An interview with an egyptian (before June/July 2013 revolution)

07.10.2013

During the course of my three-week stay in Egypt, I met a lot of Egyptians who became really good friends. We went out for lunches and dinners with them and had a lot of opportunity to talk to them about their country and politics. There seemed to be two kinds of people basically: those who supported the Morsi regime and those who didn’t. No one loved the Morsi government because it had failed to deliver what it had promised but the pro-Morsi people wanted to give him his chance, since this was a fundamental principle of democracy.

Our professor wanted us to interview someone we hadn’t met prior to interviewing them to get a fresh perspective from a local Egyptian. On the second-last day of the program, I interviewed Ahmed, a receptionist at an organization. His English was decent so communication wasn’t that difficult. As it turned out, he was a Coptic Christian so the conversation became even more interesting. Our interview session was almost three hours long and I learnt a lot about him and Egypt in general.

Below is the excerpt from the interview. This interview was recorded so the answers are the original words of the interviewee. Only grammatical errors were fixed.

K: Did you participate in the revolution?

A: Yes, of course I did. I wasn’t there on everyday day but I was there on Feb 11, when Mubarak resigned. Everyone was really happy.

K: What did you think about the revolution?

A: It was one of the best revolutions in the world. You know that everyone in Egypt participated in it. There were old people, women and the youth. But now we think that it was a mistake to give the government to the Muslim brotherhood.

K: Why?

A: Because there are so many problems. We don’t have electricity and water. During Mubarak we used to have these basic things all the time. Things are worse now then they were in his time. We are going backwards.

K: What do you think about the Morsi government?

A: I think that he has failed to do anything for us. Things seemed to be better in the first five days but then nothing happened. I don’t like Morsi because of that reason. I’m not part of the brotherhood but I don’t like him because I thought he would make Egypt better. Nothing has changed after the Mubarak regime. The State Security force has been renamed to National Security force. Morsi is doing the same things as Mubarak. The brotherhood made a secret deal with the NDP in 2010 elections so they are just like Mubarak.

K: Did you vote for him?

A: No, I did not. I didn’t vote for anyone because I knew both were bad choices for us.

K: Have you signed the “Tamarud” (rebellion) paper?

A: Yes, I have. I will participate in another revolution if it takes place.

K: What do you think about the education system?

A: The education system in the country is really bad. And Mubarak is one of the reasons. Mubarak, Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar Saddat had there good things and bad things. But education was not given importance that it deserves by anyone of them. There has been no improvement in scientific education at all. I studied science, social studies and mathematics. And now 20 years later, my nephew is studying those subjects from the same books.

K: I have heard a lot of bad things about the education system, specifically universities from other Egyptians. Like professors don’t teach in the class, most of the times they just read the pages from the books. They don’t check the exam papers and assign grades randomly. How true is that?

A: That’s true. That’s what happened in my college in north Egypt. The professor didn’t teach anything. He just read from the book. That’s it.

K: Do you think that minorities, like the Copts, are persecuted in the Egypt? (I asked this question when I did not know that Ahmed was a Coptic Christian. One can’t really distinguish between them since they look the same as Egyptian Muslims and have the same names)

A: My answer is both yes and no. It depends on the situation. Sometimes some people will oppress the minorities but most of the times it doesn’t happen. When people had jobs and had enough money to feed their families, no one cared if someone was a Copt or a Muslim or a Jew. When things started to get bad, persecution increased. But now, when everyone is busy hating the regime and planning another revolution against Morsi no one cares. The Copts also participated in the revolution and since they represent a large proportion of the population, they are very important to the revolutionaries.

K: Some people say that the Muslim brotherhood hijacked the revolution, do you agree with that?

A: Yes, I do. The revolution had no leadership at all. And once Mubarak was overthrown, all of a sudden these brotherhood people appeared to be leading the revolutionaries from out of nowhere. We were surprised to see that but we had no option but to trust them and give them a chance. That’s why people voted for Morsi. He was lesser of the two evils. There was also this Salafi threat and people did not want them to come to power, as they were worse than the Brotherhood.

While drinking coffee, he mentioned that he was a Coptic Christian. I was really surprised because of the way he had answered the question about Copts. So I asked him again about the problems that he as a Copt faces.

K: Do you face any problems because you’re a Copt?

