Archive for the ‘Eric in Italy & Morocco’ Category

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Eric: Thanks & some feelings

August 20, 2010

So, I am pretty much back to my normal life. I am sleeping in pretty much every single day (not the best habit to get into before school starts). I am cooking stuff that I am used to eating, and most of all, I am living with people who can understand what I am speaking. (I’m also thankful for the working shower). I have so many people to thank for supporting me throughout my 10 weeks of studying abroad. Without them, I don’t think I would have made it.

First and foremost, I want to thank my family, particularly my parents. You really have to give them credits: what kind of parents would pay money to let their son go off on his own to Europe and Africa for the summer. I am thankful to have them support me financially and mentally while I was abroad. Most of the financial resources that paid for my program fees, tuition, and other related costs came from the university financial aid (federal, state, and school) and scholarships, in particular the Gilman Scholarship. Thanks to them, my family doesn’t have to go bankrupt sending me abroad. I want to thank the Ben Yassin Family in Fès who welcomed me to the city when I couldn’t even effectively communicate with them. They have done so much for me and I am truly grateful. I also want to thank the U of M Learning Abroad Center for setting up wonderful programs for students to attend. I want to thank Dr. M. E. White for making the Florence program the best class I have ever attended. I want to thank Dr. Ianeva-Lockney (who was my first Norwegian instructor) for writing me that recommendation letter that allowed to me be accepted to the Morocco program. Last but not least, I want to thank whoever has been, was, is, or will be reading my blog.

Now we are done with the touchy feelings, I just have a few comments. Regarding the Cordoba House to be built in New York City… I am usually not a very political person, and I am not a supporter of any political parties. But having just returned from a Muslim country, I have to say that Americans aren’t showing as much tolerance as they should, not to mention that it’s not even a mosque they are building. I walked on the streets of Fès and was never ever harassed because I am not a Muslim. There are Christian churches in the Kingdom of Morocco and you don’t see anyone having a problem with them. Yes, 9/11 happened and yes, those who attacked America were Muslims. That doesn’t mean people should generalize the entire Muslim population as terrorists and hate on them. If we can’t even tolerate a Muslim community center, how can we expect people of other countries to understand that the US is a country proud of its “freedoms” and tolerant of all people regardless of their religions? We always fear what we don’t understand, so why not use this opportunity to show that the US actually opens her arms to all religions and melt the hatred and fear that led to 9/11 in the first place?

With regard to people who are still wondering whether they should studying abroad, I say, stop wondering and go apply for a program already. It really will be a life-changing experience.

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Eric: Back in Minnesota

August 9, 2010

After waiting at Casablanca’s Mohammed V International Airport for 5 hours, flying for 3 hours from Casablanca to Rome, waiting for almost 4 hours at Leonardo Da Vinci – Fiumicino Airport, spending 11 hours of flying from Rome to Detroit, going  through security and all that and waiting for another 1 hour, and the 1.5 hour of flying from Detroit to the Twin Cities, I finally arrived at Minneapolis – St. Paul International Airport.

I took the light rail and a city bus to get to my friend’s house before actually moving into the place I am staying until school starts and moving into the place I am living for fall. Everything now just feels so surreal. I can’t believe that I was just in Morocco, and now I am back in the place that I thought was going to be so familiar to me. As of now, I am still adjusting back to the “American way”. I am not used to seeing the traffic in order, with no small taxi squeezing through every little gap possible, or no pedestrian walking while the light is red. I am not used to the humid/semi-warm weather that doesn’t make me sweat every single minute of the day. I am not used to having a shower with a bathtub and running water (I am really thankful for this one though). I am not used to going back to the place I live and not have someone greet me in Arabic, or even come hug me and give me a kiss on the face (my little host-brother did this sometimes). I am not used to the quietness in general. I am not used to speaking English and being understood immediately. The past 10 weeks have been such an intense experience that I am just having a hard time believing I am back home (sort of). I really need some time to digest this…

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Eric: Casablanca

August 6, 2010

We woke up at 10 am today. You may not understand the significance of this, but I have not slept for that long since I came to Morocco. On weekdays I have to wake up at 7 am, while on weekends I am usually going somewhere or at somewhere that I just don’t get to sleep in. Feeling hungry and all that, we decided to check out the infamous Rick’s Cafe, which never would have existed in Casablanca had the movie not become popular. The city is very European, with wide streets and tall buildings, but not so much people and cars. The only hints of it being in Morocco were the signs for shops written in Arabic, next to French in large font. As we drove on, the Atlantic Ocean yet again revealed itself, behind a highly industrial harbor.

