First Time in Fes

Rabat is Morocco’s official capital city—its governmental and administrative capital. Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city, is its economic capital. But Fes, you’ll hear people say, is the cultural capital of Morocco. The ancient center of art and architecture and science and scholarship in North Africa.

It also has a reputation, both among tourists and Moroccans, of being very harassment-heavy. Maybe that’s why I lived in Morocco for a year and a half before setting foot in the historical medina.

If it weren’t for Project Design and Management (PDM) Training, it might’ve been even longer!

To develop our Story Project more, Bochra and I hopped on the train to Fes—and it turned out to be a wonderful few days that turned both of our expectations upside down.

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The training itself was inspiring and momentum-building. We moved our project action plan forward, and got to learn about other peoples’ ideas for improving their own communities. We spent our days in a conference room full of radiant ideas and positive energy (and coffee).

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Samira and Mina, the Regional Managers who coordinated and facilitated PDM, did a wonderful job. Their expertise and enthusiasm were what brought the whole workshop together. I also captured an inordinate number of photos of Samira with her arms raised! Go Project Design and Management!

Of course, between the serious work, we had plenty of time to be silly!

While the coffee-fueled days were spent going over sustainability tests and timelines and asset lists, the evenings were ours to spend as we liked. And when you get a group of PCVs and counterparts together like this, you’re bound to get some adventure.

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Our group crowding into Cafe Clock in the old medina for Traditional Storytelling. (I’m in the bottom lefthand corner.)

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Bochra is an apprentice storyteller at the Cafe Clock in Marrakech, so the Fes Master Storyteller and his apprentices successfully roped her into doing an impromptu performance. She rocked it, of course.

We were able to explore the New City and the Old City, both with their own charms.

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PDM was actually the first training of my service. Robert attended the Community Health Workshop last year, but I didn’t go to any because I didn’t want to cancel my classes. This year though, with concrete projects in the works, I know that trainings like PDM will be of invaluable benefit.

Robert subbed for my classes while Bochra and I partied it up in Fes. (Hamdullah for supportive spouses!) Besides the obvious work-related benefits of the trip, we also had an amazing time hanging out and exploring a new city. We roamed around in a giant half-Moroccan, half-American pack, code-switching constantly in our Darija-English mix, probably confusing many Fes locals!

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We had such a great time that Bochra and I decided to stay in Fes for an extra day, since she had the weekend off anyways and I had an extra day between PDM and Mid-Service Conference in Rabat.

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Breakfast at our Riad

We spent the extra day exploring all that we’d missed while cloistered in our conference room. We saw University of Al Quaraouiyine, the world’s oldest continuously functioning university. It was founded by a Muslim woman in 859. We saw all the old madrasas and mosques with thousands of years of history. We saw the famous tanneries and the beautiful leather goods they produce. Before we entered the area, the tanners handed up sprigs of mint to hold under our noses because of the rank tanning smell.

Not only did we see all the typical things that might be on a visitor’s list, but we also spent an indulgent amount of time exploring bookshops and book souks. Bochra, sister of my soul, is a fellow bookworm of the same intensity. Robert once said to me, “It’s eerie when Bochra talks about books, because for a moment, I always think it’s you speaking!”

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Fes, of any place I’ve been in Morocco, has the best selection of books! Bochra, wistfully lamenting the lack of selection in Marrakech, agreed. It makes sense, Fes being the cultural capital of Morocco and all. So many ancient scholars came from this place. And some not-so-ancient ones as well. Fatima Mernissi, the feminist writer and sociologist whom I admire greatly, was from Fes. Bochra, I should add, is absolutely a future Mernissi.

Ah, Fes. I’m sorry for judging you prematurely. Turns out, I adore you. You are teeming with books and adventures. And you contain the hands-down BEST tea I’ve ever had (Bochra also agreed, so it was Moroccan approved). Rather than the constant harassment I’d expected, we had so many genuinely lovely conversations with folks. In Fes, people rush through the crowded streets, dodging donkey carts and artisan vendors. But they slow down to sip tea and flip pages in their books.

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Inshallah I will see you again soon, Fes.

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

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Two Moments with Mama

Moment 1: Wednesday at Kaskrut

Hussein (an acquaintance of the family): Are you two fasting for Ramadan?

Robert and Julie: uhhhhhhh inshallah.

