• Share/Bookmark

Semester in North Africa – Change is Good

Post image for Semester in North Africa – Change is Good

September 30, 2009 – During the past two weeks, the pace of life in Morocco has undergone a complete transformation. Whereas the days here once meant hunger, bad-tempered drivers, and quieter streets, daylight is now synonymous with the buzz of people shopping, going to work and school, and finally savoring all that yummy street food.

The welcome return to normalcy arrived with the celebration of Eid Al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. My Eid Al-Fitr was a day characterized by a large midday meal, delicious sweets, and endless visits by family and friends. For the first time since my arrival in the home stay, I was able to see my family enjoy breakfast, lunch, and a slew of snacking in between. I very much enjoyed watching my sister reintroduce herself to the joys of an ice cream beneath the rays of the afternoon sun.

Breakfast on Eid Al-Fitr. Delicious pastries, Moroccan pancakes, and traditional mint tea! This was the first breakfast I shared with my host family.Breakfast on Eid Al-Fitr. Delicious pastries, Moroccan pancakes, and traditional mint tea! This was the first breakfast I shared with my host family.

In preparation for this epic day of celebration, I was treated to an afternoon at the hammam as well as an evening of henna and hilarity. A hammam is the Moroccan version of a public bath house with an emphasis on public. While both hammams and henna are distinctly Moroccan experiences, the hammam takes the cake in terms of a complete step outside of my former comfort zone. I say former because, after the inhibitions I was forced to overcome, it now takes much more to make me feel truly uncomfortable.

On the Tuesday before Eid, my sister and Khadija – a middle-aged family friend – met me after class and took me to the hammam. With a bucket full of my toiletries in tow, I stepped into the hammam and was casually told by my sister to strip down to my underwear. Realizing that my options were limited at this point, I timidly peeled off my clothes and walked into the sauna-like room at the back of the hammam. The hammam consists of three sections, the warmest room at the back, a slightly cooler room in the middle, and the coolest room at the front. The back room was hot and steamy, much like a sauna, with a tap pouring forth very hot water into an enormous basin against the wall.

Once we were in there, Khadija surrounded me with buckets of the hot water and told me to sit on the small stool they had brought along for me. Before I could really take in the sight around me, this usually timid, middle-aged sweetheart started scrubbing my skin as if it was a casserole dish covered in stubborn morsels of food. As she continued to scrub a brownish paste all over me, I realized that every inch of dead skin was flaking off of me. I can only imagine what fun those amused Moroccan women had staring at my bewildered self.

Afterwards, naked, glowing, and enjoying the feel of the sauna, I turned to my shampoo and conditioner to finish off this Moroccan tradition with my familiar bathing routine. When I walked back out into the evening air, I felt rejuvenated and pleasantly humbled by the community of women who had made me promise to come back the next week for another scrub and perhaps a bit more socializing. In Morocco, the hammam is a central place for females to go and chat about their daily lives. As you can imagine, conversations range from general complaints about the male of the species to gossip concerning daily life in the medina.

Upon returning home, I was once again stuffed with delicious food by my mother and told to wait at the table for the arrival of the Henna Artist. A young woman who lives below us with her husband and her delightful three year-old daughter, the henna artist can only be described as being a woman of impressive patience, unwavering concentration, and owner of one of the biggest smiles I have yet to come across in Morocco. With a steady hand and a syringe-like tool, she quickly set to work creating a masterpiece across my hands and wrists.

The flower in the center is my favorite.The flower in the center is my favorite.

As she quietly attended to perfecting the petals of henna flowers, the other four or five women around me were clearly exchanging funny stories and jokes. Seeing that I wasn’t able to understand, the women told my sister to translate their merriment into French and bring me into the circle of wives, sisters, and daughters. Although I was momentarily struck by a yearning for my own mother and sister, the sound of the laughter of my new Moroccan companions soon overcame that instance of melancholy within me.

About an hour later, with great care, my mother painted my now crusty hands with a sticky garlic-based paste and slid them into a pair of nylon stocks. I was told, quite seriously in fact, not to remove the stockings or wash my hands till the next morning-protecting the henna design was paramount. I kicked myself as I realized I had left a bit of my homework unfinished and had failed to remove my contacts beforehand…henna trumps all! Needless to say, while the night thus far had been fun and freeing, the rest of the hours before dawn were marked by discomfort and lack of sleep! However, studying the beauty of my henna design the next day, I can’t say that I minded in the least.

As the days fly by here, I realize I am continuously peeling back layers and discovering dimensions of life often hidden from those who are simply passing through. Much like the way in which the henna peeled off of my hands in the morning to reveal the beautiful design beneath, the layer of modesty and mystery initially blanketing day to day life is flaking off and exposing a richer picture of existence.

Within my house, I see veils removed, giving way to black, beautiful hair; I hear my younger sister giggle with her friends over the boys at school; I watch as my mischievous, aged father, in the fashion of a teenage boy, sneakily pokes my mother in the ribs at mealtimes, fully aware of the scolding he’ll receive. Outside, as I walk the same streets to school and back, I recognize the same shopkeepers bargaining with the older women over the price of fruit and I see the same young couples meeting to take a private stroll down by the sea. Passing the mosque on the way to the internet café, I feel as though I am watching, all around me, the intricate dance between modernity and tradition. At the end of these days of discovery, I wonder if these layers will ever be like that crusty coating of henna, washed away to give permanence to the new or if they will always remain, waiting to consistently disguise what truly lies beneath.

Editor’s note: A junior at Boston University, Katherine Lochery is spending her fall semester in Morocco, studying Arabic; Women, Islam, and Politics; and Post-Colonial Aesthetics and Politics. Born in Britain, raised in the U.S. and in possession of a passport that has seen more action than most anyone of any age, she is consumed with a desire to leave the world a better place than she found it. This is the second entry in her chronicle for Where2Now of her experiences during the course of her semester. Read Katherine’s other entries describing her adventure. 1, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: