Category Archives: cultural shock

Casa, first impressions


A few professors at the Ben Msik campus where I’ve been taking classes this year organized a program for a group of visiting American students and their professors. I had the honor of teaching their first seminar: a two hour crash course on Casablanca.

Having to cram for the Casablanca seminar right as I came home from a trip to France, and less than a month before I take off for Chicago, gave me a powerful jolt of excitement for this city, not to mention the rare feeling of having accomplished one of the goals I’d set for this year: to learn about Casablanca. There’s nothing like teaching to confirm what you’ve learned or to expose what you don’t know.

To start, I asked students to give their first impressions of the city along four basic themes—the people, the buildings, the streets, and transportation. They’d been in the city for two days, long enough to have been to a range of places, namely the medina, Maarif, Habbous, and Ben Msik.

The students’ comments focused overwhelmingly on what is possibly the most defining characteristic of Casablanca: contradiction. Students observed that modern buildings sit side by side with old buildings, that some formerly beautiful buildings lay in ruins, that wealth and poverty coexist. Many saw “ordered chaos,” some reported “a lot of traffic, but no accidents.” (If only that were true…)

Another striking sight: “pets” in the streets :-(. This one points to a minor cultural difference that comes up every time my foreign friends or I walk past a stray cat and squeal, “awwww!” Which is to say, every day.

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Filed under Casablanca, cultural shock, Moroccan-American Studies, urban life

The Big Holiday


Eid el-Adha is the holiday of sacrifice. Families each slaughter a sheep if they can afford it, and even if they can’t, as a sign of sacrifice to God. It’s also referred to as Eid el-Kabir, or the Big Eid, as opposed to the “small” one at the end of Ramadan. “Eid” simply means “holiday.”

Practitioners of Islam, Christianity, or Judaism might remember the story of Abraham, who was prepared to kill his own son as a sign of his complete trust in God. At the last possible moment, God asked him instead to sacrifice a sheep, and so here we are.

* * *
After morning prayers, my friend’s family came to pick me up at my apartment and take us all to my friend’s grandmother’s house. Everyone in the car, and in the street, was decked out in especially clean, if not new, jellabas, caftans, and at least in the case of and eight-year-old cousin of my friend’s, a sweet suit. I wore black pants and a button-down shirt—not too fancy, but clean at least. Right before lunch, I was urged to change into something “more comfortable,” which is how I ended up wearing an awesome purple caftan that my friend just up and gave to me at the end of the day.

What about the sheep?
By 10:30, the three sheep on the rooftop terrace of the family’s house were very much alive. They had only been around for a week at most, but there was already the “nice” ones and the “mean” one. Later on, we could still tell which one was which by their heads.

Islamic law in regards to halal butchering requires that animals be treated humanely leading up to their slaughter and in the way they are killed. As the first sheep was led away from the other two and the uncle/butcher checked the sharpness of his knife, a barrier was put up so that no sheep would witness the fate of the others.

The family washed the surface around the rooftop drain and prepared buckets and basins of water. The process of slaughter and butchering is messy, long, and very labor intensive for everyone.

I was around to take the obligatory picture of the first sheep right after his throat was slit, although I couldn’t watch the cut being made.

I only saw the next steps later in the day in videos taken by an aunt. The carcass is hung up, skinned, gutted, its intestines and organs washed, its limbs cut off.

In one video the uncle says, “She hardly saw anything at all!” And an aunt responds, “Maybe she’s too sensitive to watch the whole thing. Maybe. Mumkin.” I understood that last word clearly, but my friend translated the rest.

It was a little much for me. I’ve watched my grandma on her farm in France slaughter chickens and I was never really that into watching the entire process.

The first bites of the sheep were delicious. The liver was grilled, probably no more than a half hour after it came out of the animal. Then it was cubed, rubbed in cumin, wrapped in a strip taken from one of the sheets of fat that had been hung out to dry, and grilled once more. The resulting kabobs were super delicious, and I had two.

A half hour later, though, maybe under the effect of so much meat and fat at once, I was nauseous. The once kind-of-novel carcasses and severed body parts were suddenly very, very gross to me.

