At the Airport…

Here I am at Casablanca’s Mohammed V International Airport, waiting to board my Alitalia flight to Rome, Italy. Let me tell you, I have been to a lot of airports in the world, and every time I just love it. Not only because I love travelling by airplanes and the fact that I just love airplanes, but also because it always gives me a mix sense of excitement, adventure, and slight sadness.

I have faced quite a few difficult things in Morocco, and as if it wasn’t enough, the Kingdom of Morocco still sets her obstacles on preventing me leaving the country.  I got to the airport with one other friend on the program who is also flying back to the US by having my roommate’s Moroccan friend drive us. Now, you may say that it’s not a good idea to go on some random Moroccan guy’s car at 10 pm to get to the airport, which is located 30 km away from the main city, or in other words, middle of no where. Imagine everything that could go wrong. Luckily, Moroccans are nice people, so my friend and I got to the airport about 5 hours before our flight. All was well, we thought, we are finally going home! We went through a security check, and went to the second floor to check-in. The airport has 3 terminals, with Terminal 3 being the arrival terminal and Terminals 1 and 2 being the departure terminals. So I looked for Alitalia while my friend looked for Lufthansa, as she is to first fly to Frankfurt, Germany then to the US. Well, Lufthansa is in the new, modern, bright Terminal 2, while Alitalia is in the rather gloomy, dimmed, under-construction, and deserted Terminal 1. I mean really, the counters weren’t light up, there was no one in the vicinity, which made me really nervous and check the flight status screens every five minute to see if my Rome flight was still on there.

As it turned out, I was just simply early (even though my friend got to check-in for her Lufthansa flight, which departs around the same time as my Alitalia flight, the time we got to the airport), and at around midnight, a couple people from Royal Air Maroc, the Moroccan national airlines, appeared behind the counters and started to check people in. Now, I fly to Rome on Alitalia, but to Detroit and then Minneapolis on Delta. Assuming that being in the same airlines alliance (SkyTeam), I thought surely they could check my luggage directly to Minneapolis, so I wouldn’t have to take them out in Rome and went through immigration and everything. No such luck, but I was rather impressed with the agent, who actually kind of understood me saying “I am travelling to America” in Arabic. He then found someone who speaks English to tell me that I have to take out my luggage in Rome. Well, it was a nice try anyway.

Done with check-in, luggage sent (hopefully) to the right plane, I headed towards immigration, which was conveniently located on the far end of Terminal 2. I went in, told one of the security officer that I have 7 dirhams on me (I meant to say 70, but I wasn’t really in the mood of correcting myself), and went through to the lines. It was probably better this way anyway, as the export of Moroccan Dirham is strictly restricted, and I have heard stories of people having to take out everything in their backpack to show that they aren’t hiding any dirhams in their notebooks and such. I went up to the immigration officer to have my passport stamp. He looked at me and at the computer (obviously for any possible wrongdoing and things) and asked where I lived during my stay in Morocco. Upon receiving my answer in Arabic (“I live with a Moroccan family, I study Arabic language in Fez.”), he looks rather impressed, stamped my passport, and let me pass. 6 weeks intensive Arabic language courses for the win! I spent some time doing last-minute souvenir shopping (interesting enough, they don’t take any Moroccan Dirham after you passed through immigration. You have to buy things in American dollars or Euro) and am now waiting to board my flight.

Au revoir Maroc! Buongiorno Italia (briefly)!


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A Day in Casablanca

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 didn’t become popular. We split in two taxis and were on the streets of Casablanca within minutes. The city is very much 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 is just close for today, 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 opens at 12 pm. Haven’t 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 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 sits in cafe 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 build 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 next time.

! بسلامة مغرب

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Brief Update

No, I did not give up on blogging. It’s just that this week is so hectic that I hardly have time to “reflect” on my experience let alone write about it. Yesterday I had a total of 7 hours of class, in which I had an essay test, a 5-minute presentation in Arabic, and a lot of review to do. I went home and pretty much passed out on my bed. When I woke up, I had dinner, and was shown a DVD of the two oldest brothers’ childhood, which lasted almost til 2 am. So I had no time to study for my final, which is in half an hour. I will be leaving Fez for Casablanca today at 6:30 pm, and will be starting my journey back to Minnesota on Saturday at 3 am. I will write more later…

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The way to transport garbage out of the medina.

