Reporting Tamassint

I spent the first weekend of my independent study in journalism in Morocco running around a classroom in yet another rural village, crouching down from various different angles and hovering over students’ desks with my Canon. Sweat collected under the jacket I didn’t have time to take off before the heat of the day was upon us and my scalp was still tight from my micro braids, which were done by a woman from Côte D’Ivoire a few days before. Still, all the while I was trying to get those vivid, storytelling shots.

I came to this village, named Tamassint, with Kiannah, an American classmate who was writing a story about rural education in Morocco; Julia, an American classmate who was taking pictures for the story; and Oumaima, our Moroccan partner who contributed to reporting and helped us translate from the local dialect, Amazigh. The Amazigh is Morocco’s indigenous ethnic group, and their language is vastly different from the Darija I’d been learning (but it is oddly similar to Spanish. Kind of. Azul=hello.). I produced a video package to go along with the written piece and pictures.

Our eight-hour journey to Tamassint was long, dark and scary at times with little light save the charter bus’ headlights on some roads. Once, I awoke to the jolt of the bus inching itself through the rocky earth surrounding the Atlas Mountains, right after a dream about a Bats-style cat takeover of the medina.

We arrived in Al Hoceima, a city on the northeastern coast of Morocco, where Oumaima’s uncle met us and took us to his home where his wife served us a delicious and much appreciated breakfast of bread, over-easy eggs, cheese, olives, tea and coffee. We rested there briefly before it was time for us to set out for a full day of reporting at the village’s schools.

Our mission was to see what improvements had been made to Morocco’s rural education systems in lieu of the United Nations’ 2015 Millennial Development Goals, which include achieving universal primary education. Problems facing these rural schools include teacher shortages, lack of transportation, poor infrastructure and negative societal attitudes regarding education, especially for girls. For instance, one teacher told us that one of his female students dropped out of school at an early age because her family said she was too old to continue her studies. However, her brother, who does not make as good of grades as she, still came to school.

We visited multiple classrooms that day and even spent some time in who we called “The Man”‘s office–he was the equivalent to a mayor of the village. And, I swear, he looked like a character in the Wizard of Oz, though I’m not sure which one. The Wicked Witch of the West comes to mind. He had a long, narrow face with beady eyes and dark, wispy hair. And because he summoned us on some pretty suspicious terms (he asked for all of our passports, letters that explained what we were doing, and our parents’ names), he was pretty shifty. He did offer us some tasty mint tea, though, and was simply upset because we didn’t give forewarning that we would be parading into the village waving cameras and recorders and pens, running around classrooms trying to get any valuable quote from a student or a teacher. He just wanted to know, bless him. After he knew, he welcomed us to the village and we smiled as he sent us onward to more reporting.

Kids await their teacher as Julia and I snap shots outside of one of the annexes at Tamssint School.

Kids await their teacher as Julia and I snap shots outside of one of the annexes at Tamssint School.

Students at one of the annexes at Tamassint School gather for a photo opp.

Students at one of the annexes at Tamassint School gather for a photo opp.

One of my greatest challenges and greatest rewards during this adventure was working as a one-woman band. I was fortunate to have Julia, Kiannah and Oumaima to help me with reporting, but production was all on me. There were many things I could have done better; I lacked proper sound equipment and my shots were sometimes shaky as a result of moving around so much. Nonetheless, I left Tamassint with footage that Kiannah would find useful to her piece. I’ll share the finished product soon!

While Tamassint School may not be over-achieving the Millennial Development Goals, it is evident by its clean classrooms, ample school supplies, and enthusiastic teachers that the school isn’t doing that bad. We had planned (and, honestly, wanted) to visit a school with very poor conditions–i.e. kids coming to school without shoes on their feet, not having school supplies, sitting outside waiting for teachers who never show up, having to walk hours to get to school, etc.–and while that sounds like an obnoxious, somewhat orientalist point of view, it’s the story we were looking to tell. However, we still found a great story–one of succeed despite unfortunate circumstances.