Eid in the streets
So I went on a walk with my friend through her grandma’s neighborhood to get some exercise and a little fresh air.

Well, not fresh air. Every other block or so, a group of guys were making a few Dirhams tending to a bonfire where neighbors came to have their sheep heads and legs roasted.

My friend suggested that the scene—closed shops, bonfires and smoke everywhere, the smell of burnt flesh—was like the set of a zombie movie. I hadn’t thought of that, but once she mentioned it… I guess you could say the neighborhood sort of resembled the friendliest post-apocalyptic city ever. There weren’t a lot of people in the streets, but the atmosphere was festive.
* * *
The blood and guts aspect of Eid el Kabir is almost impossible to gloss over or ignore, and it’s the number one thing I’ve heard from people about this holiday. This year was my first Eid el Kabir, and “blood in the streets”-wise, they weren’t exaggerating.

The slaughter is hugely important in this holiday, but so is spending time with family. I got to be adopted for a day as a hybrid honored guest/meskina clueless foreigner. Who is now the proud owner of a sweet purple caftan! Shoukran a Zainab!

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Filed under cultural shock, Moroccan traditions

adjusting…’imik simik’


Classes have started, there’s work to be done at Sister Cities, I’m attending Rotaract meetings, and last week I met my first Rotarians outside of Mr. Mazoz. In the midst of so much activity, all of a sudden, I’m faced with the possibility of not finishing everything I want to do this year. Surprise, surprise…

I’ve entered some kind of phase of culture shock, though it might be easier to identify once I’ve moved on to the next phase. In any case this one can be characterized by homesickness (made all the more intense by the fact that I recently saw my family in France) and a feeling of insignificance in the face of so much to absorb and learn, understand and interpret. This is why I haven’t posted in awhile, though tonight I resolved to post something, anything, to get back into the rhythm.

You’ll notice that I’ve added a banner signifying that this is one of Go!Overseas’s top ten Morocco travel blogs. I wasn’t sure at first if I wanted to give them the free advertising, but figured that in light of the advertising this does for me, it’s a pretty fair trade. (Go!Overseas is a site that assembles information on how to study, work, or volunteer all over the world.)

In time, I’ll offer more details on what has made me so busy—starting, soon, with my classes. In the meantime, in keeping with the theme of the blog and my mantra for times like these: a video of Hindi Zahra singing “Imik Simik.” The title means, you guessed it, “little by little” in Tashel7it, one of the Amazighi, a.k.a. Berber, dialects of Morocco.

Translation (translated from this article):

– imik simik : little by little
– afoss rofoss : hand in hand
– wink d winou : yours and mine
– ira nftou : we’ll go
– lir tssfa tassa inou lir tsssfa oualine inou : when my faith becomes clear, when my eyes become clear
– lir toumzète affoss inou arar aoui yi dik : when you take my hand, just take me with you

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Filed under cultural shock, Moroccan music

Une semaine chez les français


Apologies for not posting these past few days. I heard about a week and a half ago that classes would be pushed back another week, so I jumped on the chance to go visit my family in France.

Being in France was not as bizarre an experience as I thought it might be after a month in Casablanca. I did get the chance to take some distance from my first few weeks in Morocco and reflect. And last night, I got to “come home” to Casa, to my apartment and wonderful roommate, and to a life which now seems much clearer than it did on September 30th when I first touched down.

* * *

Although I was born in France and have deep cultural ties there, it’s not exactly home for me. In the street no one would suspect that I didn’t grow up in France, but that only makes it weirder when I occasionally stutter or have to ask sometimes very stupid questions.

Visiting Morocco is a completely different experience. First of all, I can in no way pass for Moroccan. This isn’t so much a question of physical appearance, since my light skin could very possibly make me a Berber, or a Moroccan from the Rif region. As soon as I open my mouth, though, there’s no doubt that I’m a gaouria, a foreigner. So if I know any derija at all, if I’m starting to know my way around Casa, I get a gold star.

