Category Archives: Rotary

Volunteering in Ain Diab


This past Sunday, an association called Bahri organized its third annual beach cleanup in Ain Diab.

I met up with some friends, grabbed some gloves and garbage bags, and roamed the beach for a couple of hours. I’m not saying the beaches are the cleanest places I’ve ever seen, but it’s amazing how little trash we picked up. As I understand it, the city does send out sanitation workers to pick up the trash, and in fact a few of them worked side by side with the volunteers.

It was a good reason to get some sun and ocean air on a Sunday morning, but also part of my excitement leading up to this event has to do with the notion of volunteerism. I’ve heard in several conversations with Moroccan friends that there isn’t a culture of community service here, the subtext being that there is one in the United States.

Or so they’ve heard. I’m not prepared to argue that we have identical ideas on civic engagement, but the “culture of community service” thing strikes me as one of those positive stereotypes that you don’t want to quite refute, but that doesn’t exactly ring true, either. Let’s say that the idea of donating your time and energy to a cause has been normalized in the US and even institutionalized—across the country high school students have to log a certain number of community service hours in order to graduate. I’m just not prepared to confirm that Americans are more devoted to “the community” or feel a stronger sense of civic responsibility.

For starters, a lot of what I do in Morocco revolves around the Rotary, Rotaract, and an association fueled largely by volunteers. Between those three centers of activity, I’ve seen no shortage of a desire to, you know, “make a difference.”

I was intrigued by the idea of a beach cleanup in Casablanca billed as a “family event” and open to all. As opposed to, say, a project organized by my Rotaract friends to benefit members of a community. There’s a subtle difference. A cleanup may seem basic but it gives people the chance to see small, positive actions as part of a larger project. It’s also reasonably apolitical, and casts no one as a charity case.

It might also discourage people from ever tossing their lollipop sticks in the sand. Boy do Aib Diab beach-goers consume a lot of lollipops…

A little plastic doll shoe…

With my friends Sophia and fellow Ambassadorial Scholar Jacob.

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Filed under community service, Rotaract, Rotary

Visit to Casa-Anfa RC


Last night I gave a presentation to the members of the Rotary Club of Casablanca-Anfa.

As I said in an earlier post, Anfa is the distant ancestor of present-day Casablanca. Today the name refers to a neighborhood of villas originally built for the French and now occupied by the mostly Moroccan Casablanca elite. To give you Chicagoans an idea, last night as I searched for a way to describe the Lincoln Park neighborhood in derija, the Rotarians got what I was trying to say and suggested we call it “the Anfa of Chicago.”

Their banner is a lesson on Casablanca:

On the bottom right is a map of Rotary District 9010, which covers Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Mauritania.

Above that, the lighthouse and hills of the El Hank neighborhood, visible from the ocean.

At the top right, the flame represents the Casablanca Conference, attended by FDR and Churchill in 1943.

Top left represents the skyline of the “new” Anfa, AKA Casablanca.

Below that, bottom left, is the Wilaya, which serves as a combination City Hall and Regional government building, with its distinctive clock tower. An image of this building was used in the marketing materials for the US-Arab Cities Forum (along with the Hancock Tower in Chicago).

The banner was designed before the building of the Hassan II mosque, which is now the most distinctive feature of the Casa skyline.

Hey so what’s the deal with Rotary banners anyway?

Two things:
1) The Rotary network extends all over the world, and Rotarians are always meeting with other Rotarians;
2) rituals and symbols are a big part of Rotary culture–pins, banners, flags, etc.

Whenever I give a presentation or meet with members of a club, I present the banners of Chicago One, first RC in the world, and Chicago Far North RC, my sponsors. In exchange, I get banners from the clubs that host me, which I’ll give to my sponsoring club when I get back to Chicago.

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The Derija Monologues


For the first time today, I talked for about five minutes straight in nothing but Derija.

I was giving my first Rotary Club presentation to the Casablanca Doyen RC.

The response I got from the club was positive. Embarassingly positive, in fact. Without any false modesty, I have to say that although I’ve been making steady improvement, I’m nowhere near fluency. It speaks to the rarity of Derija learners and the status of the language that the Doyen Rotarians didn’t hold it against me when I had trouble understanding a few follow-up questions in Arabic.

When people ask me what’s the use of learning Moroccan Derija (they only speak it in Morocco!), I want to tell them about the kind of response I’ve gotten today. Any progress you make is rewarded with more affirmation that you’ll ever get trying to learn, say, English. Or French. Don’t even get me started on French.

The flip side, naturally, is that this is only possible in a context where even speakers of the language doubt its value. What is Derija compared to English? What is it even compared to modern standard Arabic?

In trying to take this issue head-on with some classmates, I’ve come up against various and conflicting attitudes that challenge the way I’ve thought about Derija so far.

In class last week, after a presentation on language and globalization, I posed this question: Can we talk about a unified Arabic like we talk about a unified English?