Me, Julia, Oumaima and Kiannah reporting in Tamassint

Additionally, being in Tamassint offered another look into Moroccan village life, both similar and different to our time spent in the Sbaa Rouadi village. We were only in Tamassint for two days and there wasn’t any cow milking or manure shoveling to do, but there was still that feeling of small-town familiarity. For instance, as we were walking along a trail back to Oumaima’s uncle’s house one time, we became thirsty. Oumaima suggested we stop at someone’s home and ask for a drink of water, saying, “I might even be related to them.”

As it turns out, she was.

Three friendly, middle-aged, single women answered their door and welcomed us into their home for water, peach juice and wafer cookies. They were Oumaima’s distant cousins.

We also spent the evening at Oumaima’s aunt’s house, who lived about a 15-minute walk away from her uncle and had Wi-Fi, hamdoulilah (thanks to God). It’s a first world problem, yes, but seemingly a necessity when you need to check in with your editor, upload video files, and look at YouTube videos until you fall asleep with Oumaima’s bubbly and funny cousins who played music and videos on their smartphones for us all night. I was almost in disbelief at how great the food Oumaima’s aunt prepared for us was–a huge plate of warm, buttery croissants with chocolate, flaky Meloui bread with cheese, decadent fruit cake sprinkled with fresh coconut, and warm mint tea was our appetizer before a large turkey decorated with vegetables and rice landed on the table for dinner. I also tried for the first time green almonds. They were fuzzy on the outside and juice seeped out as I crunched into them. They had a somewhat sour taste, but I ate several of them. I still prefer the ripened almonds that would be coming in a month or so, though.

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Fuzzy and green.

One thing I am really going to miss about Morocco is the hospitality. Just like with Oumaima’s distant cousins who gave us the light snack, people are always willing to help you here. A friend of mine once said, “Everyone in Morocco knows each other,” and this is a prime example. No matter where you go, there’s always a friend willing to help and a family willing to feed and house you for the night. Even in the schools, each teacher was more than happy to talk to us and allow us to walk around their classrooms. The students were a little different–the looks on their faces made me feel a little guilty that I was poking cameras at them as they were trying to receive their lesson, and when I tried to talk to some of them they just stared at me. Some of them snickered and whispered to their classmates. But there were a few who were a great help, such as the ones who posed for pictures, tried to understand what we were saying and help us find students to talk to, and answered questions for us.

By the time we left Tamassint, we’d collected many new friends who encouraged us to come back and visit sometime soon, and we’d also gained greater international reporting knowledge. This included how to work through language barriers and, for me, how to be confident and self-responsible when you know you may be making others uncomfortable, so that you can help them be a little more comfortable. I also had more delicious food (I promise, the best Moroccan food lies in its villages because everything is so fresh!). I’ll definitely put Tamassint on my “to be re-visited” list, and you should try to land there, too!

Bisous,

Paris

P.S. Be sure to check out my personal website, parisalston.wordpress.com, and our program site, Reporting Morocco!

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SIT: Morocco Alumni Update

Samantha Harrington and I have a few things in common. We’ve both completed the SIT: Morocco Journalism program and we’re both students at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. And, oh yeah, we’re both powerful women. Check out my profile on her at Reporting Morocco!

Samantha Harrington navigates Jordan, Malawi, her future  

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Bisous,

Paris

Be sure to check out my personal website, parisalston.wordpress.com!

Habla Espangol?

Being in Morocco has inspired my latest goal, which is to become conversationally fluent in Spanish within the next two years.

I think about the Moroccans I interact with on a daily basis, particularly those who speak English. No matter how they learned it, if they speak English, two things are likely to be true:

1) They speak French

2) Arabic is their native tongue (definitely true).

Which means it would be accurate to hypothesize that Moroccans who speaks English know three languages. And it’s not necessarily because they sought it out–well, this may be the case with English–but rather because they had to.

