I’m writing at the end of our last week of classes, after my Arabic oral exam (momtaz!), before my parents arrive for a week on Saturday (mezzien!), and with only three more classes. Next week we will have a week off to plan our Independent Study Projects, a 20-40 page paper that will count for our 4th class of the program and on which we will work and interview and read for three weeks. So now that we’re in a transitionary period, I think I’ll go back to talk a little more about the village stay from October.
Looking back, it’s almost surreal remembering what we did during that week. As I said in an earlier post, I stayed with a friend, Emma, in a household in a small rural village. Our house was beautiful–an enclosed compound with an inner courtyard and two small salons that doubled as a bedroom and a TV room, and a kitchen. Adjacent to the courtyard stood the animal pen, where we had a cow, a calf, sheep, goats, two adorable kids, and some chickens and roosters.
We started out in Boujad, a nearby small city, and piled seven people into taxis to drive about 45 minutes through arid hills to the village.
We arrived at what seemed kind of like a main meeting place where the school is, and Emma and I were introduced to our host father, Hussein.
Episode One: Hussein and the Donkey
We shook hands, exchanged our few words of greeting in Darija before Hussein led us over to the donkey. He took our bags, hopped on a donkey, and started off down the road at a quick step—and so Emma and I trotted after him. And I mean trotted. For thirty minutes. Down the road, as cars passed us honking, through some hills, past barking dogs, and finally to the three houses where we and two other families lived. By the time we arrived, we were sweaty and out of breath, and learning the extent of our host father’s Arabic—he only spoke Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, of which we know very little, and in an extremely heavy, gruff accent.
We were introduced to our host mother, Sala, and three of our host siblings, and then told to sit down in front of the TV. I believe WWE wrestling was on. A strange silence, broken persistently by flies and the crashing of chairs on the TV, hovered as we all turned to look at the TV again. A few minutes later, Abdellah, a 2-year-old son, woke up and stared at us with what we would come to recognize as his “You are foreigners, and I may want to throw up just by looking at you” face. Not particularly pleasant–particularly as our host father had also donned it and sat staring blankly at us. We learned to rely on our host mother, a wonderful woman, and our very clever 10-year-old sister to feel welcome.
Episode 2: The Bathroom
Not quite sure what we should be doing, Emma and I decided we would ask for the bathroom. We had been warned that a “bathroom” would mean a ditch somewhere–closer for children and farther out for adults. But we wanted to be polite, so we asked for the “toilet.” The fly-filled silence met our question. Puzzled looks (and Abdellah’s disgusted expression) stared back at us.
We tried again. “Fin kayn toilet? Hammam?”
Emma and I looked at each other. “Should I act it out?” she asked me. Thinking that might not give the best first impression, I went over and grabbed our bright pink toilet paper from our bags and held it up to the family. Still nothing.
About now, we were starting to get a little nervous. The lack of communication skills was starting to seem like a problem–so out came the hand gestures. I’ll leave that up to your imagination, how we acted out going to the bathroom. Finally, though they understood, and my host mother led us out into the front yard, and out to the donkey pen.
And she made a sweeping hand gesture, as though to say, “Here you go—the toilet.”
6 days later, we were pros.
Episode 3: Chicken Liver
The first afternoon, I awoke from a nap before Emma and wandered into the kitchen where my host mother was preparing dinner. Though I offered to help, she had me sit down with a cup of tea (read: sugar water, warmed, with a sprig of mint–minus the sprig of mint) and watch as she worked. Finally she reached for a dead chicken in a bowl, and I watched as she defeathered it and took it apart, rinsing it out with water. Knowing that I would have to watch a goat sacrificed in a week’s time, I watched, and found myself marveling at the quickness of it, the neatness, and the efficiency. I thought, ‘If she would let me help, I could do this.’
But later, when she put a pile of roasted liver and cumin before me and Emma and told us to eat up, I had some second thoughts. If you have never eaten liver, I should say that it is tough, and tougher to eat, particularly on sensitive stomachs studying abroad in Morocco. Because Emma told me she was struggling with it, I took the big pieces—an act I would later start to regret when my stomach began turning and turning and turning in the evening. But not wanting to be rude, we tried to eat dinner, and then hurried to sleep, hoping to sleep off the upset stomachs. And somehow, we did. And we woke in the morning, and learned what else we could test ourselves on.
Episode 4: We can act like idiots
A few days into the stay, we had become close with our host mother. She was good at breaking down the language barrier with hand gestures, slow sentences, and exaggerated facial expressions, and she was good humored and kind when we were confused. But we still had made little progress with the rest of the family—our host father continued to stare at us unabashedly and to forget our names even at the end of our week with them, the three older host siblings still grew shy whenever we tried to communicate with them, and Abdellah still looked like we made him want to vomit.
But one night, we were watching WWE again when our host father starting playing a hand-slapping game with his kids. As it was very similar to a game Emma and I had been playing during our long bus trips, we told them it was similar to one we knew, and demonstrated. That started off a round of games—some of them we knew, some of them they knew—that ended with us teaching the kids how to play ninja, a foolish game that involves lunging, slapping each other, and sometimes falling over (i.e. looking silly).
As Emma and I demonstrated, I heard only silence coming from them, and I had a moment of panic, thinking—they’re going to think we’re crazy! But when we had finished, sort of laughing nervously and anxiously turning to look at the family, we saw five faces laughing back at us, a little puzzled but amused by our game. Our host sister was eager to play with us, and a couple days later, I saw her playing with her brothers, who were too shy to play with us.
So this post has gotten lengthy, as usual, so I will try to wrap up. But what I hoped to do by describing these couple of events was to give a snapshot of our time in the village—a time of discomfort and language barriers and pushing personal boundaries. I swear, I have never pushed myself so far, and I have never been so proud of myself for saying, “Well, okay, we’ll just go with it!”
We learned how to laugh about what made us uncomfortable, and to discover that we could push ourselves physically and emotionally and mentally much farther than we expected, and to look at language as something other than words. And really, I learned more about myself that weekend—what makes me think, what makes me angry, what I can be comfortable with, what I want to do, what I want to study—and I think that came from forcing myself so far out of my normal surroundings that I had to find what was really at my core.