Saturday, April 19, 2014

Birta, ISJ, and So Many Feels

Hello friends, I'm sorry that this update is so long overdue.

As you can imagine, so much has happened since I last made a post here. In fact, going back and looking at my old posts seems quite surreal, as Morocco is so different for me now. Since moving out of my host family's house, I've been having a completely different experience. It's not better or worse, just different, and I feel like I was another person writing those old posts.

But I don't want to get ahead of myself. I left off in my last post saying that I was getting ready to leave for my village stay, so I'll start there.

A long time ago, there once was an old woman who gave birth to seven children at once. Unfortunately, the babies were not in good health. All seven of them died soon after they were born. Their mother, overcome with grief, held seven burials, with each baby buried in a different place. This is how Sbaa Rouadi ("Seven Cemeteries") began.

I know it's not the happiest of myths, but hey, that's how it apparently got its name. Anyway, the Sbaa Rouadi commune (located in a rural area just outside of Fez) consists of seven villages. One of them is Birta, where my MOJ classmates and I stayed for a week way back in March (how time flies!).

So Birta is part of this commune--a commune is a territorial public with its own legal personality and financial autonomy. Basically, the residents of Birta rely on themselves to sustain their livelihood. Everything is shared among the village, and every person pitches in somehow. Pretty cool, right?

We were welcomed into this small village immediately. All of our host families put us to work in the fields, the kitchens, and the school center, and had us tending to animals. You can't get a more immersive experience than this!

(The center, by the way, is called the Association of Development and Solidarity, and was founded by 5 village women in 2008. The main founder, Sebah, had realized the lack of public spaces for women in this traditional village, and she wanted to create a comfortable place where women could develop their own self-sustaining practices and skills. Basically, she's a hero and a role model to women everywhere.)

My fellow classmate, Susan, and I spent the week living with an AMAZING host family. We had five sisters. Three of them--Faiza, Amina, and Sumia--are around our age, and then we had two adorable little sisters, 9-year-old Wiam and 5-year-old Zenib. Our father, Abderrahim (who we called Baba), is a sweet and soft-spoken man with a smile as big as his heart. Mama Khadija has a beautiful smile and a comforting sense of tranquility about her that made me happy just to be in her presence.

I can't even begin to describe how amazing this week was, and how much it changed my life. Although we could hardly communicate with each other through words, I felt immediately accepted as a member of the family. Whether it was playing jump-rope with Wiam and the village kids, herding sheep (which I actually became quite good at!), cooking in the kitchen or weeding out the fields, I felt as though my contribution mattered and more importantly, I felt loved. Both Amina and Mama Khadija cried the day we left, and Sumia walked us to the end of the road and gave us huge hugs before we met with our group. I so badly wanted to go back and visit them again during ISJ. Then again, there were a lot of things I wanted to do and thought I'd have the time for during ISJ...(we'll get to that in a moment.)

Wiam loves to sing and dance, and is overall a beautiful soul. 

I think we spoiled Zenib a bit--she constantly wanted to be carried everywhere, but I didn't mind. How could anyone resist that face?!

Amina and Susan in the back of our mule cart (the "car") on our way to the fields.

Baba has a great smile, but he was a bit shy here. One of our funniest moments was when I told him (in VERY broken Arabic) that the olive oil in Birta tastes much better than the stuff we have in the US, after he was noticing how much of it I ate. He thought it was hilarious and repeated the story to everyone else when they came to sit at the table, and we all had a good laugh. The next morning at breakfast, they gave me my own plate of olive oil!

Our family taught us a game that's sort of a harder (but more fun) version of tic-tac-toe. We stayed up late every night playing because we got completely addicted. Baba loved it whenever we won--definitely not a sore loser!

One of my favorite neighborhood kids, Simohammed. He followed us everywhere! Some of his favorite shenanigans involved jumping onto the back of our mule cart, tree-climbing, calling out to me in animal noises, and playing with my camera (thanks for all of the blurry photos of the ground, Simo...).

I met Houda on my first day in the village and instantly fell in love with that smiling face. I spent some time playing with her and taking pictures, but I didn't want to be out for too long on my first day with my host family so I left shortly after. A few days later I saw her on the playground and she came running straight toward me and gave me a big hug and kissed my face. She was attached to me for the rest of the day!

Amina (L) and Sumia received their certificates from the center the week we were there. They are both embroidery professionals and their work is incredible! 

From left: Myself, Faiza, Sumia, Susan, Mama Khadija and Wiam in front. This was after a long round of picture-taking...we gave up on trying to get Zenib to sit still!

Sumia was the one to pick us up on our first day and drop us off on our last day. My Birta village sisters are beautiful and incredible young women, and I will never forget them!

