Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The things you learn...

By. Kaylah Cruz-Herrera

Are you Moroccan?
I get that a lot.  While shopping, while getting into a taxi, while drinking tea with family friends:  You look so Moroccan!  It's amusing and flattering.  I usually laugh and explain that my dark hair and eyes come from my Mexican heritage.  But, this small idea makes me consider one big one:  how much of culture goes beyond looking the part?

Imagine this:  you, an American, go out dressed in full niqab (or burqa, the full face covering) and you want to buy some groceries.  From your appearance, people are inevitably going to assume you are Moroccan, but, as soon as you open your mouth, they'll know you're an American.  And I don't just mean the lack of Arabic skills or the heavy English accent; I mean the ideas.  Who knows, maybe they'll be able to tell that you are a little different, a little foreign, just from your walk.

My host sister and I have this joke.  Whenever she tells me to do something, she always says, "Obviously!" because things that appear so natural to Moroccans are actually very unnatural to me.  For example, I go to the hammam (public bath) about once a week.  Before, I would always carry my bathroom products in a bag and hold my towel in my hand.  When my host sister saw me recently, she laughed.  It was the strangest idea to her that someone would be able to know that I was going to the hammam.  Obviously!!

It seems strange to me now, but when I first came to Morocco what shocked me the most were the similarities, not the differences.  My host siblings wear Western clothes, watch MTV and American movies, and love American music.  I was expecting a world that was extremely different from the United States, so when I saw a world that had a heavy Western influence, I ignored all of the subtle distinctions that make Morocco Morocco.

I cannot even attempt to describe Moroccan etiquette and lifestyle.  What I can talk about is how living within the Moroccan culture has made me realize my American identity.

Growing up as a person of color in the United States has always meant that I felt a strong connection to another culture.  My family always told me, "You're Mexican."  In the U.S., I feel a strong connection to my heritage and I feel the need to tell people that I come from this prospective different than the American prospective.  In Morocco, I feel American.  When I think of all of the things that I long for back home and when I make connections between Moroccan culture and my culture, I'm thinking about the United States.  

In Morocco, I can't tell someone that I am Mexican.  Moroccans get confused and expect me to have extreme patriotism towards Mexico, a country that I've never even seen.  Although I think that my family has values that are different than the typical White household in the United States, I have to admit that the U.S. is very diverse and that the American culture is my culture.

Living in Morocco has made me realize that I am American.  I might have grown up in a household that doesn't fit the Moroccan stereotypical American household, but that's the beauty of the United States.  We have lots of diverse cultures, but, somehow, we're all the same.  

An example:  despite everyone in the NSLI-Y group growing up across the US, we can all sing "I'll Make a Man Out of You" from Disney's Mulan

It's silly, but it's something that we students, as Americans, all grew up with.

I appreciate having this experience in another country because I realized how much I love the United States, how much I am apart of the American society, and how much I want to work to improve America in the future. 

