Meknes Medina

Medina: translated literally as simply “city,” this word has a connotation beyond the literal translation. I, along with local Moroccans and ISA students alike, use it to describe the Imperial city, the old city. Morocco is home to 4 Imperial cities, which is any city that was once the capital of Morocco. These include Fes, Marrakech, Rabat, and Meknes. These 4 cities are home to some of the architectural and cultural marvels of the ancient world. The Meknes medina, which was the capital for most of the 17th century, is even considered a UNESCO World Heritage Center.

I bring this up because I was fortunate enough to tour the medina twice in a 24-hour period. Once on Friday (July 5) for class, and then the next Saturday as part of an ISA excursion. On Friday, I, along with the rest of my Islamic Society and Politics class, met at 8 am outside of Bab Mansour. Bab Mansour (translated to Mansour’s door- Mansour was the Portuguese architect who built it) is the largest entrance into the medina.

DSCF1377Bab Mansour

As both my taxi driver and my professor said, it’s widely considered the most beautiful gate in all of Africa. Since we went in the early morning on Friday, the holy day of Islam, the medina itself was like a ghost town. We were studying the architecture and layout of the city, so the peaceful morning made it easy to appreciate the fine craftsmanship and design within the city walls.

DSCF1380The square outside the medina walls

Simplistically, one of the core beliefs of Islam is that beauty is sacred. If it is seen by all, it loses much of its poignancy. Because of this, walls are erected and kept in place as an effort to preserve the beauty within. This can be seen in the quintessential walls surrounding many of the old cities, as well as the conservative clothing many Muslims wear. This results in a city filled with secrets and juxtapositions. As we soon discovered, you cannot judge a book by its cover. Many buildings we saw that looked modest and unassuming on the outside were grand and stately on the inside.

The only indication of what lies within the house is the doorways. This is the only time when families could truly express their status or lifestyle. In the picture below, you can see how both homes share the same plaster walls, and live in harmony next to each other. However, the family on the right was a much wealthier family, seen by the size and intricacy of the door.

DSCF1383Medina doorways

The layout to the medina is along the same lines. Everything sits in harmony and relation to one another. However, many tourists and Westerners find the medina very difficult to navigate–but the math major in me knew that there had to be a sort of pattern. And I was right! As best described by my professor, the medina is like the human body–the circulatory system to be more exact. The heart of all the medina is a mosque, with large arteries (roads) stemming off into other important public buildings such as the madrasa (school) and marketplace. From there, it branches off into the smallest pathways that lead to various residences.

DSCF1381Medina street

After the wonderful architectural tour I had on Friday, Saturday had a much more historical edge to it. We began at mausoleum of Moulay-Ismail, the sultan of Morocco from 1672-1727.

DSCF1408Mausoleum of Moulay-Ismail

Aside from this building where he now rests, Moulay-Ismail made several more important contributions to the infrastructure in Meknes. The buildings that we saw included a prison, which at its peak held 40,000 people (mostly captives from piracy), a granary and horse stables, which housed nearly 12,000 horses.

DSCF1422Moulay-Ismail’s Prison

DSCF1438Horse stables

After our tour of the Moulay-Ismail compound, we went back into the medina–what a difference 36 hours makes! The former ghost town was filled with merchants and consumers alike. Our tour guide took us around to a few key shops, and then we were let loose to try our hand at haggling.

DSCF1426Steel and silver metalworking shop

I must admit–it’s not a strong suit of mine. My first attempt at haggling resulted in a 20 dirham decrease ($2.50). Since then, I’ve gotten a little bit better, but not much. Clearly, it’s just not a skill I have. That being said, I still feel like a got a fair price for what I bought at the medina, and I’m looking forward to going back soon!

-Libby

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The Rooftop

So the other day, one of the other ISA students was hanging out at my apartment, doing homework and such. After a couple hours, he packs his stuff up and leaves to head home. About five or six minutes  after he leaves, there was a knock on our front door. It was our friend, having returned. Without a single greeting or anything, he says, “So. I took a detour, and did you guys know you can go up on your roof?”