A: Mostly no, I don’t face any oppression. I work in this organization with many other people. I am the only Copt here but no one really cares about it. Everyone knows that I am a Copt but they don’t oppress me in any way. We eat together and drink tea together.  But outside some people can oppress me but I think it goes both ways. For example, if I apply for a job and the boss is a Copt, he is more likely to hire me than a Muslim. It is not always true but it does happen most of the times. The same is true if I apply for a job and the boss is a Muslim, he is more likely to hire a Muslim. But whether they treat you differently depends on the situation. Most of the times it doesn’t matter whether you believe in god or not. Most people care about your behavior not belief in god.

K: What about problems on a larger scale for Copts? I heard that you have to get permission from the government to build a church, is that true?

A: Yes, you have to get permission from the government to build a church. It is very difficult to get that unless you know people high up in the government. Also, it is hard for a Copt to get a good position in the government. We only have one Copt minister in the government right now. There have been some incidents like the Alexandria one in which many Copts were killed. There have been rumors that it was carried out by the ministry of interior.

K: You said that you’re from Northern Egypt. How is that different from Cairo?

A: It’s very different. There are a lot of traditions which people still follow. There is no modern technology and no factories. There is higher illiteracy rate and there is a lot of poverty there. Egypt feels like a heaven when you come from up there!

*All names have been changed to protect the identity of the real person.

To be a woman in Morocco – 2 stories of a limited future

07.09.2013

  • Sarah* lives in the medina with her family. She recently finished her last year of grade school. She studies hard but admits she spends a considerably greater amount of time chatting with males online. Her family isn’t conservative religiously, but she is not permitted to be out without family past nighttime due to cultural expectations. When I asked her about her plans for the future, she started telling me about how she wishes to attend journalism or writing school. However, she is uncertain about her plans for the remainder of the year; attending this further education is not a concrete reality for her. Time went on and we began speaking regarding marriage. I realized her family hopes for her to marry in the next year or two. Fatima expects to marry someone who she meets online and being a homemaker like her mother. This explained her virtual social life for me.
  • Amina* also lives in the medina with her family. She is a teacher of Fus7a/Modern Standard Arabic to non-native Arabic speakers. She’s well established in her education, and has been working for over a decade in teaching, even previously working with the Peace Corps to teach their volunteers Arabic for their missions! She has dreams to continue on with this work and eventually increase her position in more policy based work. She never intends to be a housewife. She was previously engaged to a man; however, her engagement broke after fights regarding lifestyle choices in the future. She described him as a typical “macho” man – he liked for the man to be dominant over the woman. He did not want her to work, and she felt like this would cause her to abandon a huge portion of her sense of self. Now that they are no longer engaged, Amina feels empowered to progress further in her career. She does not know when and if she will be able to find a man to marry who will also accept her strongly independent lifestyle.

Firstly, I must state that just by examining two stories, one cannot generalize a whole culture. However, secondly, from speaking with these two women, gender roles within Morocco play a considerable role in deciding the future lifestyles of women regarding career and family life. They seem to feel that there is an ultimatum – have a family or a successful career. This is not completely unlike perceptions in the US with the rise of women now once again stating that “we can’t have it all.” Career inevitably sacrifices family life first, and a family cannot function with two parents holding career as their priority.

I felt a sense of similarity with these women… I have also pondered about which I would sacrifice first – my dreams of a successful career or a fulfilling family life. I do know my own answer; however, life is not all about ultimatums. I believe it is possible for women to find a balance if they so choose to. If it is more difficult to find a balance in Morocco compared to the US, I don’t know. My prayers go with these women, the women of Morocco, and the women of the world to take charge of their destinies and live their lives in a manner fulfilling to them – inshaAllah :).

 

* Names have been changed.

An interview with a Moroccan

07.09.2013

On the day after the program ended, I decided to travel to Casablanca since it was a city that I always wanted to visit. Though it’s a very historical city, these days its popular amongst tourist because of the beautiful and humongous Hassan II mosque and the Mohammad V square. The three and half hour train ride there was very relaxing since I was very tired after the hectic program. On my way back to Fes the same evening, I met Omar (who could speak very good English!), a university student from Rabat. What followed was an interesting conversation about Morocco and the monarchy. It was really interesting for me since I had interviewed an Egyptian who worked at the reception of an organization.

Omar had just finished his Bachelors degree in Food Processing engineering from a university in Rabat, Morocco. He had recently gotten a scholarship to complete his masters from a university in France. Although I did not have a formal interview with him, I did take down notes while asking him questions. Here I have described his answers in my own words using the points and arguments he made.

K: How is the education system in Morocco?

O: The education system is very good. Our curriculum is patterned on the French school curriculum but of course we are taught subjects in Arabic as well. I liked the education system. We have some really good universities and there are quite a few opportunities to get scholarships to study abroad. The scholarship that I got was one of the harder ones since I will have the opportunity to study in more than one university over the next two years to complete my masters.

K: Do you plan on coming back to Morocco?

O: What do you mean? Of course I do. Why not?

K: The reason I asked you this question is that these days, the trend is that educated people from developing countries believe that they have more opportunities to succeed in Europe, USA and Canada. And as soon as they get an opportunity to leave the country, they want to take it. Also, I met a number of Egyptians who were the same age as you are and they said that they are waiting for such an opportunity. Many of them even asked me if I knew about some scholarships like Fulbright.

O: No, no. Things are very different here from what I think. I can’t say for everyone else but even though I’m going to France to study, I would want to get a job in morocco and raise a family here. Home is home, and I love my language (referring to Arabic).

K: You seem to be very patriotic. Do you think other people share your sentiment?

O: Look it’s hard to say fro sure. But things aren’t as bad in morocco as they are for example in Egypt or other Arab countries. You can definitely find good jobs these days even though it might be harder than before. So there is no reason for the youth to leave the country.

K: What do you think about the monarchy? What I mean is that do you like having a monarchy?

O: Yes. Why not? Morocco had been a monarchy since the time it was founded by Idrees (Prophet Muhammad’s great-great grandchild). Everyone loves the monarchy. And everyone loves the King. He is a very nice man and loves the people. He has done a lot of things for us since he came to power.

K: But don’t you think democracy is better for a country?

Who says that we don’t have a democracy? We have an elected parliament and a prime minister who has a lot of power. Morocco is a democracy at the same time. And I think democracy is good for the country as people can chose their leader. This is what happens in Morocco. Although we have a King, our Prime Minister is chosen by the people.

(I didn’t want to ask him too many questions about the monarchy so I moved on. The Moroccans who I’ve asked about the King and monarchy have all shared similar sentiments. Maybe it’s because of that article in the constitution that makes criticizing the king illegal)

K: Why didn’t you think that the Arab spring take place in Morocco?

I think because things weren’t as bad here as other North African countries. People were getting food to eat, clothes to wear and a decent shelter. If any one of these things is not provided to the people, then only will they rise up against the government. We did have some protests, which resulted in constitutional reforms, and now the prime minister has more power than before. This just shows that morocco is a constitutional monarchy.

This conversation gave me a good insight into the thinking of the Moroccan youth, and confirmed my opinion about them. Morocco’s youth is quite the opposite of the Egyptian youth, who are much more rebellious and anti-establishment.

-Kehaan

Discovering the Moroccan Landscape

07.09.2013

The road bent, glistening and curving like taffy. Every turn revealing a new scene. And I had a front row seat.

Our group took a 9-hour bus ride to the Sahara Desert and I was lucky enough to have the front row, best seat in the house (or bus, I guess). The large front window proved to be more like a movie screen as I witnessed a myriad of gorgeous Moroccan landscapes. Despite the length, I rarely turned away from the scenery surrounding me and most definitely did not close my eyes.

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The road ahead of us looked out of place in the splendor, a concrete reminder I wasn’t yet in heaven. The exit signs, all in Arabic, grew out of the ground. Pointing in this direction and that, they all looked the same.

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One minute we were passing rolling hills and mountains the next there were tunnels and canyons and small villages. There were streams with water that twisted and twirled over rocks like butterflies fluttering around a honeysuckle on a warm spring morning. At times, we would leave the lush green behind and move into vast desert area, with only sand and dust for miles.

 

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We passed by a family on a blanket nestled in a groove of a grassy knoll beneath a tree that was weighed down from life, rooted into a lush ground, still breathing. Its branches with leaves gently fluttering in the slight breeze. The little boy scrambled to his feet and skipped over to the brook that looped around the tree, continuing down the side of the mountain. He dipped a toe into the water and then turned back with a screech into his mother’s open arms. His father laughed reaching over his daughter to grab another piece of bread out of the basket lying beside them.