Friday, March 9, 2012


By:  Kaylah Cruz-Herrera

 When I began learning Arabic, one of the most intimidating aspects of the language was the alphabet.  The Arabic alphabet has more letters than the English alphabet, no short vowels, connecting letters, letters that never connect, and- the scariest- is read from right to left.  In Morocco, I mastered the Arabic alphabet in two weeks.  Unlike English writing, Arabic is completely phonetic.  Now, I actually prefer writing in Arabic to writing in English.  But, it wasn’t until I started learning Arabic calligraphy that I really started to appreciate it.
The CLC began offering calligraphy classes to NSLI-Y students in October.  I have been in the class since the beginning.  At first, I hated it.  I hated sitting in the class for two hours writing “ب ب ب….” over and over while my teacher kept saying, “Slowly! Slowly!  لالا لا!!”  It was frustrating.  Calligraphy is demanding and requires a sharp eye for the subtle differences between good and bad letters.  Luckily, I have a good teacher.
He’s been practicing calligraphy since before I was born and a master of the Moroccan style of Arabic calligraphy.  He’s also a little weird, but that’s only because he loves calligraphy so much.  He likes to show us beautiful examples of calligraphy that he’s done, often written on scraps of old paper and store receipts.  Once, he stood up in the middle of class and performed Thai Chi in order to illustrate to us how calligraphy is like many other arts.  He also loves to give us random lectures.
  Once, he told us about the history of the Arabic alphabet, why it is written the way it is, and how it helped non-Arabs understand Islam.  The Arabic alphabet was developed before Islam.  There were no dots (which, in case you can’t read Arabic yet, distinguish many different sounds from another) and no short vowels.  After the Quran was revealed, people realized that the alphabet needed to be easier for outsiders to understand.  Arabs could read the Quran easily because they had the necessary language background, but non-Arabs could not.  One linguist was finally convinced to restructure the Arabic alphabet after it was pointed out to him that without short vowels (which, at that time, were absent from the Arabic alphabet) a non-Arab could misinterpret the sentence “God absolves himself of criminals, and His prophet (also absolves himself of criminals)” as “God absolves himself of criminals and His prophet”.  An easier-to-read alphabet was developed to ensure that the Quran could not be misunderstood.
I also learned from my calligraphy teacher about the origins of the short vowels and why they are written the way they are.  Basically, short vowels are modeled after long vowels, only a lot smaller.  

My advice to new Arabic students is to really enjoy the Arabic alphabet.  It is easy to read and really helps you understand the language and culture.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

“Where are you from?” “America.” “No, but where are you really from?”

Moroccans are very curious beings. Topics including religion, ethnicity, age, relationship status, family details, etc. are things people commonly talk and ask freely about here. Some of these subjects are not usual conversation starters in America, some even to the point of being taboo. At first, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was being interrogated every day and it was hard to judge who to tell what to. Taxi drivers, store keepers, teachers, students, and family members alike are all people I run into on a daily basis who are determined to find out my story.
          The routine usually goes like this:
1) The Curious Citizen (CC) realizes I don’t speak Darija and my French accent is awful; therefore, I am an English speaker. 2) The next question he or she tries to answer is British or American? Usually CC can pick out my American accent and that answers that. 3) Now for my skin color, where can a girl with tanner skin and black hair (thanks to an intense henna session a month ago) be from? Taking all my physical characteristics into consideration, CC derives a couple of possibilities to explain my existence:  either I am American-Indian (not Native American), American-Pakistani, or of some Moroccan decent and I am here to learn my native tongue since my parents never taught it to me. 4) At this point, I usually answer, “American,” but that almost never flies with CC. 5) He or she is now unsatisfied and wants to know why I look and talk the way I do and “American” just doesn’t exactly explain any of that. 6) Here, I start to talk about where my parents and all are from (except for the creepy non-stop-look-in-the-rear-view-mirror taxi drivers) of my heritage and that either just finished our conversation or it triggered more questions. 7) Follow-up questions will now include Why are you here?, Are you a Muslim?, You are not married, are you?. 8) And this is when I try to dodge and weave anything that may be on the too personal side.
          Sometimes these conversations are all in English or French or Arabic or a little bit of everything. Misinterpreting things or just not understanding one another happens a lot, but it’s just one more thing I feel like I’ve gotten used to. A good amount of these interactions have been positive experiences for me. It’s refreshing to talk to people who are genuinely interested in who I am and what brought me to Morocco. But there have also been those times when I feel as though I’m being judged or mocked and the feeling that I was being too nice or too honest. I guess living here for five months already has made me accustomed to people being curious about me and in most cases I know how to react. Now I am just worried that I will go back to America wanting to know people’s origins and life stories at the get-go.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Feel the Fresh Air from Imlil