Think about it: you grow up speaking Moroccan Arabic with your family and friends. You go to school and learn more Arabic (probably Fusha, or standard Arabic) as well as French because it was imposed on your country as a result of colonization, and it has remained as the official language of business. By high school, you have three languages down. Then, you most likely feel the need to learn English due to its global importance, or you somehow pick it up from your friends, music, television and movies, etc.

Now, reflect on your own American education. You may have been fortunate enough to attend a school where you learned one or multiple foreign languages early on, but I didn’t officially start learning French until my first year of high school. Tenth year of public education. Age 14. It’s taken me six years and I’m not perfect at it, but I can hold conversations and conduct interviews, and my reading and writing skills are solid. Imagine if I’d started in, say, fifth grade.

Imagine if that language was Spanish, and pair that with the plenty of native Spanish-speaking classmates I would have been able to practice with.

We recently took a trip to Ceuta, the Spanish enclave in Morocco, to have our passports re-stamped. During this trip, I realized some [more] problems I have with the American education system and some Americans’ mentalities, in general.

Crossing the border was interesting, a little disorganized and less crazy than I thought it would be, considering we’d been told stories about women waiting in long lines to bring goods from “Spain” to Morocco. However, we passed through the gates with no hassles–we were not stopped once.

Ceuta was a stark contrast from Morocco. European architecture, a breeze from the Mediterranean Sea, pornographic material highly visible at newspaper stands, guards reminding me to say “Gracias” instead of “Shukran”…it was exciting. I don’t know much Spanish, but I tried really hard to use some of the basic phrases I do know. Even when we crossed back over to the Moroccan side, people were still speaking Spanish.

A view of Ceuta, the Spanish enclave in Morocco.

A view of Ceuta, the Spanish enclave in Morocco.

It occurred to me that given the number of native Spanish-speakers living in the U.S., I could be and should be speaking more Spanish. This goes for all Americans.

Let’s be real. It sometimes seems like the U.S. is waiting for the rest of the world to learn English. It’s like we have this mentality of “We’re number one, so why should we learn the other languages?” The U.S. may be a salad bowl of different ethnicities, but all that melting pot stuff? Psh. That would entail a rich exchange of ideas and cultures, and while we do have some of that, we could use some more.

Our population is largely made up of Latinos and Latinas, but aside from a few bilingual signs in Wal-Mart and other establishments, I’m not sure that most Americans feel compelled to learn Spanish. Sure, you may be motivated to do so in order to help you land a job, and if you live close to the Mexican border, you can probably communicate with Spanish speakers. But where I attended school in rural North Carolina, where one of the largest populations of people were Hispanic, the only people I knew who were fluent in Spanish were those who spoke it natively and those who taught it, save a few people who used it daily in their jobs. Furthermore, I had a number of Hispanic friends who told me stories of going home in tears after struggling through ESL and their regular classes when they were in preschool and kindergarten. I understand parts of the argument about people coming to the U.S. should learn to speak English, but does that become xenophobia at a certain point? Any country I have visited, I have learned at least basic parts of the language in order to fully immerse myself in the culture. I’ve also been delightfully surprised when people in these countries have responded to me in English–and even a little disappointed that they were more interested in practicing their English than they were in helping me practice their language–but it was undoubtedly an exchange of languages. It wasn’t one sided.

One thing the majority of Moroccans whom I can speak English with have in common is that I see them as friends. The conversations I have with them cover everything from girl talk to jazz music and traveling. Whether just hanging out or as part of a business transaction (i.e. buying food, clothes, etc.), people try to speak English so that I feel comfortable. If they can’t speak English, they speak French. If they can’t speak French, they help me with my Arabic, and we smile and make it work.

All that being said, why not learn a language simply for the purpose of connecting with your fellow Americans?

When I embarked on my first overseas experience to Southeast Asia, I came back with the mission of making sure that I would make those coming to the U.S. feel as welcome as the Singaporeans, Malaysians and Thais that I met made me feel. I’m coming back from Morocco with the same mission in mind. I’m going to learn to speak people’s language, whether it’s something I used to or not, because it’s how you make people feel like they are at home. Many people coming to the U.S., especially to live here, may have a hard time feeling this way, but as an American, I feel like it is my duty to help them. I encourage you to do the same.

