Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On Marriage, Mountains, “Musculation” and Life’s Other Important business...

Besides funerals, births, and weddings, life in Fes has been nonstop hiphop. The only thing Im required to do is my Arabic, but I find each day full and exhausting. For example, I wanted to be sure to keep up with world news by buying Le Monde newspaper in French every morning, but I haven’t even had time to read the one I bought 2 weeks ago. This is unfortunate because there is an article about France’s 430 types of cheeses that looks interesting. Leave it to the French to find all the news that’s fit to print.

All cheese aside, last weekend I climbed a mountain.
Like, a legit mountain. And a legit climb.

The excursion began with 8 of us FBers meeting at Bab Guissa on the outskirts of the old Medina, around 10 am. We saw Mount Zalagh in the distance, with its radio towers on top, and were pumped about having lunch on the summit. The first hour was a walk through villages at the base. The second hour saw us trying to find and re-find “trails” up the side of the mountain and avoid wild dogs. We kept wandering through brush, but were helped by a friendly berber woman who showed us an invisible path, as well as her swollen ankle from slipping on the loose rocks. As we climbed higher, the ridge got much steeper, and for the last hour, I was literally using my hands to pull myself into footholds in the rock. This was when I was beginning to have second thoughts about our expedition, without a guide, armed only with the advice of past Americans who had made a similar climb. Not gonna lie, I began to wonder if it had been a good idea to go at all, and mostly if we were going to have a way down, aside from the ‘ol “Fling and Tumble”. All we knew was that we were headed for the radio towers. I haven’t climbed anything that tough in a long while, but I felt powerful and just kept thinking “It’s just me versus the mountain, me versus the mountain…” in some Navy SEAL mantra of courage.

When we finally climbed over the top, the view was incredible, of course. Made more incredible by the adrenaline that explodes from having conquered such a beast. None of my photos do it justice. We could see all of the valley of Fes, and the Sidi Harazem hot springs and all the mountains surrounding.

As we all sat down to our picnic lunches, we were met by Hamsa and Mohammed, the “security guards” of the radio towers. We offered them food and they offered us hash (to which we all politely refused). They took us on a tour of the radio facilities. I have to say, one of the most trippy experiences of my life was stepping inside from that beautiful vista, only to find myself inside a massive super computer: the control room of Maroc Telecom, the largest cell and internet company in the country. Wires and lights and buttons galore. From one awe to another.

Hamsa and Mohammed were kind, but we couldn’t stay. After all, would we have to go back down the mountain the way we came? Our new friends were kind enough to show us a small road down, which wound through villages which indeed looked just like The Shire, on the other side of the mountain, and connected to a paved road. Because of a time crunch, we eventually caught cabs going down, after walking a few kilometers.

About 6 hours from our original optimistic beginnings at Bab Guissa, we arrived home, a little worse for wear, but pumped by the experience. I mean, we had not just hiked a steep hill. We had climbed up AND over the largest mountain in Fes.
So, these have been full weeks, to say the least, full of milestone experiences. Next on the agenda: move into my own apartment, apply for my residency, and negotiate the enigma that is: The Moroccan Aerobics Class (ie. “Musculation”).

To be continued…

PS, Photos for this blog and the previous will be available soon, so stay tuned!

One bride, Two bride, Red bride, Blue bride...

These past 3 weeks living with my host family has been eventful, to say the least. The day I arrived, they were in the middle of a 3-day mourning period for a cousin who had died unexpectedly. Each night they would go to their relative’s house around 9 pm, just to sit and be with the grieving family, then return around 3 or 4 in the morning (in time for Suhuur breakfast before the Ramadan fast).

Last week, a relative in Meknes had a baby, so they spent the weekend with them while I was in Tangiers. They celebrated and baptized the baby, but were not allowed to share in all the joyful festivities (ie, doing henna on their hands or dancing) because of the mourning protocol for the cousin.

For the past two days, I’ve been at a wedding with my host sisters and cousins. The daughter of my host father’s best friend was getting married, so we were all invited. Two days ago, Amina, the oldest sister, came in to town from Casablanca, where she lives with her husband. Amina is one of the most delicately beautiful Moroccan women that I have ever seen. She is only 2 years older than me, but possesses a grace and self-assurance that I think only comes with having helped raise such a huge family, and having to run her home on her own as her husband lives and works in Italy.