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Valley after valley blurred on either side of the bus. They swooped underneath each other, green with bushes and white with sheep. There was a man napping in a open field, a dog running across the road, a cow off by itself, and a woman leading a donkey along a path all in one scene- only open space and open road in front of them. Where did they come from? Where are the going? Moments later we passed two men laying in the grass of a wide, open field perched up looking at each other, deep in conversation. Behind them, sheep roaming lazily.

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A few hours in I was contemplating whether or not Morocco was one of the most lovely places on earth and by the end of the trip I was utterly convinced. What beauty this country had, in its scenery and natural wonder, but also in its welcoming people and rich culture. Just as I had fallen in love with Egypt, I had opened another space in my heart.

 

-Sarah

The Borj Fes

07.08.2013

Two weeks prior to our stay in Fes, the first mall in Fes (AKA the Borj Fes) opened up for business. Thank da Lord. I’m not trying to say that Fes is a dull city with gray mornings and evenings, but I needed that little bit of urban salvation which the Borj offered me. It was a zone of the ever so recognizable commercialization and capitalism which I find comfort in.

Maybe it was the fluorescent lights, maybe the escalators (which people did not know how to use, so seeing elderly women just stare at them for minutes at a time was common), maybe the gelato shops (three of them… I think they love that stuff)—I walked right in and felt alright. The Borj is new enough that throngs of people crowd it all day long; it was kind of a bit too packed still, but I welcomed the bustle with open arms.

The Borj has three levels and houses several eateries (like Pizza Hut), as well as a Carrefour (which is like a French Walmart minus any sort of over-the-counter medicine, which was weird). I didn’t see any stores which I have seen in the US there, except for a Virgin Mobile (which was still under construction). Prices were sometimes cheaper than what I would figure American prices to be, but for the most part they translated directly. There was a high emphasis on security, so several cops were dispersed throughout the center.

This may seem petty to some, but if you are the type of person that would feel, say, suffocated in a town in Northern Africa with kind of nothing around it, the Borj was a saving grace- a connection to reality. It was also my first clue to the fact that everything formal was in French- and that, if you were a foreigner, they expected you to speak French (which is hard when you only know English and a shway-shway* amount of Arabic).  Furthermore, it was the place where I think most of the Fes-ian youth dwelled (as in, if you were walking in Fes and not in the vicinity of the Borj, you might think the city was majorly composed of adults and young kids).

Anyway, the point is that I loved the westernization which the Borj brought to Fes, and I think most Fes-ians did, too. It was a five minute walk from the American Language Center, so did I visit often? That I did.

*shway = kind of, sort of/ a little/ I dabble in it/ I’m semi- able to carry a conversation/ what we students said whenever anybody asked us if we spoke Arabic/ we really actually don’t know Arabic, but please have mercy on us

Attached is a pic of the latter, less visually appealing half of the Borj Fes

Tootaloo and Thank You!!

– Nicholle : ))

<3

El Borj-o

The First Night (cont’d)

07.08.2013

Part 3

Just as I was beginning to think our destination didn’t actually exist and I was actually dreaming under the intoxicating  influence of Dramamine, in a labyrinth of my own mind, we slowed down in the middle of one of the stone paths in front of a white, metal door with no handle on the outside. There were holes in a patterned shape so you could see a small hallway just inside. My host mom reached up to press a small white button at the top right corner of the door. The ring of the bell echoed down the hallway and was joined by the sound of little bare feet running against the tiled floor running towards the door. A small boy with big espresso brown eyes turned the nob so the door cracked just enough to be pushed open before running back where he came from.

I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland as I ducked under the front the frame of the door into the small hallway, turning around to pull my bag through the doorway. It took two big tugs, but it finally slipped through. We walked by a tiny sink with a mirror above it and I caught my reflection in the glass. Dark circles were painted under my eyes and my cheeks were flushed red from embarrassment and the long journey.

I turned my attention to the opening across from the sink and took one step down into a small living room with a couch that covered three of the walls, Moroccan style. There were multiple people of all ages sitting on the couch, including the small boy who had opened the door for us. They watched intently as Nicholle and I wheeled our bags into the bedroom on the first floor. The room had two small beds on either side and a couch in the middle. There were two small tables with white lace clothes covering them beside each bed. There were no desks, closets, or dressers, but the room was quaint and felt like somewhere I could call home. We dropped our bags and turned back towards the living room and walked out to meet our new family.