Bisous,

Paris

Be sure to check out my personal website, parisalston.worpress.com, and our program website, Reporting Morocco!

Meet Zaineb

The other day I came across the name “Baba Abdrhim” (Father Abdrhim) in my Moroccan cell phone. I smiled when I saw it, as it brought back one of my fondest memories in Morocco.

It was the last night of our stay in a village near Fes. I sat around with my village host parents Hadija and Abdrhim and my host sisters Soumiya, Amina, Faisza, and Ouiam. I’d been struggling to have solid conversations with them being that they speak no English or French and I speak very little Arabic. Thankfully, through lots of miming accompanied by wide eyes and big smiles, we were able to exchange phone numbers–specifically with Baba.

That night consisted of a lot of cute moments. We ate a nice dinner, which was preceded by some cookies I bought at a small stand in the village to share with the family. We watched the home video of the wedding that the family held about a year earlier for the oldest sister, Siam, on their roof. We also clapped and laughed with delight as we cheered on Zaineb, who danced around in front of us to the sound of the music from the home video.

Zaineb encompassed everything that people mean when they say “the joy of children.” Several times a day she would prance over to me with her round, rosy cheeks, wrap her arms around my waist and give a loving tug. When playing with her friends, she was the kind of friend that most parents hope their child has–one who greats you with a hug and grabs your hand as she leads you off to play in the fields as endless as her imagination. She made my day, especially when she would blindly and sporadically repeat random English words and phrases I taught her like “What’s up?”

Not going to lie–the girl stole my heart during that week. She was just so cute, innocent and fabulous in her own little way, and extremely photogenic. And, as part of an assignment, I wrote a description about her, which you can find here. I hope she brings as much joy into your day as she did into mine during my stay in her and her family’s home…

Five year-old Zaineb Watar stands by an olive tree in an open field partly surrounded by rotting onions. Her faded yellow-green jogging suit with yellow-orange trim is tattered at the arms and pants hems, the tiny holes in them limp with dirt. She wears a red t-shirt with a fairy sitting in the corner of it, talking to a yellow birdie. The smile on both their faces mimic the one Zaineb wears. Upon her head sits a red baseball cap with a navy blue “N” stitched onto the center. She wears it to the side, throwing her fingers up into piece signs as she poses for pictures every now and then.

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As she waits for her father, Abdrhim, to collect grass for the five cows they own, she effortlessly entertains herself. She prances around the field, sometimes stopping to pick up flowers and pick at them, decorating the ground with petals she tosses here and there. She picks up one of the old flour sacks that her father brought to hold the grass, using it as a cape as she swirls around in place. At one point, she places the sack on the ground, smiling at the two young women her family is hosting as she instructs them to sit.

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She runs her small brown fingers through the blonde hair of one of the young women, her round brown eyes mesmerized by the straight, silky strands. They are a contrast from her own luscious, curly brown ones that are messily tied into a bun under her cap. Loose, frayed pieces of her hair poke out around her face. She mumbles a tune to herself in Arabic, her adolescent voice taking on a traditional tone.

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When she is done styling the young woman’s hair, she runs over to the other and looks up at her with a smile. When the young woman smiles back, Zaineb wraps her arms around her waist and gives a light tug. She stretches her arms up, and as the young woman lowers down, Zaineb plants a loving kiss upon her cheek. The friend returns the favor by tickling Zaineb’s sides, and the young girl squeals. She giggles excitedly as she is lifted off the ground, spooked with delight.

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Zaineb returns home in time for tea with her family. She is the youngest of six sisters. She runs into her mother, Hadija’s lap and wraps her arms around her neck as the stout woman showers her with kisses. She remains there as her mother prepares a piece of bread and black olives for her daughter. However, after two bites, a Chaabi song playing on a TV advertising channel distracts Zaineb. She dances over in front of her family’s small television set and begins to shake her arms in unison with the music. She takes off her cap and releases her hair from the messy bun so that it can fly as she leans over, whirling her head around in circles. She shifts her weight from hip to hip, flirtatiously looking over her left shoulder as she isolates one side of her body and ticks her hip up and down. Her parents and sisters clap with delight as she twists and turns, dancing away the long day that they have spent cooking, cleaning, tending to their animals and to their fields. She is their light.


