Archive for October, 2010

Wedding!! (Moroccan Style)

October 27th, 2010

So, as I mentioned in my last post, I had made plans to stay in Rabat last weekend.  I was serendipitously invited to a wedding last weekend!  Go me!  S., a classmate of my host sister invited me.  I had met her a week or so before when walking home with my host mother and sister, and she invited me for coffee.  Then she invited me to a wedding; quite the leap I think.  But I was like “Oh my gosh I get to go to a Moroccan wedding!!! Who’s getting married?”  I didn’t learn that bit of information until the first night of the wedding.  Yes, I said FIRST night.  This wedding lasted two days (technically three).  The first night is the henna party.  The bride is dressed up in a beautiful caftan, and henna is put all over her hands and feet.  The groom also presents the dowry to the bride, and if she accepts his dowry, they exchange rings and are officially engaged.  According to the Quran, it is the man who must give the woman a dowry because in the case of a divorce the woman should be left with some property of her own.

So, that first night, I went to the groom’s home first because S. is related to the groom.  She called him her “uncle” but I think he was actually her mother’s cousin.  My logic governing this presumption is because she calls her aunt, who is only 23, her “sister.”  Moroccan families are so tight knit that it really doesn’t matter how you are related to each other, but just simply that you are related to each other.  So anyway, we got to the apartment, and sat down in the salon where a bunch of women were sitting.  A few of them were playing small hand drums, and all of them were singing marriage songs.  The songs generally translate to something along the lines of “your sweet-heart is coming,” I think, according to what S. told me.  I can’t be sure, my Arabic’s not that good.  Then we loaded the bride’s dowry into the bed of a pick-up truck.  Women carried down trays and trays of beautiful clothes, make-up, even lingerie.  There was also a cow in another pick-up truck, also part of the dowry.  Best wedding present ever!!!  So after that was all set, we stood behind the trucks, along with every member of the family and then some, and a group of men armed with drums, bells, and horns.  When the men started playing we started singing, clapping, and walking towards the bride’s house.

The bride’s family was waiting outside for us, and we serenaded them for a bit.  Actually, it was more of an ensemble piece because they were singing right along with us.  We unloaded the truck and brought the dowry into the salon where the bride was sitting, faced covered in a lacy green veil one might wear to a St. Patrick’s Day party in the USA, and a woman was busy applying henna to her hands.  Both the soles and tops of her feet had already been covered in swirly, flowery henna designs, which had been bedazzled with jewels and sprinkled with glitter.  It was beautiful.  I then got dragged into another room by S. where she applied make up to my face, and I changed into the ghandoura (a kind of traditional Moroccan dress) that I had brought with me.  When I went back into the salon, someone had pulled the veil back off the brides face, and taken the dowry somewhere else.  The bride looked beautiful!  She wore an ornate caftan, mostly cream colored, but withe green highlights and jewelry to match her veil.  She and the groom exchanged rings, and then fed each other dates and milk (much like when American couples feed each other cake at the reception).  For the rest of the night we just sat around, and took pictures with the bride and groom, and ate couscous.  It was my favorite kind of couscous too.  This couscous is served with onions, raisins, cinnamon, garbanzo beans, and other foods to give it a very sweet flavor, in contrast with the vegetable couscous I usually eat (which is also very good).  That was the end of Day 1.

Day 2:  I leave my house with S. and her mother to go rent a nice caftan for the actual ceremonial part of the wedding.  I got a very pretty caftan that was royal blue, with a gold inner skirt and embroidery.  Caftans are dresses that generally have bell sleeves and belts, and look as though you have two dresses layered over each other, and in some cases you do.  You could tell if you looked at the skirt of my caftan that it was two layers because the blue skirt opened up at the bottom to show off the gold under-dress.  We went back to the groom’s home where we ate dinner, put on our caftans, and did hair, make up, etc.  I also ended up wearing about six different perfumes to the wedding.  Hold on, I’m sorry, that’s an exaggeration, I think I only had five different perfumes.  People just kept coming up to me and spraying me with whatever bottle of smelly stuff they just happened to have on them.