Anyway, for Wedding Round 1, Amina, Kenza, Marieme, their aunt Latifa and cousin Iman and I all got gussied up in our hippest clothing for the “pre-wedding party”, which begun around 9 pm. The best way I can describe this is like a demure bachelorette party with couscous. First, the bride-to-be has her hands and feet intricately hennaed. Then we all sit around and chat and sip mint tea. The groom and his friends (who are also required to attend) sit awkwardly on one side of the room, in a cloud of feminine gossip and laughter, sending text message after text message (which all say something equivalent to: “SOS! I’m drowning in estrogen!”, I’m sure). Somewhere along the way, someone puts on “Morocco’s Greatest Wedding Hits” and the ladies get up to dance.

Now, if you know me at all, you know that dancing at weddings is right up there with reading Kurt Vonnegut, holding dinner parties, and doing capoeira in my list of Favorites. Of course I got up to shake my djaefundae, and of course everyone was delighted to watch the spectacle of The Ridiculous American Girl and Her Ronald McDonald Hair. I grooved with all the grannies and had a great time.

Around 11:30, though, I was about ready to leave. Mais non, we were staying for couscous dinner! Huge bowls of chicken couscous were brought out to the guests and I was graciously given a plate of my own, sans gluten. We left shortly after dinner, around 1:00 am, but everyone else was in for a long night ahead.

Wedding Round 2 began with my host sibs and I dressing up and layering on the makeup. Marieme graciously lent me a fabulous pink confection that she wore to Amina’s wedding. I felt like Barbie had vomited all over me, but I fit right in. We arrived at the house around 11:30 pm and sat around until dinner was served at 12:30 am. Huge tajines of chicken and beef were served at each round table, and fizzy apple juice and coke were poured. Then we all went up to the rooftop terrace where “Morocco’s Greatest Wedding Hits Volume II” was on full blast. My ears are still ringing. We sat facing the throne where the bride and groom sit, and people got up to dance in between desserts.

And when I say desserts, I mean emphasis on the plural. For the rest of the night, every 20 minutes, the waiters would come around the crowd with platters of some new sweet. Pastries, chocolates, juices (mmm…avocado), mint tea, coffee. Non stop dessert. Is this some kind of dream?

For the next 6 hours (yes indeed), the Fessi wedding was a parade of gaudiness, and sugar highs, and women belly dancing, and men hopping/high kicking, and grannies disapproving of the loud music, and me trying to figure out how to clap on the off beat like everyone else, and no less than 6 full costume changes for the bride.
Mom and LB, your eyes would have popped out of their sockets. Wedding dress #1 was white and glittery, complete with an enormous tiara. The bride climbed into this crystal cage/seat and was hoisted into the air by 4 hearty Berber women. As she waved at the cheering crowd, I couldn’t help thinking about how closely she resembled a hovering disco ball. One hour later bride and groom went downstairs and emerged again in Dress #2. This one was red, with new makeup and tiara to match. Dress #3 was blue organza. Dress #4 (making its appearance about 4:00 am) was green, which has special significance because green is the color of Islam. As bride and groom sat on their wedding throne, they ritually fed each other soup and dates and guests took photos with them. This was kinda equivalent to saying their vows, I guess. Dress #5 was pink and the poor girl was starting to wilt. Bride and groom are not supposed to dance or mingle. Instead, they have to sit in the thrones, floodlights in their face, blinking at the wild dancing crowd.

The final costume change (5:00 am) saw the bride in a traditional Fessi gown and the groom changed into a traditional white Jelaba (he had been wearing a plain brown suit the whole time…lucky chav). Her “gown” was more like brocade curtains hanging from an impossibly large headdress. For this final round, they were both hoisted into the air as the crowd sang and clapped along. Then, something shocking happened. This whole night, the couple did not even touch, except hold hands. They were brought together in mid air and…they KISSED! I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone kiss in public here in Morocco, and it kinda took me aback, not gonna lie.