A Higher Power

During our excursion to the south of Morocco I spent some valuable time surrounded by several young women and a couscous tagine. This was at Dar Taliba, a girls’ dormitory in Ouarzazate, a city not too far from the Sahara Desert.

We learned a lot from each other as we ate and discussed education, womanhood, food and more. Some of them wore veils while others didn’t. All of them were beautiful, inside and out. Have a look for yourself:

Me pictured with my new friends at Dar Taliba in Ouarzazate.

Me pictured with my new friends at Dar Taliba in Ouarzazate.

Some of the young women spoke English, others French, others only Arabic. Some interacted more with me than others, but each of them stopped dead in their bites of couscous when I was asked about my religion.

While religion deeply interests me, I can not say that I identify with one. As I told my host brother, Badr, when I first met him, I like parts of them all. And there are some parts of some religions that I don’t like. Nonetheless, I believe that there is a unifying power than connects us all because we are human beings, not because we are Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, etc., but simply because we all have eyes and ears and mouths and noses, heads, shoulders, knees and toes. When we become sick or our bodies are bruised, our bodies have similar ways of healing themselves. And, turkish toilet, western toilet or no toilet, we all dispose of waste the same way!

The young women smiled as I explained this to them. They, too, shared their love for Islam with me and encouraged me to read parts of the Qur’an, which I plan to do.

One thing I mentioned to these young women is the fact I have never felt as content as I did the night I stood alone on a dune in the Sahara desert, looking up at a blanket of stars, feeling one with the universe and the higher, unifying power that I believe in. It was a magical moment–scary, in a sense, but beautifully scary.

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A silhouette of our fury friends that transported us over the sand dunes.

The stars twinkling were like eyes winking, as if to say, “I’ve got you.” The chill of the arid desert air caressed my skin, as if to say “I’m comforting you.” As I wiggled my toes in the sand, I felt like I was being supported in the strongest way possible–like I had an anchor. At that moment, I could do nothing but open my mouth and say ‘thank you’ to these feelings.

When I pray, I use the word “God.” I use this word because it was ingrained in me at a young age, but over time, it’s meaning has changed for me. I cannot really define it. I suppose the best way to do so is to say that it is a feeling. That night, for me, God was the sand. God was the sky full of stars. God was the air brushing against my skin. God has me, comforts me, and is my anchor.

So many interesting things happened during our excursion to the south but this was the experience that affected me the most. I knew I had to share it because while I was standing there in the desert, I felt that you were right there with me.

Bisous,

Paris

P.S. Be sure to check out my personal website, parisalston.wordpress.com and our program site, Reporting Morocco!

Shukran, Shbbt! (Thank you, I’m Full)

Remember that part of Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” about the food? The one where Wonder Mike says, “Have you ever been over a friend’s house to eat and the food just ain’t no good? The macaroni’s soggy, the peas are mushed and the chicken tastes like wood”?

Well, I must admit that I sometimes feel that way at my own Moroccan dinner table (eek!).

Ok. Safi (enough). Most of the food I’ve eaten is delicious. All of it is edible. But some…some meals I really have had to talk myself through.

I recall a night a couple of weeks ago when I was starving. It was nearing 10 p.m., the time around which we eat dinner. My Moroccan family and I eat fairly late because we have snack time in the early evening, complete with mint tea and an assortment of breads, sweets and often honey.

Soon, my host mother came into my room and put her hand to her mouth like she was eating, as she always does when it’s mealtime. Hooray! I thought.

Once at the table with Amina, my host sister, Nadia and my host father, Mohammed, my interest peaked at the various colors and textures of food on the table, per usual. There was a light brown soup that we had eaten before, a bright red tomato skillet dish, some dark purple fried eggplant and, of course, bread. Nice.

