Tag Archives: cultural adjustment

Ifrane, Morocco: Keep Off the Grass

5 Mar

Al-Akhawayn University, where we’ll be finishing out the remaining three months of our year of  Arabic study, is located in the bizarre little town of Ifrane, Morocco.  Here are a few fun facts that I’ve picked up after a week of living here.

1.  Al-Akhawayn means “two brothers” in Arabic, and is named for previous Kings Hassan of Morocco and Fahd of Saudi Arabia, who are not actually brothers.  The money to start the university came from a kingly gift from Saudi Arabia meant to help clean up a huge oil spill off the coast of Morocco.  The oil from the spill ended up getting swept away by ocean currents, but I guess you can’t exactly return a kingly gift, so they money ended up being spent to establish a public English-speaking university in Morocco.  The university brings in some of the best students from around the country, and unlike the rest of the university system, costs a whole lot of money…our guidebook says, “only the rich and beautiful need apply.”

2.  The town and university are both designed with a very European architectural style, and houses, academic buildings, and dorms look more like they could be Swiss chalets than smack in the middle of the Moroccan Atlas Mountains.  This is offset by a huge and beautiful mosque in the traditional Moroccan style, right in the center of campus.  I’m pretty sure it’s in the same style as al-Kutubia mosque, which as you may remember, is perhaps “the most perfect minaret in North Africa.”

3.  Did I mention it snows here?  Yesterday morning I woke my roommates up with my shocked yelp as I pulled open the curtains and the world was covered with a couple inches of snow.  There’s apparently some good skiing nearby, and the town’s population at least doubles whenever there’s a decent snow.

4.  As I’m walking around campus, the words “idyllic,” “pristine,” and “utopian” come to mind.  This lovely atmosphere of course has a price; you can get a 100dh (about $12) fine for walking on the grass.

5.  Most students speak French, Arabic, and English, and many know some Spanish too.  Conversations that you hear walking around are usually in Darija, the Moroccan colloquial Arabic, with some French thrown in.  We’ve discovered that our level of Standard Arabic is not that much different from many of the students here, and in my direct enrollment class (Arabic for use in Mass Media) I was actually helping out with Arabic words and translations!

6.  It’s been really tough coming from Egypt to here.  We all miss our cheap ful and falafel and koshary, our host mamas, the bahr, the warm weather, and our life and friends in Alexandria.  We’re making the best of the situation though, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Morocco has to offer.  All this week we had an intensive 4-hours per day of Darija…it was frustrating starting from the beginning again, but fun feeling like we learned so much in one week.   On Monday, we start our schedule for the rest of the semester, with classes in MSA, Egyptian, Translation, Islamic Studies, Arabic for Mass Media, and Darija.  In the meantime, I’m off to take a swim in the indoor Olympic sized swimming pool on campus….I guess studying here does have a few benefits 😉


It’s the Little Things

13 Nov

Getting used to living somewhere new is always a process.  And it’s always the little things that are hardest to adapt to, because they’re things so entrenched in my lifestyle in the US that I don’t even think of them.  Things like:

Automatic Clothes Dryers.  They are virtually nonexistant in Egypt.  Why?  Because we have these!

Toilet Paper.  Actually, two specific issues about toilet paper.  First, it is not widely available in bathrooms in Egypt.  Bring a supply wherever you go, or learn to live without.  Second, (and more awkwardly) no flushing toilet paper.  If you use it, well…you’re gonna have to dispose of it.  In the absence of toilet paper, most western-style toilets have a little handle that turns on a little stream of water that you can use instead.

Smoking.  Smoking is a completely different social phenomenon in Egypt than in the United States.  In the US the mention of cigarettes is often followed by cringes, glares, and judgement.  In Egypt it’s assumed (if you’re a man) that you smoke, and even I’ve been offered quite a few cigarettes by friendly taxi drivers.  You’ll see people smoking at restaurants, cafes, standing around in the street, in taxis and cars, at home.  At hospitals.  Sitting in the back of pickup trucks.  Hanging out the back tram windows.

And that’s just cigarettes.  Shisha is another story completely.  There are constantly groups of men sitting out on street corners, puffing away at their shisha, drinking tea and Turkish coffee, and playing dominoes, for much of the day and night.

In light of the prevalence of smoking in Egypt, and the large role that Shisha plays in lifestyle and culture, it’s interesting to see the measures that the government is recently implementing to try to get the population to cut down on smoking.  Like this recent anti-smoking campaign, that puts gruesome or sometimes unintentionally humorous images on the front of cigarette boxes to deter smokers.


