The first time I met my mom, she flew across the room to engulf me in kisses, immediately knowing who I was.
Her hair was tied back into a red and gold scarf, she was wearing rectangular glasses, and she was almost exactly my height. In between endless cheek kisses, she was breathlessly giggling “Marhaba,” the Arabic word for “Welcome.” She had seen pictures of me, knew my name, and had gotten the letter I had sent explaining my hobbies and mannerisms. I, on the other hand, had no idea who my family was, where they lived, or even what languages they spoke.
When I signed up for my semester in Morocco, I knew that I would be living with a host family for the first few months and that each student in the program would be living with a different family. And that was all I knew. Our program did not reveal any additional details until, quite literally, two minutes before we were to meet our new host mothers. It was then that we were given sheets of paper listing how many members were in our new families, how old everyone was, and where each of our new houses were located.
I found out that I would be living with Mama Fatima, Aunt Nzha, Father Abderezak, and my 18-year-old sister, Kawtar. And I very quickly learnt that while Kawtar studied English in school (and was quite good at it), the other members of my family only spoke Darija, or Moroccan Arabic.
After that first meeting, and more cheek kisses as we said goodbye, I spent one more night in a hotel with my fellow students. The next afternoon, five days after we had flew into Rabat, we would each be picked up from school by our moms and escorted home for the first time. As Mama Fatima picked me up, wearing the same scarf and smiling just as wide as the previous day, we began the six minute walk to my new house. Unable to communicate through words, we simply spent the walk smiling at each other.
Aunt Nzha (left) and Mama Fatima (middle); Photo courtesy of Shelby Kluver
Each of the students in my program had a unique homestay experience. The families varied widely in size, economic status, and language skills. Some of the houses were located far outside of the medina, or old part of the city, whereas others were a two-minute walk from our school. A few students lived with single mothers or fathers; some lived with small children; others lived with empty-nesters. The layouts of the physical houses were vastly different from each other, and several amenities we might have considered vital, such as wifi, western toilets, and western showers, were not present in each student’s homestay.
While it would be nice to say that each of the students loved their homes and families, it would simply be unrealistic. Not everyone meshed well into the dynamic of their family, and there were plenty of growing pains along the way. It’s extremely difficult to dive into another country and culture, but to also coexist with a group of strangers? It’s a daunting situation.
My own home, located one street over from Rabat’s Mohammed V street, was certainly one of the largest housing students from my program. It is built like a traditional Moroccan Riad and is capable of housing many people at one time.
When you first walk in, you enter the open-air common space, with both a separate kitchen and dining room located immediately to the right. On the left, a spacious Moroccan bedroom, a bathroom with a turkish toilet, and a stone staircase. Two more bedrooms made up either side of the second floor, as well as a sort of indoor-balcony that looked out onto the first floor common space. Finally, the third floor had another bedroom, as well as a door leading out onto the terrace, which contained a small utility shed, a clothesline, and a bathroom with a western toilet and shower head. A makeshift roof had been erected over the open expanse of the space below, so that no rain would get in, but there was almost no difference in lighting or weather between the outside of the house and the inside.
Kawtar and Shelby posing in the family’s traditional Kaftan; photo courtesy of Shelby Kluver
I loved my house, with all of its balconies, indoor and outdoor-opening windows, and natural sunlight. I did not, however, love the fact that few Moroccan houses have central heating. That, coupled with our open layout, meant that for the first month of my semester, I would sit in my house at night and be able to see my breath.
Traditionally, Moroccan homes have several low-lying couches circling the entire perimeter of a room. These are used for both lounging and sleeping, rather than separate beds and chairs, and each room in my house had couches of different fabrics and colors.
My room, which I had to myself, was located on the second floor. I had forest green couches pressed up against every wall, a table in the center to put my suitcase on, and a single electrical outlet. One of my windows opened inside, toward the courtyard, and I could see all three floors from my vantage point. My other window opened outside, with the street twelve feet below, and my neighbor’s window directly across from me, a mere five feet away. My house was at the end of a dead end street, past a primary school and a music school. Whenever I had my street-side window open, it was common for guitar, piano, violin, and clarinet music to float into my bedroom.
My moments at home were filled with family time spent watching Moroccan-dubbed Turkish soap operas, doing my homework with Kawtar, and lots and lots of khobz (round loaves of Moroccan bread that are used to pick up food, in place of silverware). I had breakfast — khobz dipped in oil — waiting for me every morning and supper with my family every evening. It wasn’t until I was more than a month into the program that I realized how naturally all of the students would refer to our host mothers as “mom,” even to the point that it was jarring to hear “mom” and have it mean the women we had waiting for us back in America.
The view of the second and third floors from the bottom common space; Photo courtesy of Shelby Kluver
Of course, one of the largest aspects of my time in my homestay was the language component.
I don’t think I realized how big of a challenge the language barrier would be for me. As I mentioned in my previous post, Morocco is a country filled with language politics. While I knew that I would be taking Arabic language classes at school, I figured that would be bolstered by whatever Arabic I was speaking and learning at home. Instead, I was learning mainly Fus’ha (Modern Standard Arabic) at school and speaking mainly Darija (Moroccan Arabic) at my homestay.