So we all squeezed into a car that took us to the rented hall where the ceremony would take place.  Think how American weddings, alright American weddings based on Judeo-Christian tradition, have a ceremony, and a separate reception following the ceremony.  Okay, now imagine combining the ceremony and reception into one big event, and that gives you a base line, minimalist idea of what to expect at a Moroccan wedding.  What I’m saying is the dancing and eating are interspersed throughout the ceremony, if not directly part of the ceremony itself.  The hall itself was beautifully decorated with lots of tables and chairs for the many guests, a band, a TV crew to film the wedding, which would then be re-watched countless times by relatives in the future, and a big gold couch at the front of the hall where the bride and groom get to sit.  As guests poured in, they were all greeted, and kissed my the bride’s mother.  Then they were given dates and milk.  In Morocco, it is customary to feed special guests dates and milk.  It is actually delicious, I highly recommend it.  I watched all the women come in dressed to the nines in beautiful, colorful caftans.  I also watched the men file in, some in traditional djellabas, others in suits, a lot in jeans and hoodies.  It was quite a difference compared to the extravagantly dressed women, but then again, the bride in this ceremony was WAY more dressed up than the groom.

The happy couple didn’t even arrive until midnight.  They were drummed into the hall by the same drumming, bell ringing, horn blowing guys who had escorted the groom to the bride’s house the night before.  The groom was leading the bride who had her face covered in a lacy gold veil this time.  The couple was also surrounded by these guys dressed in red and wearing long white cloaks, which they held up to shield the bride and groom.  The bride then got in a little domed box thing, and then the guys in red lifted her up in the air on their shoulders and danced around with her down the aisle.  Guests crowded around this procession, trying to get pictures.  The bride smiled and waved back, looking a little nervous.  I don’t blame her, I would be a little nervous if I was getting married too.  I also wouldn’t want to be dropped by the guys that were carrying me around.  She was soon set down, and the couple adjourned to the couch where they sat for a lot time as people crowded around to take pictures.

The rest of the wedding basically consisted of a lot of picture taking, dancing, and the entrances and exits of the bride and groom.  Each time they returned, the bride was dressed in a different caftan, each one as beautiful, if not more beautiful that the one before it.  I saw her in six different dresses that night.  At one point, both she and the groom got back in the little box thing (one at a time, of course) and got another turn being hoisted onto the shoulders of these four men, and danced around the hall.  This time, people threw rose petals at them, and often, the bride or groom, whoever was in the box at that time, would throw the petals right back.

There was a lot of food consumed at this wedding too.  For the first course of dinner, each table go three chickens.  Three.  In Morocco you eat with your hands, so it was really interesting to watch people sit and tear the meat off the carcass.  It would have been completely inappropriate in the United States, and therefore it was so totally awesome.  The second course was a beef tagine with prunes.  It’s actually really delicious, at least, the prunes are.  I’ve been a vegetarian for 6 years, but decided to be polite, and culturally sensitive, I would suck it up and try to eat just a little meat while in Morocco.  If a Moroccan offers you meat, he or she is offering the most expensive part of the meal, and it’s not very polite to refuse.  Anyway, I’ve been able to stomach chicken and some fish, but that’s it.  Red meat is a no-can-do.  It just makes my stomach churn, so I eat around it, and that is how I discovered that the prunes in that beef tagine were really good.  We then ate fruit, and cookies.  Later we got more sweets, and at the end of the wedding we finally got to eat the wedding cake, which was sweet, but light.  The ceremony culminated in the bride and groom sharing a dance together, and with the rest of their guests, and then throwing little packets of chocolate at us.  The time was 6am Sunday morning.  As I mentioned before the wedding lasted two, technically three, days.  As I stumbled back to the groom’s family’s house, I changed out of my caftan and into a nightgown a grandmother had given me, and completely passed out on one of the couches.  It had been a great weekend.  I was so glad I had this opportunity to get to experience firsthand such a special ceremony, which is pretty much unique to every culture.  It was funny, throughout the night everyone was asking me if I wanted to have a Moroccan wedding when I got married.  “Mumkin” (maybe) I answered, and to be honest, it could be a lot of fun.

