Merhaban Bekum! Welcome to Morocco!

I have arrived in Morocco.  My summer in this beautiful, fascinating country has already begun, and I can hardly believe it.  I have gone from the bustling port city of Casablanca to the beautiful imperial city of Meknes, situated in the hills and straddling a river, where I have begun my Arabic classes at the local university.

royal air marocBut the one question everybody back home keeps asking:  How is it?  I hate general questions like that, I always feel like I have to answer generally. “It’s great! It’s been awesome! It’s fantastic!” You know, typically how you answer when someone asks you how school is going.  Yeah, it’s good, what else do you want me to say.

Moroccan flag style wallSo I shall save you all the effort of having to ask specific questions in order to get information out of me.  After having been here for a week now, I have developed quite a few first impressions of this country as I come to understand and learn about its culture.

First impressions, go:

#1: Merhaban Bekum! Assalamu Alaykum!

Merhaban Bekum is the Moroccan Arabic dialect way of saying “Welcome!”, while Assalamu Alaykum is the standard Arabic greeting that literally translates to “Peace be with you!”  Isn’t that great,  that the basic greeting wishes peace upon people?! I absolutely love it.

But I bring these two common Moroccan phrases up because I have heard them so much.  Countless locals have said these to me and have shown me such kindness.  My first, first impression? The people here are so incredibly friendly and kind.  In the short time I have been here, I have experienced so much kindness from strangers which would have never happened back home.

wandering the medinaDozens of people have stopped to welcome us to their country, with a “Merhaban Bekum!”  accompanied by a big smile.  Strangers greet each other with an “Assalamu Alaykum!” or “Bonjour!”, regardless.

Back in Casablanca, a university student stopped to help our group figure out the taxi system and help us avoid any hassle, simply because we looked a little lost and like foreigners.

On the beach, a guy playing soccer runs up to us and I proceed to attempt a long, funny conversation in French with him about the city and the culture, where we were able to understand each other mostly by drawing pictures in the sand.

A stranger helped my friend find a phone store, and then proceeded to PAY for her card, despite her begging him not too.

Upon the airline losing our luggage, me and two friends had to take a taxi to the city of Fes in order to finally pick our bags up.  But not only did he just drive us to Fes and back, he accompanied us into the airport to help communicate with the airport officials, and he even took a photo with us, excited to have our luggage back finally.

new beach friend

And of course, I can’t forget about my wonderful host family.  They have been the kindest, most hospitable people in the world.  The daughter is always teaching me new Arabic words and helping me practice; the son is always offering us some delicious mint tea, or helping us out in whatever way he can; and our amazing host mother never hesitates to cook us up a huge, delicious Moroccan meal, all the while saying “Kulay! Kulay!” (“Eat! Eat!”), begging us to eat more even when we try to be polite and refuse.

I couldn’t have asked for more amazing, welcoming people.  Alhamdulillah.

This is Morocco#2:  “I have never seen a girl as gorgeous as you!” 

“I have never seen a girl as gorgeous as you!” a guy said to me as I walked down the street with my friend, and I couldn’t help but start laughing as I continued at the same pace.  It was such a sweet thing to say, but out of the ordinary? Well actually, no.  Compliments and shoutouts from guys on the street are common here, because cat calling is part of the culture.  And because we’re Americans and stand out in the crowd, you can guess that us white girls get a lot more cat calls directed our way.

Meknes wall art
And despite what you may think, it’s not usually that creepy or weird.  Most of the time guys just shout nice things to girls, hoping for a conversation, and you just keep on walking, maybe even thinking a bit more highly of yourself because of all the compliments and attention you’ve been receiving.

Although I haven’t once felt unsafe, there’s always the chance that a real creep could come up and not leave you alone – you just have to know how to handle the situation.  But most of the time, people are just curious about us foreigners wandering the street.  I have even made a few good friends this way, because guys weren’t afraid to come and strike up a conversation with me!

frarabic university name

#3: Do you speak Frarabic? I speak Frarabic. 

What? You’ve never heard of Frarabic? You know, a combination between Arabic and French.  It’s basically what they speak here, although technically Arabic is the official language.  Every day, I find myself switching back and forth between the two, sometimes within the same sentence.  I’ll listen to my host mother daughter have a conversation, speaking in Arabic for awhile and then all of a sudden switching over to French.

Most road signs have both, although the more you go out of the cities the more you will find that people only speak Arabic.  Specifically, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic.

Casablanca office building

#4:  The balance between old and new,

Walking down a city street, I will see both young women in skinny jeans and cute outfits as well as old women covering their entire body and wearing a niqaab, or veil.  Old sandstone buildings line the streets, interrupted by newer, more modern-looking office buildings.  The rich along with the poor inhabit the cities, yet driving through the countryside, one can find small villages with dirt roads, people using donkey carts as their main form of transportation as they continue to live the old way of life.

oranges in meknes

#5:  Fresh and Natural

I absolutely love the food here. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a thousand times more.  From sweet shebakia, to the cinnamon rice and dates, to the many circular loaves of Moroccan bread, to harira soup, to the delicious juice and mint tea: I love it all.  But the best thing about all this food?  It’s all completely natural, and quite often as fresh as you can get it. 

Everything is organic, nothing is processed with added chemicals, and because of this it is so much healthier than American food.  You really can taste the difference.

Orange trees line the streets of the city of Meknes, the fruit which is practically the staple of this country, and locals can buy fresh ingredients at the many souks. My host mother makes all of her juices fresh, mashing up the fruit only minutes before tasting the juice for yourself, as they do at every juice stand in the city.  Apples, oranges, avocados, almonds – you name it, and you’ll get a delicious smoothie-like drink on the spot.

My host family even grows their own mint leaves on the balcony, which are then used in the family’s daily helpings of delicious mint tea.

Meknes and the hills beyond

#6:  Morocco is Beautiful

And last but not least, my final first impression of this country? That it is absolutely stunning.

Hassan Il Mosque

Everywhere I look it seems I am rewarded with another stunning view.  The picture-perfect rolling hills you see while driving through the countryside, covered with colorful, patchwork farmland like a quilt.  A massive, marble mosque, rising above the ocean like a beacon.  The mesmerizing twists and turns of a medina, accompanied by the smells of spices, tea, and fruit.  The smile of a local as they greet you or welcome you.  The brilliant oranges, reds, and purples of a sunset over the city, silhouetting the distant minarets and palm trees.

Each turn of the corner never fails to take my breath away, and I know I have many more corners to turn before this summer is over.

Sunset over Meknes

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