Arabic speaking countries have their own national dialects, with Fus’ha used as the language of literature. But Morocco, with influences from the native Berber people and the colonization of the French and Spanish, is known for having a vernacular that is one of the most removed from Fus’ha.
It is a frustrating mix, and had I come into this program with even a little bit of experience with Fus’ha, it would have been a completely different story. Instead, I was trying to learn building blocks of Arabic at the same time that I was learning the variations. I would often get flustered, only to get words confused between the two. It was too easy to feel like I was not making progress with either language.
To perfectly compound upon all of this, I had no other way of speaking to my mother, father, or aunt than what I could muster out in Darija. We quickly understood that if we attempted to use Google Translate it left us even more confused than when we started. In short, my first few weeks at home were often overwhelming.
The window from my bedroom that opened into the common area of the house; Photo courtesy of Shelby Kluver
When basic communication skills are wiped away, it’s so much more mentally exhausting than any outsider could imagine. Every thought, even simple ones such as, “What time is supper,” becomes a ten minute ordeal complete with exaggerated hand motions, over-the-top facial expressions, and more than enough confusion. It’s extremely lonely, to not have anyone to talk with even when you are surrounded by people. It’s draining, to try so hard to communicate, only to feel defeated and give up. It’s a situation rife with misunderstandings that have almost no way of being resolved.
When you only speak to a person in broken sentences, punctuated by frustrated laughs, it’s easy to forget how eloquent and smart they might be. And it means that you have to give up a lot of pride, when you cannot handle more than the most basic of concepts within a language. I would often find myself feeling stupid and unaccomplished when we would have guests over and I would be unable to communicate. I would simply tell my mom that I was going to “medrasa” or school, because I didn’t have the words to say that I was meeting my American friends at a cafe to work on a project together. I would startle to hear my mom having animated and excited conversations on the phone, having only heard her speak slowly when she was addressing me.
To speak the same language as someone is to remove one of humanity’s largest barriers. It’s a comfort that cannot be truly appreciated until you are the only one, in a room filled with people who can converse and joke and debate together, who is left out.
Of course, I think all of this is so important to have lived through. Especially coming from a country that does not place emphasis on learning other languages and instead encourages all other people to our own monolingualism. And for all of the struggles that I found myself wading through, nothing compares to the feeling of slowly getting better at a language and suddenly not being so lost anymore.
And I am especially thankful that I had my sister, Kawtar, in my home with me. She grew up speaking Darija, but has been learning Fus’ha, French, and English in school for years. As long as I didn’t speak too quickly, or with a vernacular that was either too academic or too colloquial, we had no problem communicating in English. And, when she would get tired after a long day and not have the mental energy to converse in a different language, I would do my best in Darija. As I got better at my Arabic, I would listen to Mama Fatima and Aunt Nzha speak to each other, then quietly turn to Kawtar and try to translate what I had heard. The last few weeks at my homestay, to the pure delight of both myself and Kawtar, I was able to understand increasingly more complicated topics.
There are few moments that parallel the sudden rush of accomplishment, joy, and relief it is, to be able to comprehend a different language.
I was also surrounded by a family that loved me in so many ways and were endlessly patient with my communication barriers. They would help me practice my vocab, check my writing, and gently correct my pronunciation. As alone as I might have felt, I still knew that the four people I was living with were on my side.
Mama Fatima and Abderezak; Photo courtesy of Shelby Kluver
I very quickly grew to love this group of four people, my Moroccan family, in such a genuine and organic way. For as much as it could have turned into a forced relationship, I never once doubted how much they cared for my well being. While there were plenty of bumps along the way, as I learnt the rules and expectations of my new house, I got the sense that no matter what happened to me in Morocco, I would always have this safety net to fall back on. I had people, in Rabat, who made my personal happiness a constant priority.
It was all of the little things that meant so much. After offhandedly mentioning that I loved all of the mandarin oranges I was eating in Morocco, my mom went out of her way to always have mandarins in the house, even when it was well-past their growing season. My father opened his journal up to the last page, where there was a map of the world, so that I could point out where in the United States I was from. Then, when he saw me softly smiling at the page, he immediately ripped it out and pressed it into my shocked hands. In Darija, he explained that I should take it, incase I got homesick and wanted to be reminded of where I was from.
Small gestures of love make up a family, and I always knew that I wasn’t just living in that house…I was part of the family that was living there.
When I lived in Vietnam, I stayed in a university dormitory with other Vietnamese and American students. It was a complete immersion in freedom and the country’s youth culture. This time around I was living with and learning about modern family dynamics and support. Both are so different, but no less rewarding, challenging, or life changing than the other. I’ll be forever thankful that I was able to experience such distinct cultural viewpoints and for all of the people I met along the way. They were both defining pillars in what made up my time abroad. It would be impossible to pick one or the other as my favorite experience.
Instead, I’ll say this: if you want to build something that will span oceans, years, and language barriers, fall in love with the people you meet. Carry them with you, as the true treasures of a place that makes you happy. My global network of friends and family have made my own world so much smaller, by forever expanding it.