it was, I mulled over the thought for the rest of the day to make sure it was true. But yes, in the end I decided that Casa has grown on me, and I could actually see myself liking the place. Who knew!

16 April 2011


Before Americans come to Morocco, there are a few things they may already know about it: “The Marrakech Express” song, they may think it’s Monaco, or they may have heard of Casablanca. The city made famous by a movie about a love story in Vichy France. They have these images of low lounge tables in smoky rooms with Uncle-Tom-like piano men creating the soundtrack behind the stilted 40’s dialogue and overly dramatic close-ups.

Moroccans, however, have very different stereotypes about Casablanca. They usually call it Casa, pronounced more like “Caza” or Dar Bida (white house) in Arabic. They know it to be a busy places filled with a lot of rich people and a lot of poor people. Most Moroccans from the countryside that I’ve talked to say that they hate the place because it’s filled with busy people and high buildings and that no one knows their neighbors. Moroccans from all over Morocco also have this stereotype about the shantytowns in Casa overflowing with “bad boys” who like to cause trouble, light things on fire, and who are so poor that they’ve turned to terrorism.

Learning about Casa, for my part, has taken my whole 3 years in Morocco. My first experience there was a train “changement” on my way from Marrakech in the south to Oujda in the East to visit my best volunteer friend. It’s a 12-hour trip. After the four-hour train from Marrakech in the July heat, I got of the train at Casa Voyegeurs for a five hour layover to wait for the overnight train to Oujda… In the first 20 minutes, I ventured outside the train station, and 5 minutes later, I hurried back. In Marrakech, there are no buildings higher than the mosques, and when I stepped out in the Casa streets with mostly 20- or higher story buildings, I felt claustrophobic. The smog-laced weight of the ocean air was even more suffocating, and cab drivers in little red taxis beat any crazy driving record I had seen in other Moroccan cities.

After that, I wasn’t keen on going back to Casa anytime soon, but in November, my Moroccan Couchsurfer friend invited me to come down for couple of nights. Since she had come to stay at my place twice on her way up into the High Atlas Mountains, I thought it would be nice to see where she came from. I had a good time over all, being welcomed into her 6-person family’s two-bedroom apartment warmly as their first Arabic-speaking foreign Couchsurfer, going out in Ain Diab – a line of clubs along the beach – and getting an understanding of the layout of the city.

My impression changed slightly then, learning for the first time the dichotomy between city Moroccans and countryside Moroccans. Since most of the people I met spoke excellent English, I learned that there were a lot more educated, working, computer-using, quote unquote normal people in Morocco.

I also was able to articulate exactly why I couldn’t feel comfortable in the city. The architecture was what was so oppressive to me that first time, not the rest of the atmosphere. In my letter home, I called it a “50’s art deco nightmare.” It wasn’t the art deco itself that was depressing, but the decay, and the sickly grey color all the previously white houses had. The ocean hair had corroded all the concrete buildings, eating away at what could have been their former majesty, and leaving a city on the verge of crumbling. But still, there was a life, a pulse, that any city of 6 million people will have, that kept me interested in discovering what the attraction was to this place.

To be continued…

15 April 2011

Overheard in Rabat

Many times, I feel like my life here in Rabat is as far removed from my life in the blad (countryside) as life in New York is removed from life in small-town Midwestern America. And in honor of that, I would like to post a conversation I over heard on the train coming back from Casablanca to Rabat. My passport is almost full, and so I took a day trip to this fabled city to apply for a new one… I’ll try to write more about Casa and Moroccan Border Police in other entries, inchallah.

It’s a simple conversation, but really reveals a typical 20-something Moroccan girl and her relationships with boys and how that affects her and her family.


Scene: The commuter train from Casa Port to Rabat Ville. I was facing forward, and behind me to the left were sitting four girls, two across from two.

These were Rich Girls. With heels… and not just ANY heels, but 4” or 5” studded pumps. They wore tank tops, and had the right (real?) brands of purses, jeans, sunglasses, etc. One was wearing animal print, another a trucker hat.

The girl in the far left corner answered the phone, and had the following conversation. I’ve put the original language in quotes, with my translations to the side.

[phone rings – Turkish music ring tone]

“’Allo?” (Hello?)