As soon as that song ended, the call to prayer started, signaling the coming dawn. I was exhausted, but not really tired…must have been all the mint tea. I sure hope the bride was drinking plenty of water during this entire spectacle, as it was akin to running an over-the-top, glittery marathon. I’m sure they were happy, but both bride and groom just looked so morose and exhausted. I don’t blame them.

We left at 5:30 am, and the party was still raging. After exactly 1.5 hours of sleep, I sleptwalked my way through my Arabic classes, and I’m so ready to go to bed now, after dinner. I am still reeling and just so grateful to have experienced this Moroccan wedding, because it was a National Geographic article on Moroccan weddings that sparked my interest in the country 13 years ago. In some way, I feel like things have come full circle, and that they’re spinning out even further now.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Eating Tajine in Tangiers

La bes, everybody!

We had a long break from classes this weekend, because of the Eid al-Ftr holiday. This celebrates the end of ramadan (read: binge eating for 2 days. huzzah!) A couple of Fulbrighters and I decided to take advantage of the break and go to Tangiers, a city on the northernmost point of Morocco, just below Spain. Ferrys from Spain arrive and depart every day, making it a cosmopolitan, bustling city. Needless to say, there is a ton of spanish influence, and French helped me almost not at all.

We took an amusing 6-hour train ride to Tangiers, the home of legendary American existentialist writer, Paul Bowles. I could see how the city was once a haven for artists and wanderers looking for their way between Europe and Africa. Tangiers is schizophrenic in that way: not arab, not berber, and not quite spanish. A perfect complement for wanderers.

Fulbrighter Rod is doing his research- in conjunction with MTV- on Gnaoua music.
Gnaoua is a spiritual, mystical form of music brought to morocco by West African slaves. Long story short, we ended up jamming and dancing with a Gnaoua music master in his riad living room, until the wee hours of the morning. And that was just one adventure on our Tangiers weekend. We celebrated the end of Ramadan by eating delicious meals on the beach. Yes indeed, I ate a tajine in Tanjiers. We stumbled upon a few jam sessions and Rod has promised to put me in his MTV video stay tuned. (PS: Dear Ann and WHA-TV, sorry I had to betray you...I guess I had to seek my 15 minutes of fame elsewhere)

Now is time for my Moroccan cooking class with Layla, the sweet woman who looks after the language school's villa. Chicken tajine tonight. Holla.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Ramadan Mabrook!

I joined my host family a few days ago, and I’m feeling pretty good about it. I live in the Ville Nouvelle, or new city of Fez. Fez is divided into basically 3 regions:
1. The medina. The very old city of Fez, which consists of alleyways and cobblestone streets. The vendors sell everything from sequined hijabs (headscarves) to ready-to-eat snails (to be eaten with a safety pin, stuck in a lemon to disinfect it for the next patron) to copies of the Qu’ran on tape, to textiles and tilework, to weaving and leather goods (Fez is the capitol of leatherwork). Anything you need, the Medina is frenetic enough to find it. I have heard that Fez’s medina is the largest and oldest marketplace in all of North Africa, even larger than Cairo. It also has the Arab World’s first established University, still in use today. It is certainly the personality of the city, and I can’t wait to explore.
2. Fez Jadid. The newer part of the old city of Fez, also called “The White City”, this part is connected to the medina and has historical sights and gardens and housing projects.
3. La Ville Nouvelle. The newest, most modern part of Fez. Separated from the medina by the Royal Palace (only occasionally visited by the Royal family, who spend most of their time in Rabat). This is basically the suburbs that spread out from the medina. It has public transportation and most municipal buildings. This is where I am living, and where my language school is located. Also, it includes the city’s only McDonalds, which apparently turns into a hoppin’ nightclub at night.

I live with a very friendly family. Baba Khafit, Mama Fatiha, daughters Kenza (about age 26) and Marieme (18), son Hamza (20? I don’t know, he’s never around), and two little boys, Sidimohammed (11) and Abdourahmanne (4), and another daughter, Amina (24) who lives in Casablance with her husband. Little Abdou is definitely a character, giving me kisses and trying to understand my hair and trying to teach me Arabic. Man, kids are the best language teachers. Today he took my pen into the other room and burst out saying, “Ta daaa!” I looked and he was covered, head to toe, in scribbles. Needless to say, he gets a lot of spankings. It’s been interesting adjusting to such a large family, but I think it’ll be good, inshahallah (God willing). The family mostly speaks darija (Moroccan Arabic), but the girls also speak French, and want me to speak English with them.