Part 4

The living room was simple and homey. It would soon become the place that held the most memories during my time in Morocco. The couch that lined the walls had a blue, green, and purple cover with a repeated pattern of a mosque and a few splashes of peach-colored diamonds. Across from the couch was a black shelf holding nothing but a box television, a few pens and a stack of shuffled papers. It was held up by a wooden board with a concrete block under it. The floor was covered in bright Islamic mosaic tiles with colored shapes that formed black, blue, red, and green flowers. The first few feet of the thick white walls were also tiled, but with large brown imperfect circles with small flowers lining them. If you looked straight up, you could see the sky, which was freckled with stars that night. The top was covered in plastic to keep out dust, rain, and animals. There were no windows except for small openings on the second and third floors, which, upon a quick tour of the house later that evening, I saw each floor had a small rectangular shaped room with mattresses on the floor where the family slept together.

After I soaked in my surroundings, I turned my attention to the older man and five children who were sitting on the couch. By this point by host mom had changed out of her purple djellaba, a traditional Moroccan dress that most women and men wear here, long and loose with a hood on the back. Some djellabas, usually those for women, have beautiful decorations, colors, and stitching, while others are more simple, like my host mom’s. She had a cotton jacket and leggings underneath that would be the only outfit I ever saw her wear in the house. She plopped on the couch to watch as introductions were made. “Sit, sit!” said the two oldest girls, motioning to Nicholle and I.

The young boy who had opened the door was lying backwards with his head hanging off the side and was introduced in English as Amin by the oldest girl, whose name turned out to be Miriam (my nickname for him would be “crazy monkey,” which is quite descriptive of his fun-loving, always active personality). “You speak English?” Nicholle asked Miriam. She shurgged her shoulders, “just a little bit.” But a little bit goes a long way and Miriam would soon become my lifeline in the house, translating simple sentences and phrases for me in both French and Darija. After taking English at school for three years, she knew about as much English as I knew Arabic so we often met each other halfway.

Miriam pointed at the second boy on the couch, who was shy, not making eye contact, and said “His name is Ahmed.’ Then, she pointed to the youngest girl who was also being shy but smiled when Miriam said “Omema.” The next girl introduced herself as “Sakaneh.” When we finally reached the old man, he said “Bonjour!” with a slight lisp and smiled a big, goofy toothless grin. Our host mom, Helima, who I would called “Mama”, said “Baba” (the arabic word for father). The man pointed to himself, “Baba!” and that’s what I always called him. To this day, almost three weeks later, I still do not know his real name.

So five children and two parents makes seven people total in the family, I thought. But that idea was shattered when Miriam added that she had another sister who was at her aunt’s nearby. She held her hands together and rocked them so I knew it was a baby. I won’t lie, my heart swelled. Okay, so six kids including a baby? I was going to be living with the Brady Brunch of the Arab world- I had finally made it to heaven.

“Oh and our jida (grandmother in Arabic) lives upstairs,” Miriam added as an after thought.

-Sarah

 

A sneak peek into my story.... this is my family and I on my last day in Morocco. From the far left: Miriam (20), Baba, Amin (4), Sakaneh (16), Kautar (2), Mama, Ahmed (7), Omema (11)

A sneak peek into my story…. this is my family and I on my last day in Morocco. From the far left: Miriam (20), Baba, Amin (4), Sakaneh (16), Kautar (2), Mama, Ahmed (7), Omema (11)

 

The First Night

07.08.2013

Part 1

We arrived in Fez just as the sun was beginning to set, painting purple and red across the sky, and as we unloaded all our bags, I caught a glimpse of five or so women in a group standing near the gate of the school I would be attending for the next three weeks, Alif. I smiled at them as we were ushered inside and watched as their eyes scanned each of us and the bags we were lugging around. After a brief ten minute orientation, the students that had requested homestays were informed that our host moms were waiting on us outside. Whispers and nervous laughter erupted from the group. Had no one noticed the group of women outside the gate? We are all pretty apprehensive about our homestays; excited, but apprehensive. One of the questions on the preference survey we did before arriving was “Do you prefer a western style toilet?” No one checked no.

