10 things I love about Morocco
1. The hospitality—The hospitality of people here is incredible!
Ever since I arrived in Morocco a year ago, I’ve been invited into homes and served tea, bread and yummy traditional dishes like couscous, tagine and rafissa. They order me to “Kuli! Kuli! Kuli!” ("Eat! Eat! Eat!") until I am stuffed. When I get up to leave, they are always surprised: “Where are you going?” I love how I can stop by my neighbors’ and friends’ houses at any time of the day and they welcome me. When I don’t stop by for a couple of days, they ring my doorbell or yell out into the street “Rosana! Rosana! Rosana!” until I answer. They sweetly ask how my parents, my sister and I are doing and then demand that I go over to their house right away to eat. This happens very seldom in the U.S. Back home, I have to be invited to someone’s house at a specific day and time.
2. Atay—I think Moroccan hospitality and people are represented in the sharing of atay (Moroccan tea)— always served when there is a guest in the house. It is green tea with mint or other herbs like wormwood, sage and verbena, with lots of sugar to counter the bitterness. The tea is as sweet as the people. People drink atay at all times of the day and have special ways of preparing it that involve soaking the tea leaves in cold or hot water, boiling the tea again and pouring it in and out of glasses. They always pour it from a high place so that it foams at the top. The tea is served in small glasses that you can find with all the designs you can imagine at the souk (market). Atay serves to cool off on a hot summer day or stay warm on a cold winter night.
3. Khobz—There are so many types of khobz in Morocco—basic khobz (white bread), hhobz dyal zraa (wheat bread), khobz dyal smida (semolina bread), khobz belboula (barley bread), batbout (pita bread equivalent), harsha (corn bread), msemen (square crepe), meloui (circle crepe) and baghrir (pancake). All the Moroccans I know make their own bread at home and send it to the neighborhood communal oven to be baked, or sometimes they bake it in a pan or oven at home. They’ve given me lessons on making all these types of bread, but I normally buy it from the bakery once a week. I have my favorites—msemen, which I like to eat with vace de quiri cheese and fig jam. Youssef’s (my counterpart) mom makes the best msemen, bigger and lighter than normal. Once Youssef slipped in a bag of warm msemen into my backpack at the dar shebab (youth center) and I had it for breakfast or snack every day the following week!
4. Eating with my hands—In Morocco, khobz or your right hand is the eating utensil. After a year of living and working in Morocco, I now know how to tear pieces of bread or hot vegetables or meat apart with my right hand. (The left hand is Hashuma (shameful) and meant to be used only for cleaning.) It wasn’t too difficult to learn how to eat with bread or my hand. I just watched how others did it and practiced. I like eating with my bread or my hand much more than eating with a fork, knife and spoon because the bread is so good and you can soak up all the juices from the vegetables and meat.
5. Eating from a communal plate—I also enjoy eating from a communal dish. It feels more like sharing a meal instead of everyone eating from their own plate. I feel more connected to people because I have to sit closer to them as we all have to reach the dish in the middle of the table. I also am aware about how much everyone is eating as, according to Moroccan eating manners, you only eat from the section in front of you and after eating the vegetables, bread or couscous, the meat, which is in the center of the plate, is portioned off at the end. There is much less food and meat served than meals in the U.S., which is overall better for one's health. There are also fewer dishes to wash!
6. The sun—The sun is always shining here, which is an instant boost to my mood! It’s energizing. I don’t miss New England gray, rainy days or cold, winter days at all. It does get cold and snow in Morocco, but so far not in my region.
7. Moroccan dancing—I love the popular Moroccan style of dancing. Women move their shoulders and hips in circles, semicircles, back and forth. It’s absolutely mesmerizing. At women-only celebrations like weddings, women loosen their long, beautiful black hair and really shake it—especially women over the age of 50 but even 5-year-olds. When women get together, they are boisterous. When I see them in their homes with their husbands and children, they are quieter. My friends have taken me out on the dance floor and taught me how to move, and we have the best time!
8. Tangerines—The tangerines in Morocco are the best I’ve ever tasted! They are sweet and delicious. I eat them like candy. The name originally comes from the city Tangier. They are most widely grown in Tangier, Oujda and Agadir, and are available in autumn and spring.
9. Moroccan ponjs—Ponjs are Moroccan sofas. They are like twin mattresses with pillows on top, sometimes with wooden boards underneath for support. I like how multifunctional they are. During the day they serve for sitting, eating, watching TV and entertaining guests, and at night they turn into beds by taking off the pillows and putting on blankets. Most Moroccan homes do not have proper bedrooms or mattresses, but a living room to entertain guests and a den for the family. The ponjs also have fun patterns. I had my pillows and ponj covers made locally with a pink, blue, white and gray flowered material. I hope to bring them back to the U.S. with me.
10. Landscapes—The natural landscapes of Morocco are breathtaking! There is so much diversity too—Morocco has the sea, mountains and desert. On a trip to the south with my parents this Christmas, I got to see part of the Moroccan desert for the first time. Most of the Moroccan desert is arid land and the dunes are farther south near the borders with Algeria and Mauritania. Oases of palm trees and other vegetation emerge where there is a water source. I loved walking around the palmeries. I had thought the oases were separate from the villages and towns, more like natural parks in the U.S., but they were central to the villages. The houses are made of straw and mud, each with their own patch of fertile land. There are winding walkways through the palmeries, often for the irrigation, the farmers, and the animals. And like the medinas, the old Arab quarters of North African cities, one can get easily lost because there are no street signs, the vegetation is lush and all the houses are the same brown color of the earth.
When my sister and my parents came to visit in Morocco, I noticed how integrated I’ve become in my community, how good my Darija (Moroccan Arabic) is and how much I’ve learned about Moroccan culture. I bump into someone I know everywhere I go in my town, I share meals with neighbors every day, I give presentations about American culture at the youth center in Darija, at the souks I negotiate prices like a Moroccan, I enjoy eating with khobz and my hand instead of utensils and I don’t notice the five daily calls to prayer anymore. I have really immersed myself in Morocco and Morocco has become part of me. I’ve been here more than a year now now and I wonder how I will change after another year with the Peace Corps.
I have gained so much beyond learning about another foreign country. People in the village often ask me, “Have you gotten use to it?” and I say, “Yes.” Yes, I have gotten use to living and working in Morocco. I have chosen to open my heart to it. My neighbors always say, “Rosana, don’t go. Stay here and get married to a Moroccan man and have babies so that you can stay with us.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I know I will carry this unforgettable experience with me forever. I tell my neighbors that I will come back and visit when I have a husband and kids!