I got asked by so many people about this: is Morocco a poor and under-developed country? This is one of the things that I have been thinking about, and in the whole, I would say that statement is only 50% true. I mean considering the amount of money people make and compare that to the American standard, then yes, Morocco is a developing country. Considering the development of cities and other infrastructures, and compare that to what we are used to in the states, then yes, Morocco is a developing country. But taking the cost of living and people’s happiness in general into consideration, it’s really not that under-developed. The United Nations’ Human Development Index listed Morocco as approximately at the same level as South Africa, a little behind Egypt, and better off than most African countries. Not that I understand what the index mean, but I do have some observations walking on the streets of Fez.

Beggars are not rare in Morocco. Walking from my host-family’s house out of the medina to take a taxi to school (probably a 2-3 minutes walk), I would always encounter two or more people begging for money on the side of the narrow streets. Some of them sits at the same place everyday and doesn’t seem to go anywhere. It is also not uncommon that people walking by do give small amount of money to these beggars. Walking on the main shopping street in the medina, it’s not uncommon that someone (often old people in this case, and one that may or may not be carrying a child) approaches you and asks for money. Some of them may follow you around for a little bit even if you say no, and others just walk away. I myself really didn’t encounter many of them the time I was there.

Looking out from the outer door of the house (right side).

Staying with a host-family, we “pay” 100 Dh a day. That’s about $11 USD, and I don’t even know how much of that actually goes to the host-family, as ALIF obviously takes some percentage of that. I do get that it’s somewhat cheaper to live here, and I most certainly can make it through one day with less than 100 Dh, but I don’t know whether our presence in our host-family is actually beneficial to the family from the viewpoint of economics. I can say that the host-family I am staying with is not particularly rich nor particularly poor. They manage to have 4 children, even though their house is not big compare to other places I have been to or  seen the pictures of. My host-dad owns a leather slipper shop, and I don’t really know how much money he makes off of that. All I know is that he must makes enough (or he and my host-mom have some other resource of income that I don’t know of) to bring food back home and feed 4 children (6 this summer I suppose), and they seem to be happy with their lives.

I guess my message really is that, when you think of Africa, don’t just assume it’s the continent that’s still in the Dark Ages and people live in huts and all the other far-from-real stereotypes. We are in the 21st century, and many countries, Morocco among ones that are progressing quickly, are catching up with the world.

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A Day in Assilah

Here’s my last weekend in Morocco (I am flying out of Casablanca at 3 am 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 and hotter here, the idea of going to beaches and swimming in the ocean was very appealing. So at 7 am today, I and a couple other people got on the train and headed for Assilah.

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) finally came and was packed. Didn’t have that many options, 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 and closer to the Assilah station, the Atlantic Ocean all the sudden just appeared into view. 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 every 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 in the 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 in every cavities of my body. 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 my 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. 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 thing everyone who stays in 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. (To be continued…)

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Arabic Calligraphy

Today I had my first experience trying Arabic calligraphy, one of the most exquisite art forms there is on Earth in my mind. Having learn 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.

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. 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.

Since I didn’t join the weekly lesson until today, I wasn’t as far ahead as other people in the workshop. My first practices involved writing single Arabic alphabet in big font, easier to manage than smaller font, but still 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 (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.

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This is one of my favorite topics to write about. In case you haven’t notice, there are a lot of pictures of food in this blog. I thought 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 haven’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 restaurant 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 cook every meal except breakfast using a tajine, and so far I have been served chicken, beef, lamb, and a lot of vegetables cooked in a tajine. I sometimes also get eggs with so 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.

Olive is also something that would 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 olive here are usually preserved in some sort of brine. Some of them are further mixed with tomatoes and carrots to give them more flavors. Personally not really an olive fan, I do find them something nice to have once in a while.

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