As we shuffled outside the gates, a man handed out pieces of paper, our fate scribbled in sloppy handwriting. I made eye contact with a short woman with a wrinkled face who peeked around the frame of another woman and winked at me, smiling a crooked smile. I laughed to myself and I was sure that I had been paired with this woman, so I was surprised when they called out my name and another woman stepped forward. I had also been paired with Nicholle, so we both went to go say hello. After a quick exchange in Arabic, she immediately grabbed for one of my bags and began rolling it down the street without a word.  Nicholle and I glanced at each other, shrugging our shoulders, and quickly followed in pursuit. We walked down a street and then another and another, shadows of our unusual caravan dancing on the concrete walls of the buildings we passed. Finally, we came up to a main road and watched as our host mom flagged down a taxi. The driver helped us pack up our bags and I watched as my larger bag was thrown on top of the car, no strings to tie it down. As we flew down roads and around sharp turns, I expected to hear the clunk of my bag rolling off the roof of the car and into the middle of the road. Who needs clothes anyway? Luckily, my bag was a trooper and made it safe and sound, only a bit of dust (and by a bit I mean it was covered) to prove it had survived the journey. We had still yet to exchange a word with our host mom, who doesn’t speak any English at all but had a smile that kept me feeling calm and welcome.

Part 2

We had literally entered a maze, I had stumbled into a labyrinth (and when I say stumbled, I don’t mean metaphorically). The myriad of paths we wove in and out of were only an arms length wide… that is, if you have very small arms. On either side side of us, there were only ancient walls. This, I thought, would be the perfect place to prefect the art of getting lost (maybe ask Zelie about this).

The cobblestones below my feet were not quite getting along with the broken wheels on my luggage. Every few steps, the bag would get caught on an uprooted stone and would topple, leaving me to turn it up right again before continuing to follow Nicholle and our host mom into another vessel of the heart of the medina. Every turn left me wondering where in the world we were going and how very unlikely it would be that I would ever find our destination ever again. I lost track of how many lefts we had taken…and was that last right turn the one with the metal bar jutting out of the corner or was it the one before it? (My failed attempt to find landmarks.) It wasn’t long before I just gave up and used all my energy to keep my bag rolling on its wheels.

Occasionally, someone would be coming from the opposite direction, their eyes following the unusual trio in front of them. All of us would become as small as possible in order to successfully pass by one another. As three young men approached, I leaned up against one of the walls, dragging my bag with me in attempt to move out of the way so they could pass. The boys took one look at me and smirked and I silently wished I could dissolve into the stone that was cold on my back and shoulders. They squeezed by me and the one of the boys, dressed in tight jeans with thick black framed glasses (a hipster Moroccan, if you will) paused and turned back towards me, offering to help me with my bag.  Meanwhile, my host mom had realized I was no longer behind her and had turned back to find me negotiating with this hipster (a negotiation both internal and external- when I was saying “No, really, I’m fine but thank you” I was actually thinking “yes, please just take this bag). My host mom said a quick string of Darija (the Moroccan colloquial Arabic dialect with a hint of French…to hell with imperialist Europe) and the boy looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and turned to catch up with the other boys. She motioned with her hand for me to follow, and we were on our way once again.

Onward, to glory.

-Sarah

For blog

A shot of the old medina from the roof of a riad

 

 

 

 

 

Frustration and Anxiety

07.07.2013

I’ve learned so many things on this trip in North Africa. After three weeks in Cairo and five weeks in Fez, Morocco (three more weeks before I go home!), my Arabic skills have improved dramatically. I’m able to operate more independently and have a stronger sense of self. My navigation abilities and sense of spatial awareness are better, although still not adequate. I’ve also had knowledge about Egyptian and Moroccan politics and history crammed into my head. I’ve grown into a global citizen, able to interact with and better understand people who are very different from me.

Yet I’ve also discovered what true helplessness feels like.

Young men rarely respect women, or at least women who don’t completely cover their hair and bodies in voluminous clothe. Even local women who wear hijabs and turtlenecks in 108 degree heat still experience frequent harassment. Life is often hell for foreign women, even if they dress modestly (long sleeves, baggy long pants or a long skirt). For those who wear more revealing clothes, like tights or shorts or sleeveless shorts, life is downright dangerous.

We're dressed very modestly (in weather over 100 degrees nonetheless) yet would still be victimized.

We’re dressed very modestly (in weather over 100 degrees nonetheless) yet would still be victimized.