My schedule is still messed up because of Ramadan. We eat Iftar at about 7pm, after which we laze around and watch Egyptian soap operas and music videos (shout out to Nancy Ashram) and the Middle Eastern equivalent of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. I don’t know why, but that show has an equivalent in almost every single culture I’ve ever visited. Iftar dinner begins with dates and avocado juice, then continues with plates and plates of salad, harira (pseudo-vegetable soup), egg sandwiches/deviled eggs for the weird American who can’t eat bread, a million different pastries that look intricate and delicious, French fries, olives…and ends with a plate of fruit. It’s so lovely: once I got past the awkward conversation of explaining my Celiac disease, they’ve been shoving fruits and veggies at me like they grow in their back yard. I’ve begun drinking the water right away. I learned my lesson last time: better to drink the water and get it over with, then try to ease your way into it and be sick for months on end. Mama Fatiha has promised to teach me how to cook Moroccan foods, and I wrote down her recipe for Avocado juice (ie. delicious avocado smoothie).

I usually pass out after dinner, but the family stays up basically all night, in order to eat Suhuur, which is the last meal they can eat before the sun rises, around 4:30 am. Then we’ve been fasting all day, party all night, rinse, repeat.

I do love my family, but as someone who needs a little more independence, and needs some sacred space, I think I will try to find alternative housing later on. Its hard for me to fully install myself and break into the social circle of the family, because both they and I know that I’ll be leaving soon. It’s a strange transitional place to be…I’m excited to get residency here.

Speaking of, I begin Arabic classes on Monday. So…don’t expect epic updates like this once I begin classes. One British woman I spoke to at school, who has taken the classes I’m doing, told me to get ready for all the work they have for us. I guess there’s tons of homework every night, and tests every week, in addition to 4-6 hours of class per day. It is so awesome that my full time job is to study languages all day, every day, for the next few months. I know I’m going to get sick of it, and definitely frustrated. But I’m determined to invest in it, because it is a great gracious gift.

Oh! Guess what! I got a cell phone! (thank you Shi-Hsia! PS: do you know how to lock/unlock the keys?) Feel free to call me anytime, but we’ll have to keep it short, because incoming calls from other countries are not free, as far as I know. (I will have to clarify this)…but at least we can set up a skype date. My # is: 64-237-6253. Dial Morocco's Country Code (212) before this number. So holler at me, peeps!

So, as I watch the thunderclouds move in over the Faithful prostrating themselves towards Mecca on rooftops and terraces below, please know that I’m thinking of you all.
Peace in Al-Sharq al-auwSot.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sconnie Love

The Cheif of Political Operations at the US Embassy in Morocco leaned over to me and said, "Don't feel bad that you're the only one here from a state school. You should be proud. I'm a Badger too."

All right!
Other Sconnie Love I've encountered in the past 3 days in Morocco:
-On the Sky Mall airplane Magazine, Madison's farmer's market was named one of the Top 10 in the to Paris, london, and Portland
-A random Moroccan historian asked me where I was from and when I told him he said, "OOOohh...Madison is very wel-known here. We love Wisconsin!" What a jolly fella.
-Professors from the UW-Mad are head honchos of the Agricultural Science Department in the Ministry of Agriculture

You keep it real, Madison.


So I wrote an entire post last time, but apparently it didn't show up on my blog. Oh well

So we made it safe to Rabat first. All us Fulbrighters (17 including visiting professors) stayed in a nice hotel near the center of the city. For 3 days we had orientation sessions and little mini lectures on various topics regarding Morocco (Islam, politics, Human rights, Ramadan, etc). Former Fulbrighters in the country spoke to us about life here, and frankly, it was overwhelming. There is SO MUCH I want to do here! Each night we had Iftar (Breaking of the Fast) dinner at the Moroccan-American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange. I'll have to describe Iftar more later. After a day of fasting, it is truly an event.