Chefchaouen, and a little taste of Scotland

October 20th, 2010

Last weekend was spent in a little city nestled in the Rif Mountains.  Chefchaouen is probably one of the prettiest cities I’ve been to in Morocco so far.  It fully satisfied my insatiable thirst for mountain scenery, a geographical feature I really miss when I’m in Rabat, or even back at Wooster. Chefchaouen is built on a mountain, so the streets slope steeply, which is either really good if you’re going down hill, or a really great work out if you’re going in the other direction.  Chefchaouen is know in Morocco for three things, water, textiles… and hashish.  While wandering around the medina it was not uncommon to smell the hash that shop keepers or tourists were smoking.  It was an interesting experience to say the least.  Another really cool thing about Chefchaouen is that the medina is painted almost entirely blue.  All the houses, doors, windows, streets, stairs, everything, was painted some shade of blue.  It was very mellowing, I felt like I was under the sea, like I was the Little Mermaid or something.  If you know me well, you’ll know that The Little Mermaid was probably one of my favorite movies as a little girl, so this was a lot of fun for me. 🙂

The Hotel we stayed at was called Hotel Scotlandy, and it was run by Scottish people.  It was really interesting, not to mention a little surprising to find these Scottish family who ran this hotel in the middle of Morocco.  They had a son who was the same age as my brother, and actually also had the same name as my brother.  It was weird, and kind of funny because my brother was actually voted “most likely to become British” by his eighth grade class, although I don’t think that Scottish people technically think of themselves as “British.”   So, anyway, the son was really cool and didn’t mind showing us around the medina (or making us tea).  Seriously, I had forgotten how good Earl Grey tea is.  I’ve been drinking sweet mint green tea every since I came to Morocco, and don’t get me wrong, it’s delicious, but sometimes it’s nice to drink something unsweetened.

On Saturday, we ventured into the Medina to do some shopping and sight seeing.  We got invited to a rug factory.  The owner picked us out of the crowd and led us to his factory where they made us mint tea and spread many Berber rugs in front of us.  They also had beautiful fabrics and really warm looking sweaters.  We sat on couches and picked out the stuff we wanted, and then spent a really long time bargaining them down to reasonable prices.  I mean, they asked for 700 dh for a small area rug!  Really?  I’m not paying that, so we spent a long time bargaining the rugs down to half the original asking price.  Not bad.  A couple of us also hiked to the outer edge of the city where there was a small waterfall.  It was really cool because they had built these cement structures at the waterfall that collected the water as it ran down the water, and the women were able to wash their clothes.  It was really cool!  We hung out at the river for a little bit and then walked (up hill) back to the hotel.  I did some more shopping, picked up some gifts for people.  It was a good day, and we had a very delicious dinner at a nice Moroccan restaurant.  The meal cost 85dh, which in US$ is still only about $10.  Win.  Even though goods and services in Morocco are inexpensive relative to US prices, it is still too easy to spend too much money, so be careful.

Saturday was really the only day we had in Chefchaouen because the only bus back to Rabat left at 7am.  So we woke up early and drank some espresso, or as our host called the “Turkish Eye-Openers” and ate some toast, and then boarded the bus back to Rabat.  I personally slept for the majority of the four hours, so I couldn’t really talk about the scenery, although I’m sure it was beautiful.  My Sunday concluded with a glorious visit to the hammam with my mother and host sister.  I got the full scrub down.  You buy this brown gel soap and rub it all over your body, then you rinse it off, and then you use this scrubbing cloth to scrub your whole body, and the dead skin just peels off.  It’s disgustingly satisfying, especially since the hammam is hot and steamy like a sauna so you are comfortably warm.  After you scrub all the dead skin off your body you can wash your hair and soap up like you would in any shower.  Let me tell you, I’ve never felt cleaner.  It’s definitely something you must do at least once if you ever visit Morocco.

So, that’s about it.  I don’t have any pictures to post because my camera batteries died on me the minute I got to Chefchaouen.  Hopefully, I’ll have something fun to write about next week.  I’m planning on staying in Rabat this weekend.  Who knows what might happen? 🙂

The Middle Atlas Mountains, an Experience like no other

October 10th, 2010

It’s a little embarrassing to be making this post a week late, but a week late is better than two weeks late.  Last weekend, almost all the IES Rabat group went to the Middle Atlas Mountains to hike, explore some of the cities, and spend some time in a Berber village.  This weekend excursion revealed the huge disparity between urban and rural Morocco, and reminded us all that Morocco is definitely still a developing country.  Last weekend was definitely one of, if not the most culturally enriching and spiritually satisfying experiences I’ve had in Morocco to date.

