Overhyped and Underrated

Before I left for Morocco, when I told people where I would be going, everyone insisted that I visit Casablanca and Marrakech. Knowing that visitations to these cities were already included in our itinerary, I assured them that I would do so. When I mentioned that I’d be spending the majority of my time in Rabat and the High Atlas Mountains, I was met with stumped faces as most were not familiar with the capital nor the mountains in Morocco.  I felt a little uneasy at these responses and was curious as to why we weren’t planning on spending more time in the popular areas.

After visiting all of these cities and villages, I’m very glad that the itinerary was the way that it was. Although Casablanca and Marrkech were beautiful cities, they just weren’t my cup of tea. I can’t recall many fond memories from either cities but can think of a few uncomfortable experiences in both. I think such negative experiences, most of them having to do with my interactions with the people in the Medina, have been due to the fact that they are such popular locations for tourists that the shopkeepers have learned to be more opinionated about foreigners. As a result, I was met with more racial slurs and rude remarks in these popular cities.

Nevertheless, the good, the bad, and everything in between were all part in parcel of this wonderful experience and trip of a lifetime. It was amazing to be so completely immersed in such a different culture and to have learned so much about a wide range of topics pertaining to health. Many times, I feel sad whenever something reminds me of Morocco and I start to miss my peers, the environment, the people I met there, and all the freely roaming animals (mostly the cats). At the same time, I remember how lucky I am to have been a part of such a unique program. Then that sad feeling is overridden with gratitude for the incredible experiences I’ve had, which can never be taken away from me, and a sense of determination to continue building upon my understanding of various factors that affect maternal and infant health internationally.


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Distance Makes the Heart Grow

It’s been just over a month since we waved goodbye to our friends and the entire country of Morocco, and returned to our daily lives in Canada. This, of course, does not mean that our work is over – our final research papers are due soon, and thus the past month has been one of long hours spent at the library, tracking down elusive primary sources, and cursing every time a journal article foolishly asked us broke students to provide 35$ as an access fee. In the midst of this, it’s easy to forget why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Though my host family, the kids I tutored in Zawiya, or the cab drivers that drove me to AMIDEAST every day won’t be affected by my report on the impact of the socioeconomic development of women on rates of syphilis in Morocco, it remains an interesting topic with it’s own merit.  But it is, admittedly, difficult to remain motivated about something that seems so removed from Hamilton.

Just as it’s easy to respect people when they’re right in front of you – we were always modestly dressed, greeted people respectfully, and tried to help in any way we could – it’s equally easy to forget that I still owe something to the people of Morocco. They put their all into helping me make the most of my trip, and I wish to respect that by putting my all into what will come out of it, namely my report.

As I rouse myself from bed way past when I wanted to be up and working, I know that it’s fuel to the fire, lit by the kindness of the people of Morocco and kindled by my enormous respect for them.  This report will get done by the deadline and through my research, it’s really been reinforced in my mind that you are a marvel, Morocco.  Here’s to you Morocco, Arabs, Amazigh, tourists, travellers, and students: thank you!

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Coming Home

Coming home from Morocco was a mixture of culture shock and déja vu. Sitting in the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, I was surrounded by reminders of my journey home  from having spent a year studying abroad in Lille, France- Haribo gummy bears, the irresistible La Durée macaroon stand, and an inescapable bittersweetness. As I sat in the terminal waiting for our boarding call, I realized that I had made the same trip almost a year ago. This time around, I wasn’t sitting alone in the airport terminal crying at the thought of eating my last croissant in France. This time, I was dry-eyed and comforted by a group of friends who were no more than strangers a month ago. This time, I didn’t shy away from the melancholy feeling that tends to accompany unwanted change. Instead, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude, awe, and pride as I joined my fellow Marauders on the plane that would take us home. We had successfully completed an incredible program together.

It is no small feat to step outside your comfort zone to navigate the intimidations that accompany living in a foreign country, from learning a new language, to abiding by alien cultural customs. That being said, my international experiences have been the most incredible venues for self-growth and learning. The Maternal and Infant Health program in Morocco was one of the richest cultural learning experiences of my life. The interdisciplinary nature of the program ensured that we were exposed to Morocco from many different angles and saw varying perspectives of health and aid.  As a freshly graduated student from McMaster’s Arts & Science program, I am a strong advocate for seeing the “big picture.” The health of Morocco’s population isn’t a simple matter of the science behind medical procedures, the education level of its people, or the infrastructure of its cities and villages, but a blended combination of many social determinants of health. The program gave us the “big picture” of a population’s health: it requires collaboration, cooperation and solidarity in order to ensure the health of the population regardless of religion, gender, sexual or political orientation. Of course, implementing such an interdisciplinary approach is not easy, but the first step is changing perspective. This is an invaluable lesson that each of us brought home with us, and will likely work to promote through whatever career path we choose to pursue- law, social work, medicine, politics, public health, etc.