There are a lot of “Arabic speakers” across the world, but in daily life most people speak a dialect that other “Arabic speakers,” hundreds or thousands of miles away, wouldn’t understand. Sure, they might pick up a few words. But just because I get the gist of a conversation in Italian doesn’t mean I speak the same language as Italians.

The reaction that my question provoked in class was more intense than I had expected. I took for granted that Moroccans don’t consider their day to day language to be legitimately “Arabic.” Over and over I’ve heard Moroccans talk about “Derija” as opposed to “al-loura al-3arabia” (“the Arabic Language” a.k.a. “Fus-ha”), occasionally going so far as to classify Derija as less than, or even not as beautiful compared to Fus-ha or other languages more similar to standard Arabic.

The flip side to the relaxed and informal attitude towards Derija is a tendency, among Moroccans I’ve talked with, to take standard Arabic very seriously, both as a language and as a unifier of a transnational community of Arabic speakers and Muslims (with plenty of overlap between the two). I was pretty taken aback when several classmates reacted defensively to my insinuation that Arabic was not a “lived” language.

Something I’ve started to realize now that I’m here is that standard Arabic isn’t as inaccessible as I’d first thought. The Moroccan King always addresses his people in Arabic. One classmate pointed out that it is the language that’s read by millions of people who read the newspaper in Arabic. Another classmate pointed out that the gulf between daily Arabic and written Arabic will narrow with education.

Oh boy, and that’s to say nothing of the ten million Moroccans who speak Tarifit, Tashelhit, or Tamazight.

Sure, I believe in having standards for a language and respect for its rules, but I also think that it’s vital for people to feel proud of the language that they use to communicate every day. When I arrived here a few months ago, one of the first things I noticed that was different from the last time I’d been in Morocco, in 2005, was the television programming. 2M, the national television channel, had started to broadcast foreign soap operas dubbed in Derija, opposed to only standard Arabic or, I would argue worse, Egyptian dialect.

But that’s also because I hate tuning to a program in Egyptian. It frustrates my efforts to learn Moroccan Derija.

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Filed under Ambassadorial Scholarship, Arabic, Casablanca, derija, Rotary

“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” mayoral edition


Sometimes it’s a relief to know that I have that “dumb foreigner” card in my back pocket for occasions such as last night’s.

Let me first say that I’ve met a handful of Rotarians since I got to Morocco two months ago, and it’s difficult to keep track of everyone’s names, especially if I haven’t had a long conversation with them.

Last night a very friendly Rotary couple took me out to a Rotary soirée hosted in someone’s home in the very chic neighborhood of Californie. About 150 Rotarians and spouses gathered for an evening of poetry and music by a Moroccan poet, one Senegalese and two American collaborators. Performances were in Arabic, French, American, Moroccan Derija and Wolof, as were the side conversations among Rotarians. The atmosphere was congenial and, yet…well, I’ll just say that I’m glad my Rotary event outfit default is set to “fancy.”

I was chatting with some people at the party, who suggested that we go out in the back yard to get some fresh air and avoid the heavy traffic of Rotarians coming through the front door.

As we stepped out, I recognized the familiar face of a man who stood up to greet us.

I had on my Ambassadorial Scholar smile and my custom-made nametag, not to mention a little stack of business cards, so I went for it.

-Salaam! I’m Kathleen. I think we’ve met before! On se connait, je crois.

(I didn’t shout, I’m just using exclamation points here to show my enthusiasm, which now seems…ridiculous.)

I went in for a handshake, which he accepted, but the man looked at me with a mix of puzzlement and amusement. The handshake, at first enthusiastic (at least on my part) got limp as my confidence waned. The people I’d been chatting with chuckled.

Wait…what’s going on here?

-No, I don’t think we’ve met before.

-Um…oh…you look familiar, though…Votre tête me dit quelque chose, pourtant

-He’s my Dad, said one guy.

Obviously I still didn’t get it, and an awkward silence reigned.

-And he’s this guy’s brother-in-law, said another with an ironic smile, pointing to someone else.

-Um, okay, I said. I started to laugh nervously while I racked my brain. And then I remembered. In fact I had a few seconds to think about how I had failed to recognize this man before he finally broke the tension.

Je suis le maire de Casablanca.

That’s right, the mayor of Casablanca. Whoops…

-Oooh, that explains it, I said, turning beet red and laughing sheepishly.

Chuckles all around, in fact.

I can now say that I not only met the mayor of Casablanca, but that I made an idiot of myself by violating social conventions (probably) when I accidentally accosted the mayor of Casablanca at a private party. I can only hope that my “dumb foreigner” card bumped me up to “endearing” from just…”awkward.”

Maybe he’ll remember me next time?

Mayor Mohammed Sajjid with Chicago Mayor Daley and Vice-President Biden. Urban Forum, May 2009

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Filed under Ambassadorial Scholarship, Casablanca, Rotary, Sister Cities, Urban Morocco

the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center kicks off a new year


Our mission at the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center is to encourage at risk children and vulnerable youth to stay in school and avoid delinquency, drug addiction and extremism. Through various activities, we provide opportunities for these children to be good citizens and future leaders.