In Fez I walk 15 minutes from school to my homestay, or vice-versa, four times a day. I dress as intelligently as I can. It’s hard enough without inviting trouble by making unwise clothing choices. I walk through the nice part of Fez, with spacious streets and classy shops. Yet I still experience persistent hissing, catcalling, and whistling. Most of the time, men just say “hello” in different languages, sometimes following me and waiting for a response. But there’s always the chance of more serious trouble. My friend, Nicholle, who lived in my homestay before me, hated the walk to and from school. She’s also pretty and wore more revealing clothes. She had an incident where boys actually started chasing and touching her and our pretty Chinese friend, Kaidi, in the middle of the day.

This weekend I travelled to Asilah, a small beach town on the Atlantic coast. My group struggled to find a stretch of beach empty enough that we felt comfortable wearing our bathing suits. We eventually settled for a place close to the train station. It was empty because it was literally where people threw their trash away, but it was easier dealing with garbage than harassment. Still, guys walking by called out to us and even took pictures. One man asked us to pose for is picture. We were still slightly covered (bikini top and shorts or scarf tied around the waist as a covering sash) but considered scandalous by Moroccan standards.

During the five minute walk from the beach to the train station, my female friend and I were wearing shorts and a shirt over our bathing suits. A group of five or six teenage boys began the usual harassment, asking questions and following along behind us. This was at three in the afternoon along the side of a relatively busy street with groups of people all around. I did what we’re old never to do and confronted a boy. I told him angrily in Arabic “Shut up, shame on you.” They thought this was hilarious and crowded around us, standing closely behind us and on each side. Some inappropriate statements were made, as was a request for sex. I became progressively more angry and lost my temper, which only amused them more. I’ve never felt more threatened, powerless, or frustrated.

I feel as if I’m not considered human by young Moroccan men, or at least not the same species as them and modest Muslim girls. The way I’m perceived and treated should not be determined by whether or not I wear a hijab and loose clothing in public. Yet it’s culturally acceptable to harass young women, local and foreign. Some local people, when asked, will express exasperation and mild frustration, but acceptance is the general attitude. They make excuses for the abusers, saying they’re unemployed, bored, they don’t mean any harm, it’s just their way of flirting and meeting girls. I, however, strongly believe it is a serious issue that needs addressing. It is psychological, and sometimes even physical, abuse and should not be taken lightly. Egyptian and Moroccan economies would also benefit greatly from change; foreigners would feel more secure visiting, reinvigorating the tourist industry.

I’m not saying they need to be like “us” or that foreigners should be able to dress inappropriately, because it’s highly disrespectful to wear tights or sleeveless shirts or shorts in public here. But I am saying that anytime someone feels uncomfortable or unsafe, something needs to be done. It would be so simple to train police and security officers, of which there are many, to punish harassment. Yet it’s much more common for the officers to harass than to scold harassers. This has been a very difficult trip, and I’m counting down the hours until I can return home. Immature, disrespectful men have forever tainted what should have been a wonderful trip abroad.

Peace Be Upon You

07.07.2013

A couple of days past the arrival to Fes, I realized that cab drivers were more likely to carry me to my destination with a particular greeting. Assalam Alaykum I would try to blurt out as I approached the impatient window stopped at the traffic light. When the drivers heard this, their grimace looks softened, rarely ever in a smile though. If the corners of their cheeks did curl upward, it was more of a mocking chuckle, as if it was so farfetched I would be able to use a greeting beyond Alo! In fact I’ve been using Assalam Alaykum since I could remember, with the elders at my local mosque and the peers of my parents during religious conferences or meetings. But that greeting was reserved to one situation, one section of my identity. Even when someone would answer my phone call with that greeting, I am taken aback. I have to process the “Muslimness” of the greeting and my programmed response of “Hello” just does not suffice.