On Friday right after Arabic class (and the purchase of some avocado juice), the group headed out of Rabat towards the center of the country and the cities of Azrou and Ifrane.  I had already been through Azrou before; we drove through the city on our way to the Sahara desert.  Although I’m pretty sure I’ve already said this in an earlier post, the name of the city is a Berber word meaning “big rock.”  Why?  Well, there’s a really big rock in the middle of the city, that’s why.  Azrou is also home to a lot of monkeys who live in the mountains and grow fat from eating the cookies the tourists give them.  We didn’t stop to see the monkeys this time, we had other plans.  Instead of stopping to see monkeys were were stopping to see trout.  Yes, that’s right, I got to visit a trout farm.  Let me describe a trout farm for you.  It is a place with a lot of different pools of water, and each pool of water contains a lot of trout all at different stages in the development process.  This trout farm had two kinds of trout, Rainbow trout (imported from the United States), and the Moroccan Golden Trout.  I got to feed the trout too.  That was fun.  I threw some fish pellets into the water and it was like all the trout in the entire tank descended on the handful of small pellets I threw in.   There was a lot of frenzied splashing, and I got a lot of water on myself since the fish were practically leaping into the air trying to get at the food.

After seeing the trout farm we all clambered back on the bus and headed to Ifrane.  Ifrane is an interesting city, I think it would be more appropriate to call it Little Switzerland.  It was built by the French during the Protectorate, and you can definitely tell.  All the houses have peaked roofs.  This is mostly for practical purposes because Ifrane gets a lot of snow during the winter.  However, the layout of the city, and the details of the buildings give it a distinctly European flavor.  Al Akhawayn University ( is also located in Ifrane, and certainly adds a little bit of flavor to the atmosphere of the town.  We didn’t really explore the town too much, we only really had time to walk around one of the little garden ponds and take awkward group pictures in front of a big statue of a lion.

We spent the night in a little village called Ben Smim.  The people in this village spoke Berber as there first language, Arabic as there second, and a few words of French and English if we were very lucky.  We were also very lucky to have electricity and running water inside the house.  Really, I’ve come to the conclusion that after electricity and running water, everything else is an extra added luxury here, like having a western toilet, and toilet paper.  I had brought a box of tissues with me for my allergies, and I quickly became one of the most sought out people in the group because most people had forgotten their own TP.  Additionally, the concept that Americans have of having your own bedroom is something that people just don’t have here.  I have my own bedroom here in Rabat, but the rest of my family sleeps on the sofas in the living rooms.  It was the same in Fez, and it was the same in Ben Smim.  In Ben Smim though, my roommate and I didn’t have a bedroom, but we did sleep in the nice salon.

Our host family in Ben Smim was fantastic!  My host parents spoke Berber and Darija (colloquial Moroccan Arabic), and they had very little French and no English.  My roommate and I speak English and French, “survival” Darija, and only the Berber words that we were given on a sheet today by our director.  You learn a lot about communication in situations like these, if you don’t know the word you can act it out, or draw a picture, or point, whatever gets your point (haha) across.  You also learn how to be in uncomfortable situations.  For example, we knew when our host family was talking about us, but we had no idea what they were actually saying, and it was a little uncomfortable.  It’s just something you have to become accustomed to.  I am accustomed to being the object of amusement at times when I clearly misunderstood something, or didn’t pronounce something correctly.  It’s just something you have to have a good sense of humor about, that’s all.

So anyway, my host mother dressed us both in these beautiful caftans before dinner.  Mine was an olive green with black embroidery around the cuffs.  It looked like just the kind of caftan my sister Maggie would look gorgeous in.  My roommate had a nice azure blue caftan to wear.  So, we got all dressed up for a beautiful dinner of couscous, fresh eggs (one of the most delicious foods ever!), bread, jam, spices, you name it.  The food was so fresh and delicious, I knew it was going to be really hard to go back to eating “regular” food after this.  After we had eaten our fill, we were invited outside to watch what they told me was a “Berber tradition.”  My roommate and I sat outside on small stools and kissed all the neighbors hello and watched a group of caftan-clad women walk slowly down the street playing drums and tambourines, and singing at the top of their lungs.  The music was so joyous, both my roommate and I were caught up in the moment, and I think we both secretly wanted to jump up and join the crowd of women who were now dancing right in front of our house.  We asked out host brother, who thankfully spoke French, exactly which tradition it was that we were watching.  He looked a little confused, and told us that he didn’t really know the words for it in English or French, so he started to describe it to us.  He began with “It’s an Arab tradition, with a small boy…” Okay, yes, I figured out what we were watching…a circumcision party.  Muslims, like Jews, circumcise boys as part of religious ritual, however, Muslims circumcise there sons between the ages of 4 and 8 years, not 8 days old like Jewish baby boys.  It is a sign of a  boy entering into the Ummah (universal Muslim community) and it is an occasion for much, much celebration.  I’m not going to lie, it was a little bit startling at first, but we figured this was part of our cultural immersion, so let’s just go with it.  We actually didn’t stay outside long after that because we were both tired, so we pretty much just passed out in the salon.