I visited the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center for the first time on Tuesday night, at the kick-off event for another year of programming. This is the center’s third year. It still looks nearly brand new.

The Sidi Moumen Cultural Center is run by IDMAJ, an association affiliated with the Moroccan Association of Sister Cities Casablanca Chicago. I’ve written about this place a couple of times*, and I’ve been hearing about the center for a few years now. This year I’ll finally get to learn about it first-hand as a volunteer for the Moroccan Association of Sister Cities Casablanca Chicago.

The center serves 300 children and is run mostly by volunteers, who got up onstage to be honored by the huge crowd of parents and children who’d gathered for opening night. In the middle of the crowd and wearing a suit is Boubker Mazoz, director of the Moroccan Association of Sister Cities Casablanca Chicago…and Rotarian!

Mr. Mazoz introduced me to the parents as the new Ousteda, or teacher, so I took a picture of the crowd from the stage. Take a look at this turnout…

What a breathtaking sight… not to mention show of faith in the center from the Sidi Moumen community.

*To see earlier posts about the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center, go to: Chicago Hope and Promoting “social cohesion” through urban policy

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pictures of my neighborhood, by Allison Kwesell


I’ve added a page to the Photo Gallery that has some pictures taken by my friend Alli. She’s a professional photojournalist, which is obvious when you look at her pictures. Below is one of my favorites, but check out the new page to see them all.

When a photojournalist comes to town…

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Filed under day in the life, pictures, Rotary, Urban Morocco

“Which is better, Rabat or Casa?”


I feel full of energy and enthusiasm after spending the weekend in Rabat. Or I should say returning to Rabat. Although even as I write this I’m coming down from my high because it’s around midnight and I’ve finally adjusted to the different time zone. One week, right on schedule.

Rabat is at the same time exactly as I remember it and drastically changed in the past five years. The few months I spend living in the medina were the most stimulating of my life so far, so I have every detail of my stay burned into memory. I’ve been away long enough that all the children I knew have grown a foot or more, but I feel like I never left when I hang out with Safa and her family or walk around the medina. I am happy to brag that I was walking around with a fellow Ambassadorial Scholar and found the English bookstore on my first try—I’d only been there once. In the interest of full disclosure, though, I have to say that I did get a little bit confused when I thought it would be fun to try to find my way from the CCCL to my homestay family’s old house…

The city is undergoing a lot of exciting changes. The tramway I mentioned last year is underway, and I really hope to see it in operation. Construction is a pain, but it looks promising.

I wouldn’t have really noticed the quality of the roadways in 2005 since I almost never left the medina but Safa says that the city has done a lot of repaving. Oh, and I did a double take when I saw…a bike lane!

The riverfront has been completely redeveloped, although on the other bank it looks like about half a dozen hotels sit unfinished. That project was started not too long before the economy went down the tubes. They were supposed to accommodate the ten million tourists who were supposed to visit Morocco in 2010.

Yes I know, all this would be more interesting with pictures, but I accidentally erased all of mine from this weekend.

I also paid a visit to the Center for Cross-Cultural Learning, which houses the SIT program I attended. After catching up with a few wonderful staff members, I had the surreal experience of sitting in on an orientation lecture with the newly arrived American students. They spent the last fifteen minutes of class discussing how to be a guest in this country, and what it means to be sensitive and respectful in an unfamiliar culture.

On Saturday night I gave my first formal introduction in Arabic—and to a minister, no less. A real bigwig, apparently, although neither Safa nor I can remember what he’s the minister of. The occasion was a very fancy ftour hosted by I’m not sure who, but attended by members of Safa’s Young Researchers Association. I was underdressed. In any case, I am always a little bit lost these days but found myself sitting at the table where louazir wanted introductions all around. So I let loose: Ana Taliba fi bi3ta tha9afia bilmaghreb min Chicago, 3andi minha min ljama3ia Rotary linqra fi 7assan teni. *

*I am a cultural exchange researcher in Morocco, from Chicago. I can have a scholarship from the Rotary foundation to study at Hassan II.

This weekend I also reached the point where I actually believed that I will be conversant in derija by the end of the year. It’s one thing to be given that assurance by everyone here, it’s another to actually start to understand whole bits of conversation.

As for the title: Rabat and Casa, like Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park, are only an hour away from each other by train. The rivalry is alive and well, and I am being pressured from both sides to accept that each is better than the other. Recording vocabulary in my little red book was confusing this past weekend because Casaoui and Rbati derija are slightly different. I am sure to get some laughs when I use a Rbati word in Casa, or a Casaoui word in Rabat.

This picture business is getting silly. I promise to work on that.

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Filed under Ambassadorial Scholarship, Arabic, Casablanca, derija, Rabat region, Rotary, Transportation development, Uncategorized, urban development, Urban Morocco