I ate a bit of the soup as soon as I sat down and I’m glad I did because right after, Nadia poured a generous amount of olive oil* over it and topped it all with cumin.

url That is the face I was making on the inside.

But on the outside, I had to keep calm and suck it up. Literally. So, I did, but after two bites I could no longer fake it.

The soup tasted similar to chickpeas, which I like. However, combined with the slick olive oil and the powdery kick of cumin, my taste buds could not adjust. Ironically, no one else seemed to be slurping much of the concoction except Mohamed, who seemed to love it and ate every bit he could get his spoon on. To this day, I am thankful to him for doing that.

I moved on to the eggplant. Eggplant is a food I have a bittersweet relationship with. I love the idea of eating a nutritious, unique-looking purple plant, especially because it can be cooked so many different ways. After a few bites of it, though, I’m satisfied. The case was no different here. I liked the first piece I ate but for some reason, I didn’t want another after that. However, Nadia placed two more on my plate. Thanks, sis. Thanks.

I kept nibbling at them so as not to be rude, all the while thinking it would eventually taste like fried green tomatoes or something, but no luck. The crunch wasn’t followed by the flavorful vegetable taste that I expected. But, not to fret–I moved on to the tomatoes. I love tomatoes, so nothing could go wrong, right?

Wrong. The tomatoes looked appetizing as they melted into one another in the skillet and were topped with various seasonings, yet something was missing from their taste. There was no “umph”. Even with bread, which usually makes anything in life ten times better, the tomatoes could not be enhanced. Nonetheless, Nadia and Amina kept repeating, “Kuli” (eat) to me.

Houssine, my host brother, had come in at one point and sat down to eat but didn’t indulge in anything that was on the table. Amina had prepared him his own personal egg tajine. I smiled at him but inside I was saying, “Hey, Houssine. I like eggs, too. May I have some eggs, Houssine? PLEASE?” But, once again, I had to contain myself.

I ate as much as I could and stopped, saying “Safi,” and “Shbbt” (I’m full). Amina and Nadia smiled and nodded with understanding, per usual. Houssine finished eating and left the table while Amina and Nadia continued to munch, all the while chatting away in Darija. Mohamed added in a few words here and there. I listened blindly, yet in admiration of one of the most beautiful things one can be a part of: a family gathered around the dinner table.

After everyone was finished we drank homemade lemonade which was super sweet (sugar is used generously in Moroccan cuisine), but comforting. I also treated myself to some Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies I brought with me from the U.S., and shared them with my host family. As always, before leaving the kitchen I said “Shukran (thank you), Amina,” to my host mother. Even if my taste buds weren’t fans of the food, I know what gratitude is and I know that there are people in the very city where I am living who are lucky just to receive a loaf of bread. Furthermore, I know that Amina puts her heart into every meal and is nice enough to welcome me into her home and ensure that I get more than enough to eat. For that, I can stomach just about anything.

The next day, we had a dinner of chicken and potatoes in a scrumptious sauce made of olive oil and spices. It was complimented by a fresh Moroccan salad of marinated tomatoes and cucumbers and another cooked salad made from shredded peppers and something else. It was good, and afterwards I ate a delicious piece of Moroccan orange cake and drank a warm glass of mint tea. We talked, some in Darija and some in French, and Mohamed made us laugh several times. I was full and content, or, as Americans say, “fat and happy.”

To top it all off, at the end of the meal Amina turned to me and said, “Snu smitk?” (what is your name).

Gotta love her.

Bisous,

Paris

P.S. Be sure to check out my personal website at parisalston.wordpress.com!

*An earlier version noted that maple syrup was poured over the syrup. It was, in fact, olive oil in a maple syrup jar.

Baring All

I recently caught a little boy staring at me. No big deal. However, he was staring at me while I was completely naked, save a pair of underwear. It was not the little boy’s fault, nor was it mine…or maybe it was, since it all started with me wanting to take a bath.

