Sunsets and Sheepheads

Well, here I am, day 8 of my Moroccan adventure and BOY has a lot happened already. To think what’s in store for the next three months is pretty thrilling, if a little nerve wracking…

Rabat is incredible – Google images simply does not do it justice. Situated right on the northwest coast of Morocco, it has beautiful views and a Medina full of ancient, uniformly constructed buildings, as well as an incredible beach that my inner Californian just loves. I don’t even have words to express how grateful I am for the fact that I get to live in this beautiful city for the next four months.

We have spent the majority of this week, however, in a small city in Morocco called Meknes. Meknes is the ancient capitol of Morocco, which was used before the King’s palace was moved to Rabat. We’re just here for our 10-day orientation, which consists of a “crash course” in Darija – the Moroccan dialect of Arabic – and various other cultural activities. Of course, a new language is bound to invite some embarrassing faux-pas moments for the awkward American tourist, especially when it involves sounds that I have NEVER had to make with my throat before. Seriously, we one time sat in the classroom for 10 minutes just practicing some of the “H” sounds, which are entirely foreign to the native English speaker. One particularly embarrassing moment was when I mispronounced a word while describing what I had eaten for breakfast that morning to my professor in broken Arabic (heads up: the Darija word for “coffee” is dangerously close to a very unsavory Darija swear word. I found this out the hard way).

Our Darija school days for the past week have gone something like this: get to school at 9am, learn some Darija vocab for 50 minutes to an hour, and then take a tea break. Learn some Darija grammar for another hour, take another tea break. Speak Darija for a third hour, and then (after drinking some more tea), go home for the day. It’s awesome, and I really think makes us even more productive. I’m thinking about putting together a petition for Georgetown to run their school days more like this, complete with tea breaks every hour. The tea, by the way, is a staple here in Morocco. I’m sure most of you have heard of Moroccan mint tea at some point in your lives but it’s special here. It’s basically one part plain mint tea, one part green or black tea leaves, and eight parts sugar. Moroccans drink it every day, multiple times a day. It’s too sweet for a lot of the Americans on my program, but I guzzle it down like a native Moroccan. I’m pretty sure it runs through my veins at this point.

We were also assigned to a host family for the 10-day orientation, so my friend Nadyah and I have been living with the most adorable family for the past week (who all speak perfect English!). We live with our host dad, our host mom, and their two small children Rayane and Awra. The two names both have symbolic meaning in Arabic, most notably Rayane’s name, which means “gateway to heaven.” Such a beautiful thing to be named after! It seems to be pretty common across Moroccan culture (and other Arab or predominantly Muslim countries) to give children names that have religious or symbolic meaning in Arabic.

Probably the most eventful day of the week was the celebration of Eid-al-Adha, which occurred on the first Friday that we got here. The Eid celebrations are the most important holidays on the Islamic lunar calendar: the first (Eid-al-Fitr) occurs directly after the end of Ramadan, with Eid-al-Adha occurring some weeks after. Eid-al-Adha celebrates a story from the Quran in which Abraham demonstrates his obedience to God by agreeing to sacrifice his son on God’s command. Before Abraham follows through, however, God provides a sheep for him to slaughter instead. To honor the story, on this holiday Muslim families are supposed to slaughter a sheep and then feast for three days, dividing the sheep into three parts. Each family is supposed to eat one third of the sheep, share one third with friends, and give one third to the poor, until almost every part of the sheep has been consumed. Since we were in Morocco during this important time, we celebrated Eid with our host families.

This is not a euphemism, people, and this is not symbolic. I mean literally, cut a sheep’s throat, in your backyard. It was quite the process, and it was a real test of cultural competency and open mindedness for everyone in the group. After we watched our host father kill the sheep – which, by the way, he did in a white kaftan without getting a drop of sheep blood on his perfectly clean outfit – the sheep was skinned, and the internal organs were the first parts of the sheep to be barbecued and eaten. Sheep skins lined the streets of Meknes for days afterwards, and mysterious bits of sheep meat have showed up in pretty much every one of our meals since the Eid celebration happened. The only part of the sheep that we can’t figure out what happened to is the head, which is slightly concerning because I’m almost positive some of it was in our soup last night.

I have to say though, I am so glad that I got to be in Morocco to experience Eid. It really challenged me, as someone who is not Muslim and who does not live in a predominantly Muslim community, and I was determined to appreciate the ceremony for the cherished, religious ritual that it was. In the days leading up to the celebration there were some pretty hilarious moments, though. The first was when my host dad was driving me and my roommate home to their super modern apartment block in a neighborhood called “Bel Air” in Meknes. He pulled his beautiful, shiny new car into their apartment building garage, only to park right between a silver Audi and a pen full of sheep. “Ah yes,” he said. “This is where we keep our sheep for Eid. They don’t know what’s coming.”


PS. I would love to add some pictures to this post, but unfortunately the wifi is not letting me do that right now! I will definitely upload some of the pictures I’ve taken so far to my next post upon my return to Rabat.

PPS. Update! Pictures have been added. Picture one shows my host grandmother barbecuing skewers of sheep heart, picture two shows the beautiful beach in Rabat, picture three is a picture of a particularly nice bab (door) in Meknes, and the featured picture is the beautiful sunset out of my bedroom window in Meknes (hence my blog post title).

  • Hi Alex, amazing glimpse into another world. The sheep out here in the west of Ireland don’t know how good they have it!
    Keep it coming.
    Love from all here in Westport.

  • This was so incredibly entertaining to read, it really does sound like a crazy culture-shock first week. I hope the rest of the month goes with just as much learning and entertainment, and I look forward to reading your next post!

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