Last night, we had Iftar dinner at the Ambassador's residence in Rabat. Wow. The house is a huge art deco compound with furniture that has seen the arrival and departure of many American diplomats. There's even a giant trampoline and see-saw in the back yard. I got to chat with various State Department officials and Moroccan governement officials and former Fulbrighters, and needless to say, the meal was extravagant. At one point in the night, I just looked around at all the well-laid-out tables on the lawn, glasses sparkling in the moonlight and waiters with white gloves carrying trays of pastries, kebabs, sauces, mint tea..... I stepped back and listened to all the conversations about foreign policy, Moroccan human rights, Jewish communities in Morocco, and Ivy League schools. I was fully present to the warm breeze on my face and the laughter surrounding me. It was a trip. I thought, "What if this was my life? Oh wait, I guess it is now."

It's not like I'll be having State Department galas every night. In fact, I am about to meet my Moroccan host family, with whom I'll be living for (hopefully) the next 5 months. But, I am supposed to "represent" the United States of America, policies and all. I am supposed to learn 2 different types of Arabic well. I am supposed to produce research that is meaninful. Most of all, I am supposed to set up a life for myself here.

But at the moment, I'm just overwhelmed with the prospects of buying a cell phone, finding shampoo, explaining my Celiac Disease to my host family,getting a residence card before I leave the country, finding a place to exercise...and basically finding friends and family to find my own.

What a grand adventure!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Back to Africa!!

Taken during a previous trip to Morocco, April 2008
Question: What do Marcus Garvey and I have in common?

Dearest friends and family,

After a year-long hiatus in the United States, I am again returning to Africa. Of course, we all knew that I couldn't stay away for too long, right?

Since my last post, upon my return to the US after a year in Senegal, much has happened. I finished my last year at the University of Wisconsin and graduated (alhamdoulilah!) with degrees in Political Science, International Studies, and Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies. Now what is someone with liberal arts degrees like those supposed to do in an economy like this?
...Leave, of course!

I ended up getting a Fulbright grant to do research in Morocco for this next year. Fulbright is basically a scholarship offered through the US State Department to allow scholars to do research or teach abroad, with the intended goal of increasing diplomatic relations and understanding between our nation and theirs. A (very) long story short, I will be spending 4 months studying Arabic intensively in the city of Fez, then moving to the capitol city of Rabat in January to begin an independent research project. I will write (many) separate posts about my research project, but in short, I will be researching Morocco's Truth and Reconcilation Commission. This will be done via archival research and personal interviews with Moroccans.

Besides research, other goals for my stay in the Maghreb include (but are not limited to):
-brushing up my French
-becoming comfortable with Arabic
-learning how Truth Commissions work within Arab/Muslim contexts
-learning how to cook, Moroccan-style
-surfing more on the coast
-gaining some clarity as to what I want to do post-Fulbright
-Becoming comfortable with life in Morocco, familiar with the country and culture
-making friends/community, and being a good friend

I'll be documenting this journey in this blog, which I hope you will all check regularly! It will be nothing special, just my random thoughts, musings, and occasional photos of my travels. I'm sure I will be making comparisons often with my travels in West/Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. I wont be emailing you every time I write an entry, so please save the URL in your favorites- how special that would make me feel! Also, feel free to comment.

Most importantly- please write to me! Until I get my own apartment in January, my mailing address will be at the Moroccan-American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange (MACECE). Only flat letters can be mailed to this address, however, no packages:

Catherine Skroch
C/O Cultural Affairs Officer
Box 21
APO AE 09718

Once I get my cell phone established, I will give you all the number.
I can most easily be reached on:
Skype: c.skroch
Yahoo Chat: catherineskroch
or email:

So, as I prepare to leave on Sunday, September 6, I am busy packing, saying endless "see ya later-s!", and trying to decide just how many bottles of sunscreen to take, please know that you are all in my thoughts. I know that this is going to be an enormous, transformative year for all of us. Please keep me updated about your life and be patient if I dont reply right away. Remember that you're loved, no matter the distance or time between us.

Answer: Marcus Garvey and I both wanted to go back to Africa. Let the adventure begin!