Or, like the recent ban on Shisha in Alexandria.  Smoking Shisha in public is currently illegal in Alexandria, since October or so.  I’ve heard from several disillusioned Alexandrians that the ban is mostly an effort of the Muhafez of Alexandria (the Governor) to rake in some cash, as violators of the ban–both individuals and cafe owners–can face hefty fines.   That’s not to say you don’t still see Shisha out in the streets.  With a network of good connections to alert cafe owners as to when police inspections will occur, the ahwas aren’t getting rid of their Shishas yet.  But you didn’t hear that from me.

Finally Almost Settled

23 Sep

They tell us at our pre-departure orientation that our experience living abroad is going to be one huge W.  Lots of ups and downs.  Sometimes they’ll be little squiggles, hating Egypt one moment when you don’t have hot water or people just won’t stop staring on the street, and loving it the next when you taste your first fresh pomegranate juice or have a really good conversation with a cab driver.

My first week was rough.  It was tough to come back to Alexandria after a year, knowing some of the people and places, but having such a different mentality on what my goals and ideals are this year.  Last time, even though we took classes, the program was kind of a joke, and we learned most from our experiences in the city and travels to other parts of Egypt.  For the year-long program, we have a 30-hour per week schedule: Flagship Classes within the program, a direct enrollment course taken at Alexandria University, a 10-hour per week internship at an organization or business, and meetings with language and academic partners.  That’s not even starting to talk about homework, spending time with our host families, getting places via public transportation, eating, or sleep (ha!).  Needless to say, I’ll be busy.

And I already have been!  But to tell the truth, as my schedule is starting to take shape, and we gradually ease into finding our internships and starting university classes, I’m so much happier.  The uncertainty of not knowing what daily life will be like, where I’ll be living next week, or how I’ll get from place to place was I think the hardest part for me to deal with, at the same time as my body and sleep schedule adjusted to new food, climate, language, and environment.

So, right now, I’m finally getting settled.  Well, sort of.  Things are at least starting to gain some semblance of certainty, which is comforting.  I’m still living temporarily in the dorms I lived in last summer, within walking distance of the university.  I was originally supposed to live here just for 5 days, until the family I was going to live with came back to Alexandria.  That family ended up falling through (the mom got sick and they aren’t coming back until the end of September.)  Luckily, a friend of the program knew of another family that is willing to host me.  I went to visit them the other day, and they’re really nice!!  It’s a mom (Mama Azza) and her son (Mohab) who is in high school.  They’re moving into a new apartment and it’s not ready yet, but hopefully I’ll move in on Saturday.  For now, I’m getting sick of living out of my suitcase, and my room is a super-disaster!  Classes are great this year.  I have two of the best teachers in the program, and I can already tell I’m going to learn a lot, and have a TON of work.  The details are finally worked out for my internship, which is at an organization called Caritas that has various projects around Alexandria on issues like street children, empowerment of women, HIV/AIDS, and education….more on that when I start next week!  For my direct enrollment class, I’m taking Industrial Sociology….that should start up this week or next as well.

Anyway, so that’s the update!  I’m going to a wedding tomorrow and SUPER EXCITED!!!  Here are a few pictures of the views from my window, and from the roof, one day when I woke up before sunrise by accident.  (2nd picture is my window view)

Pre-Egypt thoughts

9 Sep

In less than one week I will be in Egypt.  7 time zones away.  Reacquainting myself with the Arabic language, and with life in Alexandria.  Reuniting with the call to prayer, the street smells, the “welcome in Egypt!”s, and the Mediterranean.

I think that it’s finally starting to hit me that I’m leaving my home, family, friends to live for 9 months somewhere else.  Holy cow.  How am I supposed to pack for that?!  And, even tougher: how am I supposed to mentally prepare for that?  I guess we’ll just have to see how it goes.

Last year, Egypt was a brand new adventure.  This time, I know a lot more about what I’m getting myself into.  Last year, my goals were to explore and see and do as much as possible.  This year, I’m going to try to focus a lot more on taking what I’ve learned the past few years, and trying to really piece the scraps together into a LANGUAGE.

Like last year, I’ll be taking Arabic language classes with other American students, and meeting with a language partner a few hours each week.   This time I’m also enrolling directly in a University course with the regular old Egyptian students and an internship with an Egyptian organization, as well as living with a family…well, with a middle-aged lady who wants to avoid an empty nest now that her kids have all moved out.

I’m excited to set off on such a long term adventure.  I’m eager to start to carve out space for myself as a semi-permanent semi-Egyptian.  I’m nervous about speaking the language again, and about how much WORK I’m going to have to do this year.  And what if my host “mom” doesn’t like me!?

Well, no time for worries now.   I’ve got way too much packing to do.  EGYPT or BUST!