DSCF1359View of the medina

At that point, it was about 15 minutes until sunset, so we grabbed our cameras and keys and scrambled to the top floor of our building. Up an additional flight of stairs, out a rickety door, and we had made it. It was dirty, and we had to maneuver our way through dozens of satellite and laundry lines, but the view made it entirely worth it. Most days, I can see glimpses of the old city (the medina) during my walk to and from school. But up 8 stories, my line of sight was completely unobstructed. Watching the sunset over the city was absolutely breath-taking.

DSCF1376My roommates and I enjoying the sunset

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Meknes: Week 1

(Note: WordPress has stopped letting me upload pictures. I had initially written this a week ago, but was waiting to post it until I could add pictures. So this is solved, my posts are going to be solely words. The City Hall picture is the last picture I was able to get.)

So I survived my first week here! I settled into my new apartment, started my classes, and even watched a couple World Cup games. So much as happened, but at the same time, I don’t feel stressed or rushed. (I hate to repeat myself, but those of you who know me know how rare that is.)

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Meknes City Hall at night

Moroccans live life at a slower pace. They don’t speed walk like we do in the States, their food takes longer to cook and eat, and many spend hours relaxing at a cafe. That’s not to say they’re lazy. Rather, they have an appreciation of life, and stop to enjoy it. When I commented on how different it was, my professor explained that a lot of it comes from the French influence. From 1912-1956, Morocco was a French protectorate. These 44 short years of influence are still very relevant today, seen in the foods (I’ve eaten crepes and croissants frequently) “cafe culture”, and the use of French in many commercial areas. It’s been amusing trying to remember what little French I had in high school (Je parle un peu francais…).

One of my favorite memories of this past week was Sunday night. It was really our first night exploring and seeing Meknes, and I loved every moment of it. A group of the Summer 2 kids went to this beautiful French restaurant/cafe and sat and talked for close to 2 hours. I ordered mint tea and a cheese crepe–both were wonderful. It takes a very special person to want to come to Morocco to study as opposed to the more traditional European countries. Because of this, the 20-something people in my program all have crazy, distinct personalities. We’ve all gotten to become very close friends. We’re from literally every corner of the United States, which is so cool to think about. I’ve had just as much fun learning about life in other parts of the United States as I have about life in Morocco!

As I mentioned earlier, I watched a few of the World Cup games this week. Monday was Algeria v. Germany, then Tuesday was United States v. Belgium. Though I’m not a big soccer (or more accurately: football) fan, I loved the game watching atmosphere. Watching the World Cup in a corner cafe would be the equivalent of watching the Superbowl in a bar. The energy and passion is unbelievable. During the Tuesday game, we were nearly the sole United States supporters. Moroccans cheered for Belgium.

But as I said: nearly. This is because we met another group of Americans! At this point, I am a firm believer that the American accents will find each other. This particular group was part of a flagship program. From what I can understand of it, they all attend universities around the United States which have very intense Arabic programs. After 3 years of intensive studies, they’re now fluent. So there’s hope for me! They were all very nice, and it was so refreshing to hear English speakers.

Though only a week in, I am already very fond of Meknes. It’s a beautiful city, and I’m so glad that I decided to study here! Until next time!

-Libby

Meknes: My New Home

First View of Meknes

After an amazing start to my trip, my group finally arrived in Meknes about 8 pm Saturday evening. Everyone was pretty tired, so we just had a quiet evening at our apartment. That being said, the apartment far exceeds what my expectations were for the housing I would have during this trip. I share my apartment with 4 other girls, all of whom are wonderful. It’s right off the main square, is attached to a police station, and is a 5 minute walk from school. As many would say: location, location, location. And I really lucked out!