Of course this also reveals a cultural difference between France and Morocco…

While carpooling to Nantes from Paris, my sister and I shared a car with two Nantais and a woman from Rabat who remarked that “making friends in Morocco is easy.” (C’est facile de se faire des amis au Maroc) In France, people have a tendency to approach others more cautiously, as opposed to “letting it all hang out.” Affirmation is harder to come by in France, where even the American “think positive!” approach is often perceived to be naive or even dishonest.

I’ve spent my whole life navigating cultural differences between my French and American sides. It took me awhile even to understand that there were important cultural differences. Over the summer I read a book recommended by a close friend, a french woman who lived in Chicago–happily–for four years. The name of the book is Understanding Europeans. Don’t laugh! It’s illuminating.

Along those lines…I picked up a book in France that I’d heard a lot about in Morocco: Une année chez les Français (A Year Among the French) by Fouad Laroui, who’s Moroccan. The book has been well-received and even nominated for the prestigious Goncourt literary award. The only other Moroccan to have received this award is the famed Tahar Ben Jelloun (or “TBJ” for short so you know he’s a “grosse légume”, a big deal).

Une année chez les Français is a classic fish-out-of-the-water story that focuses on a painfully shy and bookish ten year old Moroccan kid, Mehdi, who gets a scholarship to study in the illustrious Lycée Lyautey in Casablanca. Mehdi, who really just wants to spend his days reading, has to grapple with the clash of culture, language, and socio-economic class while also overcoming his own very intense shyness. This all sounds dramatic but the book is actually hilarious, especially if you happen to have experienced the French educational system abroad.

Like Understanding Europeans, the title of Une année chez les Français seems to wink at an old-fashioned anthropological study, historically presented from an Old European point of view.

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Filed under American culture, cultural diplomacy, cultural shock, cultural understanding, Moroccan fiction, Travel

Baby steps into Casa


Today I stepped outside into Casablanca by myself for the first time. Nhar kabir hada!

I can’t stress enough how grateful I am to have landed right in the home of some wonderful people who take excellent care of me. I’m graduating from being 100% a guest. Now I’ve started clearing dishes, even attempting to wash them. Which apparently I can’t do without breaking a glass. Ugh!

Up until today I’ve gone on really brief errands, arm in arm with Ibtissam or with her family. This morning, for instance, we paid a visit to l’école Le Cedre, mere blocks away! I was struck with an exhilarating feeling: I have been here before!

I reacquainted myself with the director, who does remember me and who announced, freshly home from vacation and wearing a Hawaiian shirt, that he’d only just received my email and will get back to me as soon as he can. His office is still decked out in pictures of Chicago–Garfield Park fountain, my old principals, Lincoln Elementary, etc.

After that Ibtissam and I went out for a little shopping in the adjacent neighborhood, Maarif. (Which is pretty swanky, actually. Zahra, Mango, Adidas, you get the idea) I got myself a phone at last, and then we went back home so that I could have a little breakfast. This was around 1PM. I hadn’t eaten yet and I felt pretty faint and sympathetic towards those who’ve been fasting for three weeks now.

I have fasted in the past, when I was in Rabat in 2005. But when I think about what might be the worst way for me to fend off culture shock and homesickness, not eating comes to mind…

This afternoon I stepped out into the street, walked for a bit and asked for directions before hailing a cab to take me to the center of town. I can’t say this any better than my friend Mona, so I’ll quote an email she sent me earlier today: “I think sometimes having a chaperone who keeps all the intensity at arm’s length also keeps you from realizing that yes, you can actually deal with it!”

Yes, I can actually finding my way, asking directions when I have to. I appreciate now more than ever the wisdom of my old study abroad program directors in Rabat. They drove us around town in a bus and dropped us off to force us to find our way back home. Sounds crazy bananas until you do it and realize “you can actually deal with it!”

I feel good. I feel great. I feel wonderful.

Anyway, I was going to finally meet the larger than life Boubker Mazoz. I also saw a professor I’ve been trying to get in touch with for…seven months now? And another American I’ve heard a lot about, who’s been living in Morocco for four years. I am in awe.

Not much news to report on the Sister Cities/Sidi Moumen front. The plan is for me to intern on a volunteer basis at the office downtown and possibly the Sidi Moumen cultural center, but all that will depend on my schedule.