“3likom salam” (And peace be upon you - second half of a common Muslim greeting)

“Kifash? Ma-kan-sm3akch” (Sorry? I can’t hear you.)


[phone rings again]


“Labas.” (I’m fine)

“La nta li ma3ndkch rizo.” (No, your phone doesn’t have service)

“La, sm7li, masm3atkch mzyan.” (No, sorry, I can’t hear you)

“Shno???” (What???)

“La” (No)


“Wa sd3tini, why do you keep calling?” (You’ve bothered me - literally, "you’ve 'noise-ed' me")

“Blatti, dar kay-3iyto liya” (Wait a sec, my parents are calling me)


“Oui Baba” (Yes Daddy)


“Ana f Agdal” (I’m in Agdal – a region of Rabat. The train had barely left of Casa)

“La ma-msayliach daba.” (No, I’m not free now.)

“La ma-9drch nji.” (No, I can’t come.)

“Safi, ntlaqaw f la gare.” (Ok, we’ll meet at the train station.)


“Oui Baba, bien sur. D’accord. Safi.” (Yes Daddy, of course, okay, alright.)


[phone rings again]


“Labas.” (I’m fine.)

“Naharach? La, gadi nkon f Turkey simana jaya.” (What day? No, I’m going to be in Turkey next week.)

“Yes, Turkey.”

“I’m going with my girlfriends.”

“Private school.”

“Me too.”

“I told you, khams ayam.” (five days)

“La machi Istanbul. Antalya Beach Resort.” (No, not Istanbul.)

“Ah, zwin.” (Yes, it’s beautiful.)

“By plane. Jat chi khamsa ou 3arbaiyin minute b tiyara mn Istanbul.” (It’s about 45 min from Istanbul by plane.)

“Oui, free time.”

[Here she goes into some long drawn-out discussion in a Darija-French mix about her degree in English literature and how she wants to work and not study anymore. I kind of space out. Her father calls again. The the boy calls back. But I pay attention again when I hear her go, “What did you say??” in English.]


[phone rings]


“3awd shnu galti liya.” (Say again what you said before.)

“Matkonch 3ndk tiqa z3ida f nfs.” (You don’t have a lot of self-confidence.)

“I’m not selfish.”

“La.” (No.)

[long pause – I thought the phone went out again, but not so.]

“Na’am? La.” (What? No.)

“La. Ou duk l message li sifti liya, kunti wld nnas, mat-sift liya-ch dukchi.” (No. And that message you sent me, if you were a good guy – literally “son of the people” – you wouldn’t have sent that.)

[Long pause]

“DHktini.” (You make me laugh.)

“Zid.” (Go on.)

“Ah, meskin.” (Yes, poor you.)

“Deja.” (Already.)

“Walou bin ana ou yah.” (There’s nothing between me and him.)

“No, I promise, walou.” (Nothing.)

[Long pause]

“Kat-3iyit ou nqt3ak ou kat3yit ou nqt3ak ou… safi. Ma-fhmtich ach bghit ngolik?” (You call and I hang up on you and you call and I hang up on you and… enough. Don’t you understand what I’m trying to say to you.)

“Kont kan-t3asha.” (I was having dinner.)

“Sd3atini.” (You bothered me.)

“Bzaf.” (A lot.)

“Safi. Ok. I’ll call you later. Bye bye.” (Alright.)

14 April 2011

Little Blue Book

April 7, 2011

“It is virtually impossible for Moroccans to enter Europe or the U.S.” This is a statement that after so many years traveling, living abroad, and even studying immigration, seems self-evident to me, but it’s something we have to explicitly tell our students.

My whole life I’ve been fortunate enough to have the money to travel abroad. More importantly, I was born in a place that gave me this little blue book at the age of 8. This little blue book could allow me entry into more countries that most people could name. To date, I have visited Australia, New Zealand, Egypt, Spain, England, Italy, Scotland, Germany, Ireland, France, Turkey, Peru, Mexico, Jamaica, and of course, Morocco. But this little blue book isn’t available for everyone. Sure, everyone with enough cash in their pocket can get their own book: burgundy, green, red, etc. But that doesn’t get you out of your country, into other countries, and really knowing other people and other cultures.