My Apartment 

After being here a week, I spend a good part of my day hanging out in the apartment, working on homework and eating the delicious food our housekeeper, Khadijah, cooks for us. Part of the program fees include 19 of the 21 meals a week, so I’m eating authentic Moroccan cuisine nearly everyday. Yum! Khadijah is a total sweetheart as well. She doesn’t speak much English, and we don’t speak much Arabic, so our relationship is based on a lot of charades and Google Translate. So far it’s worked well. We’re hoping she’ll teach us how to make mint tea soon–fingers crossed!

DSCF1340First Meal in Meknes

As I said earlier, I’ve had a week to settle in. It’s certainly different than life in the States, but I’m enjoying it nonetheless. Hopefully my next post will highlight some of these differences.

Until next time!

-Libby

Route to Meknes

Hello again! I apologize for the silence over the past few days. In true Libby fashion (those of you close to me understand), I managed to be the one in 12600 odds (Yes, I calculated that correctly) to contract all the side effects from my typhoid vaccine. So these past few days have consisted solely of school and sleep. But, as I told my roommate earlier, I took my Advil and I’m ready to go!

So. Picking up where I’d left off: I was getting ready to leave Casablanca for Meknes. It was about a 4 hour trip through the countryside of Morocco. Driving through this scenic route, I was amazed at all the beautiful sights I saw. Within 36 short hours, my plane landed in Casablanca, I did a whirlwind tour of the city, and was then on a bus to Meknes. During those rare moments of serenity on the bus, I had one of my first  “Oh-my-gosh-this-is-actually-happening” moments. Getting to visit Morocco is an incredible privilege. Seeing what other part of the globe is like is absolutely unbelievable. Every direction I turned was a new picturesque farm, more rolling hills, and another quintessential town. This is only a small sampling of the pictures I took, but hopefully it gives you an idea of the road to Meknes.

Rick’s Cafe

I nearly forgot to include Rick’s Cafe in my tales of Casablanca! After the mosque, we were given 3 free hours to do as we pleased. Because of the mosque’s location, it was about a 15 minute walk to a restaurant called Rick’s Cafe. For those of you who are movie buffs, yes, as in the one from the movie Casablanca.

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Interior of Rick’s Cafe

The short story is that after the movie came out, an American diplomat purchased a shop within the city and replicated the movie set. After many years of renovations, the restaurant mimics the movie location almost exactly. Though admittedly, I haven’t actually seen the entire movie. So I might be a little off in my evaluation.

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Second floor of Rick’s Cafe

But after seeing the beautiful interior, I definitely want to watch the movie when I have a chance to! It was a great place to eat and really get to know some of the other ISA kids. The food was excellent, and the company was wonderful.

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G and me at our table

After lunch, we caught taxis back to our rendezvous point–McDonald’s! The golden arches can be found everywhere. The best part was the stereotyping us Americans received from going there. As I mentioned earlier, we had to take cabs to meet up with the rest of ISA. Many of the taxi drivers mostly speak French and Arabic, so we tried our best to explain where we were going in Arabic. We were meeting at the McDonalds on Ain Diab beach, a name that our American accents have a difficult time pronouncing. So whenever we would ask a taxi if they were driving that way, they would repeat the name back to us to make sure they interpreted our butchered name correctly. However, when the taxi we wound up taking asked where on Ain Diab, he didn’t hesitate to drop us off at “Mactoob”, the Arabic pronunciation of McDonald’s. It was definitely amusing to say the least!

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Ain Diab Beach

Thank you for reading! I promise my next post will be about Meknes.

-Libby

 

Casablanca Sight-Seeing

Though we had a wonderful time in Casablanca Friday afternoon and evening, Saturday was the busier day. We got up early morning, and ate a quick breakfast in the hotel restaurant. It was my first breakfast here, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect! That being said, because the hotel is filled with tourists just like me, much of the food was westernized and similar to what I eat at home.

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Breakfast at the hotel. The pancake-looking thing was some sort of cornbread.