But in Morocco, Assalam Alaykum flowed from me in a way that I had not known. I became unexpectedly comfortable with greeting people in such a manner. Maybe the naturalness of the phrase was stuck in my throat until the force of Fes could smack it out of me. But with every greeting of peace, I myself felt like I had become more peaceful. There was just something about walking down the street and being able to embrace a part of me that is typically compartmentalized, only released for specific situations. And it did help that the wish for peace also made people I approached more peaceful.
When I walked into a shop in the market, I would always walk in and say Assalam Alaykum. The shopkeeper was both startled and softened by with my greeting. But the more I spoke in Muslim colloquials like Alhamdulillah (I thank God) or Insha Allah (God Willing) , the encounter transcended to a deeper level. Although I knew utilizing the phrases would lead to a better deal than if I had not, it all still felt very natural. When I am home, there are some things I wish I could say, but cannot because even my closest would not understand. They have no connection to Islam or the Middle East so it would probably just end in an exchange of curious glances. However in Fes, it all just seemed to natural, and it increased and encouraged my conviction to expose the part of me that’s sheltered. Although conversations were coated with grammatical errors and untranslatable words, one thing was clear. We understood each other, in particular, they understood me in a way only Fes has allowed as of yet.

Salam

 

–Seliat Dairo

“I can’t believe I did that…”

07.07.2013

“I can’t believe you did that.” This is the first thing my mom wrote me after she browsed through some pictures I posted from our group trip to the Sahara Desert. Sitting halfway across the world, looking at my photos of camels, glorious sand dunes glistening under the sun, and our long line of camels carrying a little more than 80 students studying Arabic from colleges across the world, she was astonished at the amazing adventures our group embarked on as part of this program. I don’t blame her; 90% of the time spent riding the camels to the Berber tent camp deep into the Sahara, I was thinking the exact same thing. “I can’t believe I’m here, in Morocco, on a camel, in the Sahara Desert, speaking with a Berber, and taking pictures of these beautiful sand dunes.”

In response to the photo I will include below, a friend commented: “Wow. I kind of thought this only happened in the movies…” I have to be honest here. I also thought that when I was taking the picture. Never before this program did I think that one day, I would get to do all of the things that I had the opportunity to do as part of this study-abroad program. I am extremely proud of all of the knowledge that I gained in the classroom under the instruction of both Professor Lo in Cairo, and Professor McLarney in Fez. Already, I find myself thinking of current events, people, and issues faced by different nations around the world through a different and more thorough and applied method of analysis.

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I have been in Bucharest, Romania for a few days and in these days, quite a few people including some of my family members have asked about the situation in Egypt. All they knew was the vague pieces of news that news channels presented about “protests in Tahrir” and “Morsi.” I was extremely happy and excited when I was able to explain the situation more in depth after my stay there; to provide examples of anger and dissatisfaction as presented to my by actual citizens that I got the chance to meet while in Cairo. I was able to talk about religion in Egypt and its role in the government. This is just an example of how applicable the course content and discussions throughout the six weeks in Cairo and Fez have been to engage our minds in relevant and current issues being faced by the world.

Just as important as the classroom instruction and discussion while abroad, I feel that our after class programming, such as fieldtrips, talks, meetings with several NGOs in Cairo, and cultural events such as the Sacred Music Festival in Fes have been essential in really forming a more comprehensive understanding of Islam and the role it has played in the development of both nations, and the implications it has had on both of their governments. This is also where the “I can’t believe I am here” and “I can’t believe I am doing this” thoughts came into play. As part of our curriculum, we have done some truly spectacular things that I will never forget. In Egypt we saw the Pyramids, we visited Garbage City to add to our learning about the Coptic Christians in Egypt, we visited the beautiful Citadel in Alexandria, saw and learned about the Hanging Church in Coptic Cairo, casually had lectures on a felucca on the Nile, and truly so much more.

In Fez, my amazement in response to the opportunities for learning and immersion available to us only grew. Right from the start, Professor McLarney secured our attendance to world-renowned Sacred Musical Festival of Fes, which was absolutely amazing; this is a week-long festival with scheduled performances each day. We saw Paco de Lucia in concert, went to a beautiful Syrian Aramaic music event, and enjoyed several Sufi Nights as part of the festival. It was a really wonderful supplement to our learning of Ibn Arabi and the influence of his poems and Andalucía on the history and development of Morocco. Aside from the music festival, we also had an opportunity to visit the Mellahs, the Jewish quarters in the Medina, learn the art of Arabic calligraphy (we have yet to master it though), visit the tanneries in the Medina (which I have only seen and heard about in movies), spend two hours riding camels into the Sahara to spend the night in Berber tents, visit University of Al-Karaouine (one of the leading educational and spiritual centers in the Muslim world), and much, much more.

 

In response to all of these exciting and valuable adventures, among many things, I can sincerely say: “I can’t believe I did that.”

Nura Smadi

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