Category Archives: Sister Cities

3rd Annual US-Arab Cities Forum

In 2008, Chicago Mayor Daley launched the US-Arab Cities Forum in partnership with the mayors of two of Chicago’s sister cities, Amman (Jordan) and Casablanca. The stated purpose of the event, attended by mayors from American and Arab cities, was to build city-to-city relationships between the two regions at a time (ongoing) when many people see a “clash of civilizations.”

At this year’s forum, hosted by the City of Casablanca and co-organized by Sister-Cities Casablanca-Chicago Association, about two dozen city leaders from the US, Morocco, Jordan, Mauritania, Somalia, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia met for two days in downtown Casablanca.

As a volunteer at Casa-Chicago I played a limited role in helping to put together the event. Mayor of Casablanca Mohamed Sajid now recognizes me as “the woman who does translations” rather than “that person who accosted me at a party once.” As a volunteer I got to enjoy some really nice perks, like the privilege of chatting with mayors about their cities and a continental breakfast during every day of the event. Yum.

And I got to talk Chicago with Mayor Daley, which was definitely the high point of my week.

It was a thrill to be immersed in a days-long conversation about cities, urban development, and exchange between the US and the Arab world. I also got to get a visiting dignitaries’ perspective of Casablanca: tours of the Hassan II mosque and Art Deco architecture in downtown Casa, lunch at the top of a skyscraper with panoramic view of the city, dinner as a guest of the king in one of his palaces (though he wasn’t there).

I’m exhausted now, and way behind on my schoolwork, but I have renewed excitement about this city. While I experience Casablanca every day as a student, commuter, pedestrian, foreigner, woman, café patron, shopper, etc., it’s fascinating to get more of a bird’s eye view, and to tap into the perspective of those who are shaping this and other cities in the long term.

Although some mayors touched on concrete projects in their cities, the event had more of a diplomatic feel than anything else. In the three workshops, which focused on cultural programming, technology, and gender, nothing much was said that couldn’t have been put out in a city hall press release. I wouldn’t say that those conversations were particularly academic. But then again, this was a conference of politicians.

As for press coverage of the event in Chicago, it’s all quiet on the western front. There’s just mention of Daley’s visit in an article criticizing Daley for traveling. There was also no coverage at all of the first forum held in Chicago in 2008.



Filed under Casablanca, Chicago, Middle East, Sister Cities, urban development, Urban Morocco

Sidi Belyout

View from the Sister Cities office in Sidi Belyout.


Filed under day in the life, pictures, Sister Cities

“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


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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Filed under community service, Rotary, Sidi Moumen, Sister Cities

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

White City, Windy City

If you have some time, check out this video. It gives a broad view of Chicago, Casablanca, and the Sister-City relationship between the two.

The video is very travel show-y, but I’ve never seen a travel show that combined visits to cities that are so different and far apart.

It’s supposed to be a pilot for a series on Sister-City relationship between US and Middle Eastern cities. It dates back to 2008, but I don’t know if the series took off. I’ll update here if I hear anything.
update (7/7/2010): The US/Arab world sister-city documentary project never got off the ground, unfortunately. The pilot was done by Layalina Productions, a non-profit whose mission is to improve relations between the US and the Arab world through TV programming. Check out their shows, especially American Caravan and On the Road, two reality TV-type programs about Arab and American youth discovering each others’ countries. According to the Layalina website, their programs reach a target audience of millions, although my impression is that they reach a much smaller number of viewers in the U.S. than in the Middle East.

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Filed under Casablanca, Chicago, cultural diplomacy, cultural understanding, Sister Cities

Promoting “social cohesion” through urban policy

I apologize for breaking a major rule of blogging– it’s a long one! Please stay with me, though.

On Sunday the International Federation for Housing and Planning kicked off its annual conference in the Moroccan capital city of Rabat. A Le Matin article relates an interview with Fadéla Amara, a French politician of Algerian descent, and current secretary of state in charge of urban affairs in France for the UMP center-right political party. (Check out her fascinating bio on Wikipedia)

Amara’s remarks touched on urban development very broadly. Although she’s coming from a French context, she says, “Personally, I’ve always thought that we have to pool our experiences in terms of urban development.” (her words: “il faut mutualiser les experiences des uns et des autres”) In light of this, I want to take a closer look at how she frames what she identifies as the two main challenges of urban development:

1) Promoting social cohesion by ensuring that there is social, educational, and cultural programming to accompany physical development. She says:

“We must reinforce social cohesion in cities so that residents can coexist, make use of urban space and can access services, green spaces, and economic development. We must therefore focus our efforts on space, the built environment, and especially men and women.” (emphasis mine)

The work of the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center, a major partner of the Chicago-Casablanca Sister-City relationship, embodies this “beyond bricks and mortar” angle of urban development. Through art, music, mentoring, and youth development programs, the Sidi Moumen Community Center aims to improve the community on a level beyond basic resources and infrastructure.

If you click on the link to the website for the Cultural Center, you’ll find that it’s actually run through IDMAJ, a neighborhood association whose name means ‘integration’ in Arabic. (At this point I should disclaim that I don’t yet have first hand knowledge of the center and its programming, only its website and descriptions by Sister City folks.) In just the language of the website, you’ll notice that a theme of “integration into society” dominates. The word “integration” is largely absent from the vocabulary of community developers in the U.S., whose clichés are more along the lines of “empowerment.”

Cautiously, I’d say that this has to do with our distinct national characters. In the U.S. we tend to focus on cultivating power and influence on the level of individuals and interest groups, whereas in French society (Amara’s point of reference) “communautarisme” is generally taboo. In Morocco, which is also much more of a collective society than either the U.S. or France, it makes sense to talk about bringing marginalized people back into the fold.

Amara’s second challenge:
2) Preventing social fracture by providing equal access to services in terms of housing, medicine, education and transportation. As told by Amara, equality is a means to achieving social cohesion, which itself is important for the good of the country:

“If we lose track of what is at stake, we risk a fracture between rich and poor neighborhoods, which could weaken national solidarity.”

I don’t believe I’ve ever heard this kind of argumentation in the U.S. in any mainstream way–too Marxist?– but it absolutely rings true. Of course here in the U.S. we are generally uncomfortable talking about socio-economic class, but plug in race instead and the argument resonates.

Consider the difference between saying, A) “we must improve access to services, infrastructure, and economic opportunities across the city because society has a responsibility to ensure a safety net for the marginalized,” or, “so that communities can become empowered,” and saying B) “We must improve access to services, infrastructure, and economic opportunities across the city, or else risk a fractured society.”

In Chicago, as in many American cities, problems arising from inequality don’t only affect marginalized individuals and communities. Systemic inequality in Chicago has created a city that is fractured and tense, so that simple interactions between people can often weigh heavy with historical baggage. Stay in one enclave and you might feel pretty comfortable. But transgress geographical, social, or racial boundaries (they are often one and the same) and be met with confusion, often hostility.

* * *
As Fadéla Amara says, urban and community developers should be able to learn from one another. One of the exciting aspects of studying urban development is that cities are so unique. Each has its own particular character, a combination of architecture and planning, history and circumstance—all shrouded in layers of cultural subtleties.

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Filed under Chicago, Morocco, Rabat region, Sister Cities, urban development, Urban Morocco