Which depends on my studies. Which in turn depends on what I will hear from the Rotary Foundation about auditing courses, instead of enrolling in a Masters program. The official reason for my stay here is to go to school, so that will be my priority.

Here is the problem: The Moroccan-American studies program I have wanted to attend is mid-cycle. I would be coming in for only the second year. Therefore I can’t officially enroll, though I can probably audit courses and even TA for the department. I’m very excited about this prospect, but cautious. I expect some protest from the Foundation… Of course I should have know about this mid-cycle business, but here you can’t always count on getting even basic information when you make your plans.

I’ve gotten many wonderful emails from friends and family. Keep ’em coming! I’m impressed with how well you put into words all that I’ve been experiencing these past few days. I can feel your support and sincere joy for me, and I’m reminded that I’m right where I should be.

(P.S. Pictures are forthcoming.)

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Filed under Ambassadorial Scholarship, Casablanca, cultural shock, getting things done, Rotary, Sister Cities

This is where I’m going to live (for a year)


At long last, I am in Casablanca!

I got in “last night”–time is a little slippery these days, what with travel, time changes, and Ramadan on top of it all. I was cranky and disoriented from my short nap on the plane when we landed in very dense fog in Casablanca around 11:30 PM. By the time I was in the car on the way to Casa with my friend Ibtissam, her mom, her aunt, her sister, and her niece I was giddy from the waves of relief I got when a) I saw my suitcase on the baggage carousel, and b) I heard Ibtissam call out my name. In my nervous and sleep-deprived state that she was like a hijabi vision.

I’m staying with a friend and her wonderful family, though I don’t yet know for how long. My favorite is Ibtissam’s three year old niece, who I’ve nicknamed Batata. On the car ride from the airport, she was chattering about something or other and the only words I could make our were ‘batata,’ potato, and ‘mateisha,’ tomato. Batata is a goofy kid, and really lets loose around me, something she doesn’t normally do in front of adults. Of course with my limited derija I may as well be three years old, so I don’t blame her for the confusion.

It’s funny, five years ago when I first arrived in Rabat I experienced homesickness maybe once. I was well into my semester, and I felt much better after watching 40-Year Old Virgin with my host sister. Of course I had flown over with my American peers, and everything was taken care of for me. Still, I should have felt more disoriented then, when I had never stepped foot outside of the U.S. or France.

Although I’m well taken care of my first day has been difficult, emotionally. I feel much better now, sitting in front of a computer with access to the portal to the world that is the internet. Last night, though, when I should have passed out immediately after my travels, I stewed in my homesickness and tried to stay calm like an claustrophobic person tries not to lose it in a crowded bus. One minute at a time.

I am intimidated by this city. In other words the object of my studies, my general academic and professional interest, ‘the city.’ Today I took an overstimulating stroll in the neighborhood today with Ibtissam’s mom and sister and niece. We only walked around the neighborhood and visited the market, for maybe thirty minutes. I kept thinking of something I’ve pictured my Dad saying as a kid when his family was driving through the South Side of Chicago, where they were moving from Idaho: “This is where we’re going to live?”

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Filed under cultural shock, Morocco, Travel, Uncategorized, Urban Morocco, اصهاب

Culture Shock!


Here’s a video I came across today of an international MBA candidate’s PowerPoint presentation to other international students. Dan Fishel explains the phenomenon of culture shock and its stages, which should be helpful to anyone who spends time abroad.

He also has some interesting points about adjusting to American culture specifically.

I just finished reading Culture Shock! Morocco: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette. It’s part of a series of anti travel guides (Culture Shock! USA, Culture Shock! France, etc) that give a broad view of culture and etiquette. I’m not sure how much of this you can understand without first having traveled to a country and collected your own first hand account of, say, how French people take food very, very seriously. In any case it reminded me of a few things I noticed when I was in Rabat in 2005. Like what? Meh, stay tuned. I’ll have some hopefully keen cultural observations about Morocco starting in about…45 days, now.

Mostly, reading the book pumped me up for my trip at the end of August.

Here’s that video:

Internationalstudent.com Culture Shock

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Filed under American culture, cultural shock