Thankfully, there is a nice, warm shower in my host family’s home that I use a few times a week. Many Moroccan homes do not have showers, or sometimes even bath tubs, because some Moroccans have a less frequent bathing schedule. I do not mind this much; in the U.S. I usually bathe with soap every other day so as not to rob my skin of its own natural oils. However, the schedule with some members of my host family is more like once a week. Why? For one, due to the lack of natural resources in Morocco, cutting back on showers and baths saves water. Secondly, when they bathe it is usually hours long with a special black soap in the spa-like atmosphere of the hammam, or public bath.

My first hammam experience, which took place on a busy Friday afternoon, was a relaxing and thought-provoking one. I was alone, so it was a little awkward at first. After paying a few dollars at the entrance of the hammam I went into a room where women were dressing and undressing, almost like a locker room. I was happy to see some familiar faces–my friend Mary was there with her host mom and sisters. Men go to the hammam separately, whether it be at a separate time, in another room or at another hammam.

After checking in my personal items and undressing, I went into the actual bath part. I’ll admit: if it weren’t R-rated movies, female members of my family and my close friends, I would have had quite the shock. There were a variety of shapes and sizes, young and old, all in nothing but skin (except a pair of underwear for some, like yours truly). My host mother, Amina, had given me a large bucket, a smaller scoop-like bucket and a stool to sit on before I left for the hammam. She’d also given me a rough-textured wash cloth and a container of what appeared to be argan oil soap. I placed my things in a corner of the room and walked over to fill my bucket with a mixture of hot and cold water, with the help of a few nice ladies who were sitting on their own stools helping the bucket-filling line move along.

An empty hammam. Obviously taking a picture while I was in there was going to make a lot of people uncomfortable!

An empty hammam room. Obviously taking a picture while I was in there was going to make a lot of people uncomfortable! Photo by: Writings From Rabat

The more I bathed, the more natural it felt. The hammam is a place where people come to sit back, relax, get clean and chat with people from the neighborhood. It’s almost like a beauty salon, except, you know, everyone is naked. All of the women were speaking Arabic and Mary and her family had already left, so there I sat, little more-brown-than-Moroccans me, alone in the corner with my scrubber, my soap and my buckets.

I laughed to myself several times, especially when I lifted my head at one point to see–you guessed it–the little boy I mentioned staring at me. A little boy? you ask? Think about a mother taking her four year-old son into to ladies’ room with her, and you’ll understand. He was cute as a button, so I couldn’t help but wave as he continued to stare with big, bright eyes. I’d like to think he was just fascinated by all of the maternal love floating around the room, so we’ll leave it at that. He was also naked, so I’m sure he felt similarly as he poured down a bucket of water down his pants, right? Another time, I lifted my head to a full moon staring me in the face.

I remained in the hammam for at least an hour until I felt squeaky clean. I washed my hair and did a deep-conditioning treatment, for which I didn’t even need to sit under the dryer for 15 minutes because the room itself was probably 88 degrees or so. It was a natural-haired girl’s dream come true. I also shaved, soaked my feet and thought a lot.

Some of the other women were getting scrubbed by women whose job is to do just that. They were rolling their–er…clients?–around on plastic mats and scrubbing them everywhere. Some of my friends had received this treatment and enjoyed it, but they had gone to the hammam with host moms who approached the scrubber women for them. I didn’t want to risk cultural embarassment by asking someone who didn’t work at the hammam, “Hey, would you scrub me?”, so I decided to wait until next time when I was with someone who knew what the heck was going on.

One thing I noticed and really enjoyed about the hammam was how comfortable everyone was with themselves and each other. It didn’t seem that anyone was body conscious in the sense that everyone was shaped differently, but everyone accepted their bodies wholeheartedly and enjoyed taking the time out to care for themselves so generously. Because of this I quickly felt comfortable in the room with the other women. And, despite the language barrier, I was met with many smiles. Perhaps it was moreso womanhood that connected us. Don’t worry, guys–I’m sure something similar is waiting for you at the male hammam.

Bisous,

Paris

P.S. Be sure to check out my personal website at parisalston.wordpress.com!