After breakfast, we all piled onto a tour bus to see some of the city. Our first stop was Mohammed V Square. As the name might indicate, it was named after the former ruler. Surrounding this square are many of the public buildings and attractions like the courthouse and embassies. In addition to the main courthouse, there’s also a beautiful fountain and a fine arts theatre is being built.

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The Casablanca Courthouse (Tribunal de première Instance)

Once we had taken our fill of pictures, we moved on to the Church of Notre Dame de Lourdes. This Roman Catholic church is so different in appearance from the rest of Casablanca. If I understood my tour guide correctly, this is because it was built by the French during WWII. The structure itself was modeled off the French Navy boat blueprints. I can definitely see the resemblance!

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The boat-like Church of Notre Dame de Lourdes

Despite it’s unusual outside appearance, the church was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever been in. All the windows were stained glass, and the entire building glowed.

The interior of the Church of Notre Dame de Lourdes 

After the church we moved onto the Royal Palace Gates. Though Mohammed VI  lives in Rabat most of the year, a place awaits him and his family for whenever they visit Casablanca. While we didn’t get to go in the palace, the gates into it are quite famous. One set is used for the staff and such, while the other is reserved for the king and any visiting dignitaries. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, these gates can be quite difficult to see. The palace is surrounded by a massive wall, patrolled by armed guards. It’s closed to all tourists and visitors of Casablanca. However, since our tour guide was a citizen of Morocco, he was able to use his ID card and we were allowed to accompany him on the palace grounds as his guests. We walked right up to the gates–some of us even touched them!

The Palace Gates

From there our guide had us walk through the Habous Quarter, the new part of the city. Walking up and down the aisles of this market was like something out of a dream. It looked exactly like everyone thinks a Middle Eastern market (though technically I’m not in the Middle East) looks like. I was half expecting to see Aladdin and Abu running around.

The Habous Quarter

There were some cool shops I would have loved to stop in, but we were on a mission. Our tour guide kept yelling, “Yallah! Yallah!” which means “Let’s go!” It was probably for the best though, since Casablanca is so overpriced compared to the rest of Morocco. Besides, I’m going to be going to the Meknes medina on Saturday! So I’ll be able to do plenty of shopping then.

After our adventures in the new city, we headed to our last guided part of the day–Hassan II Mosque. Though we aren’t usually allowed in mosques, this one is an exception. I’m very glad that I could go into this one. It was absolutely stunning. It took 6 years to complete, so it’s clear that the Hassan II Mosque was a labor of love. The finished product is the 3rd largest mosque in the world. During big worship services, such as the ones during Ramadan, the mosque can hold up to 25,ooo worshipers! When the guide told us this, I believed it. I wish my pictures could show the scale a bit better–it was massive! However, the best part about our visit was intangible.

When we all entered the mosque, a hush fell over the group. Even though many of us are not Muslim, or even religious, to be in such a revered place was awe-inspiring. It’s indescribable beyond that.

Hassan II Mosque

 The mosque was a fascinating way to end the day. Though it was a whirlwind, I loved my days in Casablanca!

-Libby

 

 

Friday in Casablanca

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One of the streets of Casablanca

Casablanca is an absolutely gorgeous city. I couldn’t have imagined a better way to start my time here in Morocco. It was a 45 minute ride from the airport into the city proper. We got to our hotel around 12:30. The rest of Friday afternoon/evening was really our own to do as we pleased. I, like most of my fellow Americans, took that time to unwind and catch  up on jet lag.

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My room in the Prince de Paris Hotel

A couple of us did go out for a little bit to find something to eat and exchange money. Leaving around 2, we walked to the ATM that had been pointed out to us on the trip there. We found it just fine, but it was much taller than the ATMs we have in America. While we could still see the buttons fine, it was amusing having to reach up to hit them. Clearly the machine was designed without short American tourists in mind.

After sorting out finances, we began walking around trying to find a good place to eat. But as we realized later, it was a Friday. Friday is a big holy day in Morocco, and typically the only food served in couscous. Because of this, we wandered from restaurant to restaurant, looking for any place that had a menu. Since we didn’t understand much Arabic or French, we didn’t understand that the lack of food was citywide, rather than one or two places.

However, we did eventually come across a small shop that was open for food. As expected, it was serving couscous. Since there were only three of us, we ordered one plate of it. It was a good thing we did- we didn’t even finish it! But it was delicious, and a great introduction to Moroccan cuisine. The best part? It was 30 dirhams (about $3.75), which was then split three ways. The exchange rate is incredible here.

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The Moroccan Dirhams: About 23 US Dollars Worth

After lunch, we headed back to the hotel. We napped for a few hours, and then had orientation for the program. Orientation was great–we have some incredible events and excursions planned these next few weeks. The staff at ISA clearly love their jobs. I can’t wait for the rest of the term! When orientation concluded, we ate dinner as a group. The food was this incredible 4 course meal of soup, pasta, chicken, and flan. Though we had eaten earlier in the day, I considered this dinner to be my first “official” Moroccan meal.

After dinner, the Summer 3 kids invited us Summer 2’s to go to a cafe. (A brief explanation: The Summer 3 students have already been here a month, participating in internships. When us Summer 2 students arrived Friday, we joined into one big group to begin classes at Moulay Ismail.) Since they have already been here several weeks, they took us under their wing and shared with us a lot of good advice about Morocco. This included an introduction to mint tea! Or, as it’s often said here, tea a la menthe. Tea and coffee both are a large part of the culture here, and a part that I love! Those of you that know me in the States know how much I drink coffee and tea. Though admittedly, I did try to wean myself off coffee before coming here–no caffeine withdrawal for this girl! I have been drinking a lot more tea than coffee. G has been too–she can’t get enough of the mint tea! She’s even learned the correct way to pour it and all the cultural idioms associated with it. I must admit, I’m considering buying a teapot. We’ll see. Until next time! Ma’ assalama! Goodbye!

-Libby

Mohammed V Airport

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Early Friday morning, my flight landed in  Mohammed V airport, Casablanca. As soon as G and I walked off the plane, the differences between Morocco and the United States were immediately apparent. It’s been a whirlwind of action since then, which is why I’m only getting to posting now. Unfortunately, my camera battery died on the plane ride there, so you’ll have to settle for descriptions.

When we arrived at the airport, we first went through customs. This was my first experience with a completely non-English speaker. While I was expecting this frequently on this trip, it was nerve-racking trying to explain your way through customs when you don’t understand the officer and vice versa. Fortunately, my paperwork was in order, so I passed through without too many issues. As I said in my last post, watching your passport get stamped is an amazing feeling!

From there we walked downstairs to the baggage claim. There, we discovered G’s luggage had been left in New York. Now, Sunday night, she still does not have it. But she’s been told it will be in by tomorrow, insha’allah. (God willing.) However, we were told that it would be in by Friday night, so I don’t have much faith in the Moroccan airways. I can only imagine what poor G is going through.

While G talked with baggage claim, I tried to find the ISA (International Studies Abroad) group. Since I’m traveling within a program, I have nearly 30 new American classmates. Of this group, 4 were on my flight from Paris. Between G and myself, we had half of that number. ISA told us that they would meet us at the airport. However, that was all they told us. Without a rendevous point or time, we went hunting for the other 2 students and/or an ISA member.

Like with any other airport, there is the “point of no return,” where you exit through a door and cannot reenter. Scared that we would accidentally go through the door and discover our group was looking for us on the other side, we searched our half thoroughly. When we didn’t see them, we broke down and used my phone to call the director of the program where we were meeting (This is were I discovered the international plan I supposedly set up before I left doesn’t exist. $2.99 a minute-ouch!) But when I was on the phone, I was told to just hang out at the coffee shop for another 40 minutes, since another plane carrying ISA students landed then, and ISA would pick us all up in one fell swoop.