The polluted air, full of car exhaust, steaming trash, and scents of 2 million people, whirls and settles into your pores. A walk means nearly being smushed by a rushing car, accosted by honks, and whistled at by obnoxious boys. After a while, the noise and confusion, dry and cracked dirt, and chaos of the city wears us a little thin and we need to escape. This weekend we had the perfect opportunity to do just that, take a hike up a mountain and throw a few snowballs. 
Our group consisted of five people from our group and then eleven Moroccans, many of whom had never been to Imlil or on a hike of such magnitude. We arrived in Imlil, a small town by Mount Toubkal (the highest mountain in Norther Africa). The name means "White" in the local Berber dialect and the town was aptly named for the plentiful snow in the area.  We started through to walk up the road. To the left there were terraces that made me feel like I was in the Asian countryside, unexpectedly green and lush. The steep and rocky path led up through a number of clay block houses, adobe of a sort I thought was only used in Mexico. 

It turns out there are a number of similarities between Mexico an Morocco although they have 5680 miles of ocean between their lands. The deserts and shrubs look alike, the unique argon tree only grows in Morocco and one small patch in Mexico, the construction types are similar, both are third world countries, developed with Spanish influence on language and culture, and traditional cloths in bright colors adorn the villagers. The food is not as spicy and there is not as much corn but other than that, it would be easy to imagine myself in a Mexican village instead.

The small children, dressed in worn clothing, look at us with wide-eyed wonder, some a bright blue, uncharacteristic of most people I see. Many of the Berber people look much different than the Arabs. Some have lighter hair, skin, and eyes and I think they are beautiful. I love seeing light eyes looking out from behind a painted door or from beneath a woven shawl. Chickens scurry across the muddy paths, covered in straw. Donkeys and mules, virtually indistinguishable, stumble along under hefty loads of dirt and concrete blocks. But looking beyond the buildings, snowcapped peaks rise in the distance with a few dusty hills supporting them. Life looks serene but also rough because of the lack of development. People rely on their own labor to create community.

We climbed, plodding along and sometimes slipping on the unstable gravel. The air was fresh and chilled from pine and snow melting on the ground, streaming through the tumbling rocks. The sun was shining so that I was warmed but the breeze made my sweat feel frozen. We all supported each other and kept going, slowly mounting the rises until we made it to the top. From there, the view was tremendous of the haze and snow-covered mountains rising up, backed by the sun. Our leg muscles burned and  our water bottles were nearly empty when we reached the top and sat, staring off at opposing views. One side displayed a typical village far below and a number of twisting dirt roads down the mountain but on the other side were the perfect rows of trees buried in snow drifts. We dug bread out of our bags and rolled out kefta at a roadside hut. The old man had some tables and a few seemingly empty rooms that he invited us into so we could barbecue the kefta over some outside coals. It satisfied our tired bodies and we set out for the "easy" descent which ended in us sliding down the rocky slopes and stubbing our toes. It took virtually no time at all before I could no longer see the view from the top which was a shame considering the effort put in but by the time I reached the town below, I felt exhilarated and alive. 

Many of the Moroccans were already homesick and ready to be back in the city and when we started passing the walls of Marrakech, we smelled the familiar scents of the city and knew we were home.

Friday, February 24, 2012


Honestly, I’ve been having a hard time lately. The culprit, as it usually is with me, was indecision. This afternoon, after several wakeful nights of imagining, dreaming and fearing, I finally withdrew from my college and began the transfer process (inshaallah) to another school.

This blog entry isn’t exactly about Morocco; but it is about my experience as a gap year student, and may interest anyone planning on taking a gap year.

There are five students in our group who entered their gap year committed to a college; at least three have had serious second thoughts. Of course, a year abroad changes you. More than that, it gives you an opportunity to think about your college decision… and think, and think, and think.

I believe and hope my decision was for the best—but even if the choice were exceedingly clear, I  would still mourn the college I’ve withdrawn from. For nearly a year I’ve accepted that college as my future; I’ve defended it to detractors of women’s colleges; I’ve made friends there who I’m sorry to leave. I was on the edge of tears when I sent my withdrawal email. It was heart-wrenching to give up, in the click of a mouse, the community in which I’d so long imagined my future.