The next day we visited a number of NGOs in the village.  We visited a women’s organization that sold medicinal herbs, made rugs, and honey.  I bought some honey and some extract of thyme, which is supposed to help with colds and other respiratory ailments when drunk mixed with tea.  We also hiked for about an hour to eat lunch (couscous of course) with a bunch of school children who were of course, adorable.  A Peace Corps worker stationed in Ben Smim also ate couscous with us, and he talked with us about his experiences in the Peace Corps and in Morocco.  After lunch (an naps) we visited the Aïn Ifrane bottled water factory.  It was funny, nobody was really interested in seeing how they bottled water, we were more interested in their super duper nice bathrooms 😉  The bottled water factory isn’t really on good terms with the surrounding villages because they are basically stealing their water from them, and selling it to tourists.  After our bottled-water-bathroom visit we went back up the mountain to paint pictures with the children we had just eaten lunch with.  I must say, it was very therapeutic.  I had a wonderful time painting a giant flower.

By this time, I would say that it was about 5pm, time to head back to the village.  Our director had rented the village hammam for us for two hours, so when we got back to the village we were supposed to ask our host mothers to come with us to the hammam.  However, when we communicated with our mother about the hammam she told us we couldn’t go until we had eaten first.  So my roommate and I sat down in the salon and ate malawi bread, bagharir (a kind of pancake), and drank hot atay b’nAnA (mint tea).  Only when we were finished eating were we allowed to go to the hammam.  What’s the hammam?  Oh yes, I forgot, the hammam is the public bath house.  In a place where nobody had baths or showers inside, the hammam is a very important place where one goes to bathe and socialize.  Socialize you say??  Yes, I absolutely mean that.  From what I can tell, the hammam is a hip and happening hangout spot for men and women of all ages (although not at the same time of course).  So my roommate and I went to the hammam, and we walked in and it was basically like a mosaic version of a YMCA locker room.  Benches ran down both walls, and there were shelves where you could keep your clothes while you were bathing.  The first thing we did was stand around awkwardly because nobody was sure what exactly we were supposed to do.  My host mother answered that question for me.  While at the hammam the only thing you are allowed to wear is your underwear, no tops, and even those are optional.  The actual place where you wash is steamy and hot, like a sauna, and there is a place to fill buckets of hot water, which you take back to your spot.  Then you get scrubbed from head to toe, until all the dead skin peels off your body.  One of the women scrubbed me down, and then dumped a big bucket of water over my head to rinse me off and I was done.  Let me tell you, if you are ever in Morocco, visit the hammam.  It is definitely WAY outside most American’s comfort zones, but isn’t that the point of visiting another country?  And it is definitely one of the most intimate ways of experiencing a culture.  And it wasn’t bad, I’m still alive, and you know what?  I’d go back.

Anyway, that night we got dressed up in even NICER caftans, and our family laid a traditional decorative rug with fuzzy things and silver sequins and embroidery down on the couch for us to sit on, and then they did henna on our hands.  It was such a hospitable thing for them to do.  I felt so welcome.  If there’s one thing Moroccans do REALLY well, it is hospitality.  They are just so warm, friendly, and generous, it really helps soothe the culture shock you might feel jumping from American culture, to a culture of predominantly Arab influence.

Our last day in the mountains was spent actually hiking up the mountains.  I was so glad we did though, because the view from the top of the mountain was TOTALLY worth the three-hour hike up.  Spending time in such a rural setting is eye opening.  You are surrounded by so much natural beauty, and at the same time living in such primitive conditions, by American standards.  It is oddly refreshing to be without all the headache and stress that comes with all the technology we are constantly surrounding ourselves with.  More than once on this trip I thought I would be perfectly happy moving to the country and growing figs for the rest of my life, but I also would not give up a good education like the one I’m receiving at Wooster for anything.  Both worlds have good things to offer, and I think the trick is to find an appropriate balance of both, although isn’t that the key to everything in life?  Finding the perfect balance.