The exterior of the cafe was rather modern. Never seen the movie myself, I could only guess what it looked like in the movie. We were going to go inside and see if the price is as high as every one of our guidebooks reported, but it wasn’t open. For quite a few moments, we thought the cafe was just closed for the day, a Friday AND the Throne Day (July 3oth, the day Mohammed VI ascended the throne back in 1999). It turned out that we were just early and the cafe opened at 12 pm. Having not eaten anything since we woke up, we decided to go to a smaller cafe nearby for some breakfast. Now, I know I said this before, but I am going to say it again. Our group was catching everybody’s attention, as it was composed of one African-American, one Asian, and three Caucasian girls. Moroccans just don’t see that combination everyday, even though a lot of them sit in cafes doing nothing all day.

Next to the cafe is the biggest mosque in Morocco, Hassan II Mosque, also the third largest mosque in the world, after the one in Mecca and Medina. Its minaret is 200 meters high (~655 ft). The mosque itself can accommodate 25,000 people, and 80,000 more in the courtyard. The entire St. Peter’s Basilica could fit inside this mosque. It is also one of the few mosques in Morocco which non-Muslims can enter, though not today. Friday triumphs any exception to rules here apparently. The outside of the mosque already looked impressive, and my guide book also mentions that the floor inside the mosque is made of glass, so people praying will get the impression of praying on top of the ocean. When King Hassan II decided to build a mosque in Casablanca as its landmark, he was determined to have it built on top of the water, because according to the Qur’an, God’s throne was on the water. The mosque was built on top of a rocky platform with water from the Atlantic Ocean flowing underneath with a lot of labor and money contributed by the people of Morocco (some not entirely voluntarily).

Walking around the mosque, we heard the familiar singing coming from the minaret calling people to pray. I have grown so used to hearing them every single day, five times a day throughout my six weeks here. I haven’t learned enough Arabic to understand what the singing means, all I know is that it’s verses from the Qur’an. Like so many things I have encountered during my stay here, you don’t need to understand the language to appreciate the beauty of it. I am really going to miss hearing them when I am away from Morocco I guess.

The rest of the day was spent watching the movie “Casablanca” (how fitting), going to the beach to enjoy the sun and the water, and ate my last meal in Morocco. I am kind of sad that I will be leaving this wonderful kingdom, but I am also really excited to go back to Minnesota to see all my friends. It’s at times like these that I realized that there are so many things I still want to see and so many things I still haven’t seen in this country. Well, more reasons to come back…

! بسلامة مغرب

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Eric: Food

August 4, 2010

This is one of my favorite topics to write about. In case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of pictures of food in this blog. I think food is a really good representation of a culture, and I try to eat as local as possible. Among many other things, Moroccans do eat many western food such as crepes, pizza, McDonald’s, and omelets. I try my best not to join the crowd.

When it comes to Moroccan food, most people first think of couscous. I do admit that I was worried that I will be having couscous every single meal before I arrived in Fez. Turns out that I was just scaring myself. Other than the lunch sponsored by ALIF and the cooking lesson, I didn’t really eat that much couscous. My host-family hasn’t prepared couscous as a meal, and I don’t usually see it on a menu when I go out to a cafe or small restaurant. They do have them in big fancy restaurants for tourists, possibly as a response to the stereotype. Typically couscous comes with chicken and a lot of vegetables which are cooked so tender that they break apart when you try to use a fork to pick them up.

The national drink of Morocco is mint tea, also known as “Moroccan Whiskey” by the locals. It is made with green tea, a lot of mint, and a lot of sugar. Moroccans have really strong sweet tooths, so sugar is always added in the tea before brought to the table. It’s usually also boiling hot when it’s brought to the table, no matter the season. The only place I know in Fez that serves iced mint tea is a cafe owned by a non-Moroccan. Many people, men in the medina specifically, go to a cafe or tea place to drink tea with friends, strangers, or by oneself (rarely happens). The tea place, most famous for mint tea in Fez according one of my Moroccan friends, is usually packed from the morning all the way to midnight.

Tajine, another thing Morocco is famous for, actually refers to the cookware instead of the dish. It is a pot usually made of clay with a flat base and a cone-shaped cover. The food is piled at the bottom of the base, and then cooked on fire with the cover on. All sort of things could be cooked in a tajine. My host family pretty much cooks every meal except breakfast using a tajine, and so far I have been served chicken, beef, lamb, and a lot of vegetables. I sometimes also get eggs with some kind of salty meat (not bacon, as Morocco is a Muslim country) at a cafe across the street from ALIF.

Bread is an essential component of a meal (unless you are having couscous). It is both a tool and a food. You would use a piece of bread to scoop whatever is in the plate, and eat the entire thing. I have been having bread for almost every single meal I had with my host-family (there was one night when we had spaghetti and the other when we had a kind of really thin noodle with powdered sugar on top), and I am surprisingly not sick of them yet. Breakfast, though we have been waking up earlier and not had breakfast at home for a while, usually also consists of bread (usually French bread) and an assortment of things to put on it.