If you’ve noticed this is ridiculously melodramatic, you’re right. What a problem to cry over—the choice between two top liberal arts colleges! And every day I walk past beggars.

Choice is both a wonderful and a terrible thing—and according to the psychologist Barry Schwartz, a major source of human unhappiness. I remember reading about one study, probably his, in which subjects took a photography course. At the end, they were split into two groups; those in the first group were given a print of one of their photos. Those in the second group were given (I think) two prints and asked to choose one to take for themselves. Later, all subjects were asked to rate their level of satisfaction with their print.

The result? Those who had had no choice in the matter were much happier than those who had chosen. Choice opens the doors of regret. As choosers, we are aware that we could have had something else and that something else might have been better.  

Our society aggravates the problem by perpetuating the myth of the One. The One True Love; the Dream College; every year I go to choose a pumpkin for a jack-o-lantern and actually find myself seeking the Perfect Pumpkin. We’ve built up a culture of expecting perfection; we tell ourselves there is one perfect place, one perfect person, one perfect thing for us. When you take a step back from this attitude, and the culture we’ve built up around it, it’s actually quite comical. I recognize it as comical and I recognize it as a myth; I know there are many places and people and things that would benefit me in different ways. But acknowledging a myth doesn’t make you immune to it. And I can’t help but wonder, with the vast amount of time my gap year has placed between my high school graduation and the beginning of college, have I made the right decision?

This, for me, has been without a doubt the hardest aspect of my time abroad. But with my decision made, I’m ready to immerse myself in Morocco for the last two months and accept that what happens, happens.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

From the Rooftop

There are so many things I love about living with my host family in their riad in the old medina of Marrakech. Occasionally really exciting things happen, but what I enjoy most are the simple, daily experiences I have here. For example, one of my favorite things to do at home is to sit up on the rooftop of the riad and observe the medina.

The very top of the roof where I sit is about five stories above the street level of the medina, but when I'm up there it feels like I am on the ground level of another world. The rooftops around me continue all the way to the horizon, and the only reminder I have of the streets below is the sound of the motorbikes. The atmosphere up on the roof is very peaceful. I go up there quite often to study, read, take naps, or just get fresh air and think. Being on the roof provides a unique perspective of the medina. A sea of satellite dishes and TV antennas cover all the buildings, most of which are very old and in great need of repairs according to western standards. This is a great illustration of how modernity has merged with the past in Morocco, especially within the past several years. Families may live in very old buildings like my family's riad, yet nearly everyone has electricity, and most have satellite dishes in order to watch TV. (Still, it surprised me to hear from my host brother that his community did not have access to the Internet until as late as 2006!)

Something else I love about being on the rooftop is the Moroccan sun. No matter what time of year it is, the sun in Morocco seems to be very intense and warming. During winter here I have been wearing several layers of clothing just to go outside, but when I am up on the roof I can still wear shorts and a T-shirt as if it were summer. Even if it's chilly or cold outside, the heat from the sun is enough to make me start sweating sometimes. Also, the mountains in the distance are breathtaking when visible on clear days, usually in the winter or cold weather. Then when the atmosphere changes with warm weather, the mountains completely disappear behind dust, and it is easy to forget that there are actually mountains there.

From the rooftop in the morning I can hear the medina waking up, with motorbikes heading out on the streets below and people opening up their shops for the day. Then, if I am up on the roof at the right time, I am sometimes jolted alert by the call to prayer coming from the mosque very close to my house. Generally one or two mosques might start the call a bit before the rest, but soon I hear it coming from all over the city like a chorus. I've tried to count the mosques across the medina in view from the rooftop, but their range of sizes and appearances makes that difficult. 

Throughout the course of a typical day there are many visitors to the rooftops. I have noticed from the buildings around mine that older people especially love sitting up on the roof, whether to have conversation with each other over tea or just enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. My host grandmother often spends her entire day sitting on the roof talking to family members while they wash and hang clothes to dry or prepare food. The only young people I have seen on the roofs are young tourists sunbathing at nearby hotels. I find it funny that many young Americans love to sunbathe in order to become tan, while here in Morocco many of the young people avoid the direct sun and would not typically come up to the roof at all, unlike their elders. However, the most common visitors to the rooftops in the medina are felines. I have never seen so many cats in the same place. Whether they are jumping from one roof to another, going after birds, laying together in groups of eight or ten, cats are everywhere. I often notice them eyeing the top of a really old building next door, where a group of pigeons always gathers to be fed by a man who lives there. In the evening, I can hear the faint beating of the drums and noises from the crowds of people in Jemaa el Fna. And the sunsets are amazing. Silhouettes of palm trees and the Koutoubia against a beautifully colored sky make the view seem almost unreal. My description doesn't do it justice though, so I've included this photo.

Overall I am very grateful to live in the old medina of Marrakech while I am here in Morocco. Living in the oldest part of the city and being able to observe the simple things that happen every day here have given me a better, more personal understanding of Moroccan culture. My lookout point from the rooftop in particular has allowed me to experience the city's culture from the inside and actually feel like a part of it from day to day. And that is an experience I will not forget after I leave here.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

My Decision in Religion by Negina

As I sit up here on the roof of my Moroccan home, I look out into the night view of Marrakesh. I count eight mosques in the distance; I think that's more than the entire state of Oregon. The religion here is so powerful and the passion it sparks in its society has been really exciting for me to witness. As an Afghan-American, I grew up in a Muslim home; however, I had never seriously considered praying five times on a daily basis or wearing a hijab, until I came here. My host family is on the conservative side and I cannot help but look into the idea of me becoming more of a practicing Muslim for while I am here and for once I return back to America.
          This opportunity of living in an Islamic nation for such a long period of time has given me the chance to really get in touch with the religion. I sometimes wake up to the “Adhan,” or call to prayer, from the mosque a few blocks down from my house. I usually come home to one of my family members praying in the living room. I constantly hear my host mom preparing the day's food to Qur'an verses playing in the background. And every day, I get to look into peoples' lives here and learn about their different connections to Allah. I am so appreciative of the fact that I can walk over to the mosque whenever I feel like it, or that I can turn on the TV and find Qur'an recitation channels with English translations running on the bottom of the screen. Not that I have taken full advantage of all these resources around me; however, I have the utmost intentions to do so for the rest of my time here. I feel as though I have the support of not only my family back in Eugene, Oregon, but also the encouragement of an entire nation to find the religion within myself.
           While I have been on this religious exploration, I have experienced countless highs, but also several scarring lows. A few months ago, I felt an incredible amount of pressure and stress to become a "good" Muslim. In comparison to people in my Moroccan family and to the majority of society here, I didn't feel right to consider myself one of them. I felt that since I do not do what they do or act the way they do, then I am not a true Muslim. I know that a lot of the people I meet here, probably including members of my host family as well, judge my definition of Islam. Sometimes it is difficult to cope with the fact that I came from a place where most people considered me to be on the religious and conservative side and then I come here, where I seem like one of the least religious people.
           I have three months left here and two pages worth of items left to do on my “Marrakesh Bucketlist.” Many of my goals pertain to my personal relationship to Islam. Items include finishing the entire Qur'an translated into English, memorizing the art of prayer, becoming familiar with the basics to recitation, understanding the history and the meaning of the religion, and to finally be on the road to understanding what I believe and why I believe it. I feel like I am at that point in my life where I should choose for myself what I believe in and without educating myself, it is almost impossible to know what is out there. I know that not all of my questions will be answered once April twenty third comes around, but I want to leave Morocco with an adequate idea of my own faith in Islam.