Mama Ryqqia: No, they’re not fasting! Leave them alone!

Hussein: YOU HAVE TO FAST. YOU. HAVE. TO. FAST.

Robert and Julie: uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh inshallah.

Hussein: Inshallah? YES, YOU ARE GOING TO FAST.

Mama Ryqqia: NO. Tell him you are NOT fasting. Tell him to mind his own business! Hussein, mind your own business. They’re not obligated to fast. They’re not Muslim. Their bodies aren’t used to fasting, so it’s not healthy. They’ll get sick.

Hussein: It’s very good to fast! It’s healthy!

Mama Ryqqia: STOP. ENOUGH. They are not fasting this year. Enough.

Hussein: But they didn’t say they aren’t fasting. *turns to us* ARE YOU GOING TO FAST?

Mama Ryqqia: Okay, I already said this. And I’m their mama, so I know. ENOUGH. If they do fast, it is between them and God. It’s none of your business. But they aren’t fasting. Now go away.


Moment 2: Friday, right before traditional couscous lunch

Robert: New volunteers will be coming to Morocco in September. And they’ll come here in December, inshallah.

Mama Ryqqia: Wili wili wili wili! Remember to tell Fatima [our Regional Manager] that I don’t want any more host children! You two are enough!

Julie: Why’s that? Because we’re bad children? *laughs*

Mama Ryqqia: *laughs* Yes, because you’re bad! Troublemakers!

Robert: Sorry, mama.

Mama Ryqqia: I’m just kidding, you know. *suddenly looks serious* No, listen to me. You are going to leave me. Maybe not soon, but next year, you will be gone. And I will be sick in the head about it. I will go crazy. I’ll cry so much. I will miss you and it will hurt me. When the other Americans come, they can come over for couscous, but they can’t be my children. I don’t want more children to leave me. Understand?


 

Yours Truly,

Robert & Julie

Being Tour Guides in Morocco

Anna and Tyler were our first visitors from home! We were so excited to welcome friends from our heart-home to our new-home. They even brought a bit of Seattle rain to cool the desert drought! Hamdullah.

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When they arrived in our city by train from the Casablanca airport, we lost every semblance of cool. That first evening, we played Moroccan Host Family and served them a traditional kaskrut (the third meal of the day in Morocco, between lunch and dinner) with offerings from our favorite bakery. At the last moment, we decided to make the tea mussus (direct translation “bland,” but in practice means “no or less sugar”) and put a third of the typical sugar blocks in the brew. When Tyler and Anna sipped from their crystal glasses, their first reaction: “Wow… this has a lot of sugar.” We laughed at this inadvertent, unexpected, unnoticed way we had become used to Moroccan habits.

We spent two days in our city, including a traditional couscous lunch at Mama Ryqqia’s house. Then we peaced to visit Marrakech for the weekend.

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It was a lovely time of souk-wandering, garden-traipsing, and palace-exploring. We bargained our hearts out for Anna and Tyler (with swagger in our voices at the rare chance to show off our language skills to Americans). We drank hot milk with louisa (vervaine) every night and slept soundly. We had affogatos at Cafe Clock, where my friend/project partner Bochra performed along with Hajj, her Storytelling Master. (Check out this cool Al Jazeera story/video of Hajj and some of his other apprentices!)

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And to my surprise, I liked Marrakech in the rain.

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Living a daytrip away from Marrakech and having a few friends there, we know the city quite well. But we were also newbies on the next leg of the adventure!

We left Tyler and Anna and went back home for a bit, but met back up with them to journey up North to Chefchaouen. From the Red City to the Blue City.

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We were unexpectedly swept away by Chefchaoen. Being so well-known and touristy, I wasn’t sure I’d like it all that much. But it utterly charmed us. Such a relaxing, happy, low-key place.

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In fact, Chefchaouen was so wonderful that Anna and Tyler decided to cancel their hotel reservation in Fes and stay and in Chefchaouen for their last two days.

And so many cats! We certainly made a lot of fuzzy new friends.

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We were very sad to say goodbye when the time came, but our amazing friends left us with a whole bunch of American treats to remember them by! It was very fitting that Tyler, who I first met in Italy when we were studying poetry there together, was the first to visit us in our far-flung home. He and his sister Anna are the sort of beautiful human beings who we hope to be friends with all our lives, no matter where in the world we are.

Yours Truly, 

Robert & Julie