So I feel really lucky now, sitting uncomfortably on this plane. I’m probably developing life-threatening blood clots in my legs from being squished in this corner without moving for 5 hours, and yet, I know the chair I’m in and the blue book in my backpack below my feet are two things that a lot of people in the world would sacrifice much more than I have sacrificed for it.

Ever since I wrote my undergraduate thesis on immigration, I’ve been rather appalled at borders and how racist and unfair the idea of nation state can be. I just want to make it fairer… how can we do this?

An Unexpected Visit Home

April 4, 2011

My brain is fuddled with French cold medicine, which I took to try to help me sleep on the plane. I want to write well, but I’ve started this entry 5 times already, and a combination of not knowing what to say and this Humex or whatever it’s called are thwarting my writing efforts. And, because I’m tired, the business asshole surrounding me are annoying me, and thus my writing is even worse. I’m too tired even to cry to relieve the frustration.

I know it’s whining, but I am trapped here. The Spanish man in front of me is leaning his airplane chair way too far back in my face, which pushes my computer off the tray table, and thus when I’m typing, my left elbow is jammed into the wall, and my right elbow is jammed into the left elbow of the asshole who won’t move his compuer to the other side to give me a little bit of space. He has spent the whole flight shifting around, either elbowing me in the side while turning the pages of his newspaper that he took an hour and a half to read, or kneeing me in my left knee that I just injured by falling down some stairs on Friday. Plus, he takes up more space now that he’s typing because he never learned how to type and has to type with his two pointer fingers.

Okay, vent over. I’m going home for my grandfather’s funeral. I’ve been to funerals before, and people in my family have died before, but this one is so different. We’ve been expecting him to die for the past month or two at least, and he’s been sick for 7 years from a spinal cord injury and lymphoma. Although he lived a long healthy life before that, it takes a lot of work for me to remember the times when he was all there, especially because I have been away from the Midwest for most of that time.

Scenes from movies about funerals and death keep poppoing into my head, instead of images of previous funerals I’ve actually atteneded. Movies like Elizabethtown and P.S. I Love You and the Big Chill flash scenes in my imagination, and I wonder how much what I will see and experience will resemble these images.

Walking through the airport in Madrid this morning (I spent the night in Madrid with my boss in order to get a good flight out), the soundtrack on my iPod was accompanying the part of the movie where everyone - well, just my sister and I - who are little dots on a map, come together at the center dot, which in this case in Minneapolis. I would look at my reflection in the windows, and see myself as the camera might see me. I wondered what my sister would look like in her walk through the airport.

Now on the plane they are showing an episode from the first season of Mad Men. It’s a reminder of that generation, but yet, none of these characters remind me of my grandparents. Well, they remind me of my paternal grandparents, even though they are younger and the same age as my maternal grandparents. I know both of them smoked, but I don’t picture them as smokers like on Mad Men because they quit before I was born. And maybe they drank, but because their parents were alcoholics, they never drank as hard as people did on this show. Living in the suburbs of New York in the early 60s was just not the same life that they lived in a house they built with their own hands on a small lake on the outskirts of Minneapolis. So I wonder what my grandfather would have said about Mad Men, and about the way the characters lived their rich, soap opratic lives.

Going to this funeral, I think, will give me a glimpse into their lives, as much as I can get from hearing stories about someone who is already dead. I’m excited to see my family, because, as I’ve mentioned, living in Morocco where family is everything makes you realize how important it is to keep those relationships strong. On the other hand, I don’t know how I’ll be able to look my grandmother in the eye. I want to do what I can to support her, but what does a 26-year-old girl with a handful of failed relationships say to a woman who has just lost her high school sweetheart and husband of 61 years. I would feel lucky if I could make her smile.

We shall see, we shall see.

03 April 2011

Too Much News for Facebook Posts

The head of Egypt's agency for Islamic jurisprudence talks about moderate state Islam in a new Egypt.

Nobody knows for sure why those politicians and journalists did not apologize to the movement’s leaders and supporters for the baseless accusations they leveled against them, but everyone knows that those politicians and journalists are among the lobbies whose interests will be in jeopardy if Morocco becomes a real place of democracy, human rights, and equality before the law.
What's been happening since February 20 in Morocco?