Olives appear on the table at every meal, even breakfast. It’s not really a main dish or a course, but just something to eat while waiting for the main course, or to change the flavor in the mouth a little bit when having too much of something else. The olives here are usually preserved in some sort of brine. Some of them are further mixed with tomatoes and carrots to give them more flavors.

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Eric: Arabic calligraphy

August 1, 2010

I recently had my first experience trying Arabic calligraphy, one of the most exquisite art forms on Earth. Having learned some Chinese calligraphy before coming to Minnesota, I thought the two would be really similar, just written in different languages. I was almost completely wrong.

The first difference is the tools. In Chinese calligraphy, we use ink brushes made of hair from different animals. In Arabic calligraphy, we use the qalam, which is made of reed or bamboo—it depends on the size of the qalam and how thick you want the strokes to be, it may be a piece of flat reed, or a thin tube of bamboo with one end cut off diagonally. The color of the ink is always black in Chinese calligraphy, while many different colors such as black, brown, blue, red are used in Arabic calligraphy. Traditionally you would use an inkstone with a little water to grind out black ink when writing Chinese calligraphy. For the convenience of modern times, we use bottled ink, which is the same as in Arabic calligraphy.

My first practices involved writing in a big font, but sit till took me a while to learn how to do properly. Like in Chinese calligraphy, you are suppose to sit up straight when writing. But because the way Arabic alphabets are structured, I actually had to write my practices with the paper facing me diagonally and wrote diagonally (using a pen you would write horizontally). Holding the qalam is not the same as holding a pen or a brush. The index finger should be parallel and attached to the thin side of the qalam, while the thumb is placed on the flat wide side of the qalam. My first few attempts were somewhat successful. I had the teacher’s version of the alphabet under my paper, and I just followed what he wrote with my qalam. The more confusing parts were to figure out which direction I should place my qalam at the beginning of each stroke and when to lift the qalam to start a new stroke. Unlike a brush, the qalam doesn’t really absorb the ink, so the color of one alphabet was not consistent at all.

After some practices, the teacher proceeded to tell me about the space certain alphabets have to have in relation to other alphabets. For example: the first letter in the Arabic alphabets, ا (which corresponds to “a” in transliteration), should be as long as the length of drawing three diamonds from up to down using the same qalam you are writing with; while the second letter, ب (corresponds to “b” in transliteration), should be as wide as three diamonds drawn horizontally. This was trickier to manage, as I was often focusing more on producing a stroke with smooth edges, that I didn’t pay enough attention to the structure of the entire letter. This happens in Chinese calligraphy too. There are times when I tried to write one stroke in a character perfectly, that I didn’t realize the stroke doesn’t fit in with the character as a whole.

Towards the end of the workshop, the teacher wrote my name and told me to repeat what he did. For the first time in my life, I failed at writing my name. Yes it’s quite sad, but I just had trouble producing the ر (corresponds to “r” in transliteration) the way the teacher wrote it. I saved the teacher’s version as a souvenir. (Since sand got into some parts of my camera, it now won’t focus, zoom in, or zoom out. I bought one of those disposable cameras, but that means I won’t be able to post any pictures until I have access to a scanner. I will try to put pictures up when I get them.)

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Eric: A day in Assilah

July 31, 2010

Here’s my last weekend in Morocco (I am flying out of Casablanca next Saturday). Gosh now it felt like the 5 weeks went by so fast, yet sometimes I feel that time couldn’t past fast enough. A couple of people studying at ALIF rented out an entire riad in the city of Assilah on the Atlantic coast for the weekend. As summer is only getting hotter here, so the idea of going to beaches and swimming in the ocean was very appealing.

The first part of the trip was pleasant. The train was air-conditioned, the cart we were in was pretty empty so we each got two seats. Through the journey more and more people got on the train, until it was full to the point that people had to stand in the area between carts. We reached the Mechra Bel Ksiri station, where we were supposed to change train, and were standing under the sun for almost 45 minutes before the train destined for Tangier (Assilah is one of the stops on the way to Tangier). We squeezed onto the packed train. Immediately we realized that we couldn’t find seats at all, so we ended up sitting on the floor by the door in a cart. At least the cart was air-conditioned.

As the train pulled closer to the Assilah station, the Atlantic Ocean all of the sudden just appeared. We got off the train, were met by another student from ALIF who was already in Assilah, and were taken to the rented riad, which was located in the old medina. We walked along the coast on the beaches, and saw flags of many countries flying on poles along the coast. I was somewhat disappointed to not have found a Taiwanese flag, even though I wasn’t that surprised. Walking into the medina, the walls of houses were painted white, different shades of blue, or different shades of green. For a few moments, I had the feeling of being in a Greek town.

