The Final Countdown

THE END IS NIGH.

Or rather, the end of my time in Morocco is approaching, and I’ve got some thoughts about that. But first, I’ll let you know what kind of nonsense I’ve been up to lately.

For starters, I’ve learned that if my host sister says we’re going on a picnic, what she really means is that we’re going to the forest to hike, and there isn’t actually any food involved at all. This is an important lesson that I wish I’d learned before I was whisked away to the woods this Sunday morning. Not to say that I was disappointed. I very much enjoyed the experience, and it was a great opportunity to spend some time with my host sister before my homestay ended. We had a lovely view of the ocean, and even got to see one of Tangier’s most famous—and weirdest—attractions: The Place of Nightingales.

 It’s a cliff-side mansion built by Greek-American expat Ion Perdicaris in the 1870s. It’s also where Perdicaris was kidnapped by a Moroccan chieftain, whom Perdicaris later befriended in what I can only assume was a case of Stockholm Syndrome. 

Interesting though the mansion was, it could not make up for the fact that I was essentially tricked into doing physical activity. My host sister tried to remedy the situation by taking us for ice cream afterward, but I was still pretty exhausted, and my day had only just begun. Next up on the agenda was a trip to the hammam, or an Islamic bath. The hammam is essentially a public bath/sauna, with different bathing periods for men and women. In the past, I’ve been to a “traditional” Moroccan hammam only once, but the experience was memorable, to say the least. My friends and I chose to go together, each of us buying an exfoliating glove (kees) and a bag of foul-smelling, black soap paste made from olives. You can bathe yourself, or if you’re feeling adventurous, you can pay a lady to do it for you, because she’s not going to be as gentle when she uses the glove to scour the dead skin from your fragile body. It sounds like an awkward and painful experience, and it definitely is, but I swear you’ll never be cleaner.

This time around I opted for a more bougie alternative, choosing to go to a hammam that was also a spa. Unlike the traditional bath, the soap at this spa didn’t possess a horrendous odor, and the hammam lady seemed like she didn’t want to cause me any pain. Plus, there were massages, manicures, waxing, and whatever else fancy people do when they’re spa-ing.

The hammam also provided a much-needed opportunity for stress-relief, which I desperately needed after the “re-entry” workshop I had been subjected to the day before. Since this is our final week in Tangier, we were required to attend the workshop in order to reflect on our experiences and prepare to re-adjust to life in the U.S., i.e. avoiding “reverse culture shock.” (What is reverse culture shock? This link will tell you, because I don’t feel like doing that.) However, the workshop just turned out to be another opportunity for me to put up with nonsense. I won’t go into any details about what went down because that doesn’t matter, but I’ll give my two-cents on a couple of points.

First: This is a fully-paid opportunity to study abroad, and the program only lasts eight weeks. I believe that reverse culture shock is real and stressful, but if that’s the going to be the biggest problem I have in my life right now, that’s fine by me.

“Cultural Appropriation Bingo” will help you figure out if you’re being problematic. Courtesy of Dr. Shiela Addison

Second: Cultural appropriation is real and problematic. You’re going to want to show off everything you bought abroad and tell the whole world about your experience, but don’t forget that it’s not your culture, and what you say and do with cultural items will affect how that culture is perceived, especially by people who only learn about it from you. Additionally, there’s no one who can simply give you permission on behalf of a whole culture to wear some unique clothing or jewelry you bought. It doesn’t work like that. Furthermore, no one owes you the emotional labor of defending their right to be offended when you’ve somehow exploited or misrepresented their culture. It’s easy to be respectful, and if you mess that up, it’s even easier to admit that you were wrong and to try to be better in the future. End rant.

 

The Mountain

If you’re struggling to comprehend my study abroad experience, try to envision a picturesque, magnificent mountain. Now imagine trekking to its peak, only to tumble down the mountainside the moment you’ve reached that zenith. It’s over in a flash, painful though it is. You’ve got some battle scars, but the next time you climb a mountain, you’ll be more prepared. It’s a majestic mountain, nonetheless.

That is to say, the end of my program is rapidly approaching, and in spite of the good times, I’ve had moments of distress. I want to learn from these experiences, mostly because there’s not much else I can do with them. My recent trip to Fez epitomizes this sentiment.

Fez, also known as Morocco’s cultural capital, is probably one of my favorite cities here. Home to more than 1 million people, Fez is the second largest city in Morocco. Fez is divided into the old medina, the new old medina, the Mellah (what was once the Jewish quarter), and the actual modern part of the city. It’s known worldwide for its leather goods, as well as al-Qarawiyyin University, the world’s oldest, continually operating university. Al-Qarawiyyin was founded in 859 by a woman, because as per usual, women have to do everything. What I’m trying to say is, Fez is dope. It has also caused me distress.

For instance, Fez is about five hours away from Tangier by train. Given that my friends and I had to wait for school to end before we could depart for Fez, we ended up arriving there quite late at night. Immediately, several taxi drivers tried to swindle us into paying an exorbitant price for a ride to our Airbnb riad. This is fairly normal experience for tourists. What was not normal was the fact that the drivers got into huge argument about how many of us could fit in a taxi, and who would be the one to drive us.  

Lesson 1: Be wise with your money when traveling.

We got two reasonably priced taxis and eventually made it to our riad in the old (New old? Old old?) medina. This location is ideal if you want to shop, because the souk (or market), is colossal. I hate shopping in most cases, but in Morocco, bartering for certain goods is expected. Not only do I love bartering, but I speak enough Arabic/Darija to do it well, which is necessary if you’re not trying to get charged the tourist price. Unfortunately, my Darija knowledge doesn’t extend very far beyond basic shopping, so I tend to look like an idiot when a shopkeeper tries to have an actual conversation with me.

Lesson 2: Learn to feel comfortable with your incompetence.

Another noteworthy fact about Fez is that it has the world’s largest urban pedestrian zone. As such, it’s also known for being more prone to crime, especially pickpocketing, than other cities. The crowdedness also means a greater chance that women will have to deal with the harassment that often occurs when we’re in the streets. If you’re like me, i.e. not white, you’ll probably have the distinct pleasure of being catcalled in a way that specifically highlights this non-whiteness. Because if there’s one thing we ladies love, it’s racial fetishization. (This is sarcasm. I have to point this out because some people really think this is a good thing. To those people:  It’s not. You’re dumb.) My friends and I have dealt with situations like this and more, specifically in Fez. Unfortunately, these moments are some of the most memorable, and it’s very easy to let one bad experience color your entire perception of a city, a country, a people, etc. It’s important not to let these situations reinforce stereotypes and prejudices that might exist, but it’s also important to recognize the validity of any distress you’ve faced. I think this is a difficult, but necessary, balance to achieve.

Lesson 3: Every country has its degenerates, so try not to let them ruin your whole experience.

There are way more good people out there than bad ones. So when I think of the individuals who’ve made racialized comments toward me on the streets, or harassed my friends for some odd reason, I don’t think “This person represents Morocco.” Instead I think “This individual is garbage in a way that is entirely unique to themselves.” So yes, I’ve had moments of struggle and doubt, but I love Morocco, Fez included.