When I hung up, I realized I was in the same exact spot I was before, having no idea which side of the door the coffee shop was on. So G and I dusted off our Arabic vocabulary, and asked a cleaning lady, “Ayna qahwa?” (Which translates literally to- Where coffee?) Though it was rudimentary, it got the job done, and we soon learned that the coffee shop was on the other side of the doors.

Once we exited through the doors, we soon found the other two students. The cliche is true- American accents will find each other. Both of the other students are really cool. (I would tell you more about them, but this is the internet after all.) I’m really looking forward to getting to know them these next 5 weeks!

Shortly after that, a man approached us saying, “Taxi? Taxi?” We waved him off with adamant statements of “La, non, no!” (A little clarification on this- money scams are very big here. People love to sell you things, especially when the target is foreign, as we clearly are.) Smirking a little to himself, the man opens the folder he was holding, showing us the large claim sign spelling out, “ISA” This was our first experience with Mouhsine, one of our program directors. We soon realized Mouhsine is an incorrigible prankster, and a blast to be around. He spoke with us for the next half hour as we waited for the other two students. Once everyone had been found, we gathered our things and headed off to our hotel in Casablanca.

All in all, the airport was an interesting way to start my trip. While it was a little nerve-wracking at the beginning, I soon became more comfortable, and I can’t wait to begin my program. The people, both students and staff alike, are amazing, and I’m really looking forward to the next 5 weeks!

-Libby

26 Things I Learned by Traveling for 26 Hours

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I’m stealing this idea from one of my friends who has studied abroad previously and did an entire series of these “Things I learned” lists. For those of you who have been following along, I made it! I’m currently sitting in a hotel room of Casablanca, in the brief window of downtime we have. But the journey here was not without its mishaps. So, without further ado, 26 things I learned by traveling for 26 hours:

1. Falling asleep the night before you begin will not happen. I promise.

2. There is inevitably a scramble to finish packing and obsessively double check all your luggage minutes before you leave your house at 3 am.

3. Goodbyes are really hard. See my previous post.

4. Delta Airlines can and will call you at 3:30 am to tell you your 6 am flight has been cancelled.

5. Pittsburgh Airport at 4 am is an interesting and slightly disturbing place.

6. Staff members who are on the last hour of their shift can be really grumpy.

7. But other ones remind you that there are good and decent people in this world.

8. You will thank your lucky stars that the originally 9 hour layover in JFK has allowed you to get on a different flight, thus making all of your connecting flights.

9. Your wonderful friend will let you hang out at her hotel for the next 5 hours, while you wait for your 12:25 flight.

10. There is a Brugger’s Bagels in the Pittsburgh airport.

11. They have WiFi on planes now.

12. Having an hour and a half to navigate JFK airport to an international flight is stressful.

13. My high school French has sadly atrophied.

14. French people are gorgeous. I know, stereotypical, but it’s seriously true.

15. French male flight attendants are even more so.

16. The flight attendants of Air France will size you up, and greet you with either bonjour or hello based on their evaluation.

17. No one tells you this, but it is ridiculously flattering to be the recipient of a bonjour.

18. In flight meals are awesome.

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19. Water can be served with a foil lid.

20. Airline seats are only a step above tour bus seats, with neither being comfortable enough to sleep in.

21. Paris Charles de Gaulle airport is easier to navigate than JFK, even if you don’t speak French (well).

22. Air France is very big on serving coffee on planes. I am okay with this.

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23. The Casablanca airport is beautiful, but confusing.

24. Getting your passport stamped is an awesome feeling.

25. T-Mobile lies about their international plan. They do NOT cover Morocco.

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26. Charades is a fun and effective way to communicate and find the coffee shop you’re meeting your group at.

As I said earlier, it all managed to work out, and I am now safe and sound in my hotel. I plan on going more in-depth with some of my statements in future posts. But for now, I’m going to say good night. It was a long couple of days, and I’ve got several amazing things to do on the itinerary for tomorrow!

-Libby