Our riad was a three-story building that doesn’t really fit the definition of a riad, as it didn’t have an open space in the middle of the house. But this didn’t reduce any of its charm. The riad had everything: a kitchen, bedrooms, TV, bathrooms with showers and toilets, and a roof terrace area overlooking the Atlantic. All it lacked is Wi-Fi, but let’s face it, who needs Internet when you are going to be swimming in the sea, cooking, and enjoy the view anyway? We ate a very quick lunch, which, thanks to whoever rented the riad, consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cereal, and a lot of fruits.

Highlight of the day, or what I thought was going to be the highlight of the day, was the beach. I thought swimming in the Atlantic on a hot summer day would be a wonderful experience, but it turned out that the Atlantic was filled with seaweed and other things. So I didn’t really want to put my face under the water, fearing that I might come back up with seaweed. The cool water was pretty comfortable though. Walking out of the water to lay on my towel, I found something interesting: people here didn’t associate me with Japan. Instead, they all call me Chinese (in Arabic), which though really isn’t that much more correct in my book, it’s an interesting change. Were there just more Chinese people who have visited the town? Or maybe it just so happens that Japan doesn’t have much of a presence here in the beach town of Assilah? I don’t know, and I really couldn’t think much as I began to fall asleep on the beach.

Dinner was amazing. I’m not complaining about the Moroccan home-style cooking I get everyday, but one of the students in our group has worked in a restaurant before and together with everybody made pasta, salad, potato with garlic butter sauce, and onion and zucchini cooked in more butter and garlic. It was a wonderfully fulfilling meal (not that I don’t get enough food at home. Trust me, the single most common thing everyone who stays with a Moroccan host-family complains about is getting too much food.) I fell asleep on the couch as other people went on to the roof drinking.

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Eric: Women in Morocco

July 24, 2010

Back from the desert, I was sore and tired. Getting up the next morning was almost as hard as climbing that hill back in the desert. Determined not to skip, I still went to my two classes, and found out that there was this lecture on women in Morocco. I was semi-interested, and thought I should at least go to one lecture offered by ALIF (I missed the one on Berber culture a few weeks ago). It turned out that the lecture was mandatory for students on the U of M program, even though nobody knew about it.

The guest lecturer is a linguist who has been doing research on languages and genders in Morocco. She started off by stating that like any other culture, women are a heterogeneous group in Morocco. They differ significantly depending on their geographical origin, class, job, language skills, level of education, and social status. These factors interact with each other and make women in Morocco unique, according to her. She then went on to talk about how every society is a patriarchy, but significant differences exist between the Western world and Morocco. In the Western countries, there is generally an image, maybe created by some multi-national company, that women adopt to, while in Morocco, women are more concerned with space, which is different for the two genders. Home is a private space in Morocco and is generally where women socialize and have power, while outside of home in the public space, men are more dominant. The limit of these spaces has been changing in recent years.

Changing the subject to women’s right, the lecturer mentioned that the way women seek more rights is different. In Western societies, women confront men to fight for more rights, while in Morocco, women believe that they belong to a “collective-self” or family, and it is important to sustain the harmony within a family. In terms of how women react to gain authority/power, there are two main categories.

1. Uneducated women have a lot of power in the private space. They are the “keepers” of rituals, which include marriage, birth, and other ceremonies, and they pass on traditions orally. Women in villages also could be the center of a community through carpet-weaving.

2. Educated women are a totally different story. Back in 1946, an organization known as the “Sisters of Purity” was founded in Fez by 7 women, all of whom have fathers and brothers in the nationalist movement. The organization had three goals: to abolish polygamy, to give women more public exposure, and to give women more respect in the family. Smart women these sisters were, they didn’t attack Islam as the source of women’s suffering. They only sought to gain legal rights. After the independence of the Kingdom of Morocco, the first family law was written in 1957-58, which angered many educated women, as it was pretty much everything opposite of what the sisters were fighting for. By the end of the 1970s, the Iranian Revolution encouraged the rise of Political Islam (or the Fundamentalists), which meant different things for different people. For the women, it was a chance. As the fundamentalists opposed any kind of reformation, the women fighting for rights were able to connect and incorporate the younger generation. Through stating that “the family law is the same problem for both generations,” the older generation avoided a clash with the younger generation.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the situation of women was improved at a very fast pace, as the monarchy, which viewed the fundamentalists as threats, allied with women in the fight for rights. First reform of the family law happened in 1993. A new constitution was written in 1996, while 4 women were appointed to the cabinet as ministers in 1997. King Mohammed VI ascended the throne in 1999 and was keen on improving women’s rights. On Women’s Day in the year 2000, there was a march in Rabat, and another in Casablanca. One supported reform, while the other was against it. In 2003, there was a terrorist attack in Casablanca, which was a slap in the face for everyone. This only sped up the process of reform, and the new family law went in effect the same year, giving women more rights than they ever had. The lecture ended with a discussion on the current problems facing women’s rights movement.

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