So that was Birta, although I could go on forever. Anyway, after we got back we had a few more weeks of school and living with our host families. We also had the Northern Excursion, which was just an overnight trip to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave, pretty much only because we needed to get our passports stamped again so that they wouldn't expire for the rest of our time here. It was a great mini-vacation, and I was glad to be able to dip my toes in the Mediterranean--definitely the most beautiful water I've ever seen. Ceuta was gorgeous, and everyone is pretty mad at me for forgetting my camera on that trip, but it was pretty freeing to just take everything in without being bogged down. I guess that means y'all have to come with me next time! ;)

Shortly after that excursion, it was time to pack our bags and say goodbye to our host families. It was time for the final stretch: ISJ. It stands for Independent Study in Journalism, and it's what this whole semester has been leading up to and preparing us for. During ISJ period, we have 5 weeks to pursue a story of our choice, traveling anywhere our research leads. I'm working with my classmate and good friend Rachel on a story about illegitimate children. She's a photojournalist and I'm writing, and we've been spending the past few weeks going back and forth between Rabat and Casablanca gathering information from NGOs and trying to find a single mother with undocumented children who would be willing to speak with us and let us spend time with her and her kids to take photos. As it's a very taboo subject here, it's taken a lot to find women to open up, and we've run into countless roadblocks along the way. However, Rachel and I are very stubborn people, and although we've thought about giving up in search of another story, we found that we were far too committed to this already. Things began looking up a bit yesterday, so here's to hoping our instincts were right and our hard work doesn't go to waste!

Even though ISJ has been super frustrating, a incredibly heavy and emotional at times due to the content of our strory, it's been an amazing experience so far. Since we don't have school during ISJ, we're really living the life of freelance journalists. It's not a school assignment, it's the real world, and the potential this project has for publication is not only a stressor but a motivator as well.

I've also never felt more like an adult or more independent in my life. It's pretty cool that the first apartment I've ever rented is in Rabat. I'm living on my own (well, with roommates, but you know) in AFRICA. If I can do it here, I can do it anywhere! It's a little weird living outside of the medina, but it's nice to get to know a new area of Rabat (it's easy to forget how huge it is when you live in the medina, which really isn't that big). I also miss my host family, but since I'm still living in the same city (I'm not a Casablanca fan and it's easy enough to commute) I can still visit them when I'm free. I went home for lunch yesterday and they were so happy to see me--it was a wonderful reunion!

Of course there have been slip-ups, but I'm alive and well and learning every single day. I'm pretty proud of how far Rachel and I have gotten with our project, and that I've been able to handle budgeting my stipend and balancing work with fun (even though sometimes it feels like too much work--I just realized I've spent most of my Saturday in front of a computer...what are weekends?).

Sometimes I wonder where I'd be if I had chosen to go to South Africa or London, the other top options I was looking into for studying abroad. I can't really imagine it. In moments when I'm incredibly stressed out or wishing that I could just go to Spain (my program doesn't allow us to leave the country while we're in session) I often think of my friends who have a lot of time off and are able to travel and experience other places and I get a bit jealous. But then I think of the type of experience I'm getting here, and I realize I can't really compare. This is a journalism experience first, and a study abroad experience second. And I'm honestly so grateful for that. Even if I don't end up as a journalist one day, it's something I can check off my list of Cool Things I've Done (along with dance atop a camel in the middle of the Merzouga desert).

Yes, that actually was a thing that happened. Photo by Elise Campbell.

A week or two ago, I was walking through the medina with my host brother when we ran into a group of American students he had met earlier that month, because his cousins were hosting them. They were also SIT students, but they were in a program that had started them in Vietnam and brought them to several other countries before ending somewhere in South America, I think Bolivia. They only had a few weeks in Morocco, and they were really excited to meet me and hear some of my stories. They said that even though they were glad they got to see so many different places, they were pretty sad that they didn't get to "know" any one place in particular very well. My conversation with them once more made me grateful, and I realized I definitely chose the right program for me. Thinking back over these past few months, I can't even imagine going somewhere and not getting to know my host family (families, after Birta!) the way that I did, or not having the time to befriend the locals. From the people I hang out with on a regular basis who consider me one of their best friends to the man at my favorite snack shop in the medina who gets excited for me whenever I use a new word in Arabic, I feel that I've made deep connections here. I've found a second home in Morocco and I couldn't be any happier.

Which means I've also gotten very attached to this place and these people, and I'm dreading the day I have to leave them. Today while Rachel and I were furiously typing emails and trying to figure out our next steps, I was complaining about the stress (forgive me, I hadn't had any coffee yet). She simply looked at me and said, "we're going to miss this in three weeks." I felt like something hit me then. What am I going to do when I have to say goodbye?

The only thing I can do for now is enjoy the time I have left. I've made some amazing memories and I have three more weeks to make as many more of them as possible. And, hopefully ("inshallah," as we say here), it's not really goodbye, but more of a 'til next time kind of thing.

I'm off to go binge on snacks from my favorite non-medina snack man and make a game plan for tomorrow's journalism shenanigans. Happy Easter to those who celebrate it. To my family--Christos Vos Kres! As much as I love the food here, you can bet I'll be missing the paska and the nutbread tomorrow.

Shine on,


1 comment:

  1. Well it was worth the wait! So happy to hear of all your experiences and how meaningful they are to you. I also think Morocco was the right choice for you even though I miss you so much. So proud of you!