While I also brought home a broadened and more culturally competent mind when I returned from studying abroad in France, I found the culture shock very difficult to overcome for the first few months that I was back in Canada. Not only did I miss my friends, my newfound lifestyle and the French culture, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had lost something. It took me a while to realize that, other than my wallet which was stolen in Barcelona (long story), I had only gained from my year abroad- knowledge, friends, and an awareness of different points of view. So, as the plain touched down in Toronto’s Pearson Airport, I felt a peaceful confidence wash over me. I had not lost anything by returning home. I had gained a strong-willed purpose and direction to work towards a more inclusive and interdisciplinary public health system in Canada, and abroad.

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The Tourist Experience

Leaving Zawiya was just as hard, if not more difficult than leaving Rabat. Once we packed up our bags and said our final goodbyes to the village of Zawiya we headed out on a very long road to Marrakech.

The second our bus pulled into Marrakech we could tell it was very different from any other city we had visited. The roads were wide, the city was bustling and there were tourists EVERYWHERE. People were dressed in short-shorts, crop tops, tank-tops and every type of clothing that we had been steering away from for the last month. Everywhere we went people were speaking European languages and the amount of Darija that was being spoken was significantly reduced.

Additionally, the amount of harassment that we got seemed to also go right up. Everywhere we went people wanted us to buy things, and everywhere we went people would follow you for long distances trying to sell you their products. If you didn’t buy what they were trying to sell they would get aggressive, and the amount of racial comments and slurs was also a lot higher. Although not every interaction was a negative one, the overall experience wasn’t quite as nice as in Rabat, Fez or even Casablanca.

I think that because Marrakech is such a large tourist area, the shopkeepers are used to tourists quickly agreeing to their prices. However, we knew better than to accept their prices right away. In Marrakech (unlike in Rabat) we were able to get the price down to almost 75% off of starting prices, which just shows how high shopkeepers will inflate their prices for tourists, and how much more lenient they are with people who are aware of their culture (i.e. we were negotiating largely in Darija).

Ultimately, after spending a month immersed in Moroccan culture and living with the people of Morocco, in the one day that we were really toasts, I decided pretty quickly that I didn’t enjoy it. The way people treat you, the overall environment and the way you experience the culture is completely different when you’re one with the Moroccan people versus when you’re a capitalistic (and often ignorant) tourist.

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The Middle of Nowhere

Packing our bags to leave the city of Rabat was bittersweet as well as nerve-wracking. For starters, I was incredibly sad to be leaving our host family; our host mom and dad had been such a joy to stay with and their hospitality was above par in every way possible. Even now, several weeks after returning home, I still think about their company and their delicious meals. Additionally to the sadness I felt about leaving Rabat I was also anxious about what being in Zawiya Ahansal would be like – secluded, small, and completely disconnected from the world of technology that we live in.

The drive to Zawiya was long and absolutely beautiful. We saw camels, goats, pop-up shops on the sides of the roads, and incredible views of mountainous terrain. After a very minor washroom stop on the side of the road we arrived in Zawiya. Once we got off the bus we trekked to the Sheik’s guest house which was a good ten minute walk from where we got dropped off. By the end of this walk we were all panting and dying of the heat – this worried me because I knew we had a lot of hiking coming up in the next few days. (The hiking became much easier once we acclimatized to the altitude and got used to the terrain).

While at the Sheik’s house we had incredible meals, great company (the Sheik’s daughter was absolutely adorable!) and learned so much about what life in the mountains is like. There were many things that caught my attention during our numerous interviews in Zawiya. For starters, many of the women are illiterate and cannot read or write, or even understand what their children are learning in school. Additionally, health care is incredibly difficult to access unless you are in a higher class or within Agoudim (the main village with the clinic). I also learned that between villages, there is a lot of variation in how people feel about western biomedicine versus traditional medicine with herbs. It’s incredible to see the differences between rural and urban settings, and then within different rural villages as well.

Even though I was anxious about being disconnected from the world, and away from modern toilets for an entire week, I’d have to say that our time in Zawiya was one of my favourite parts of the entire Morocco trip. Being disconnected really let me focus on the people of the villages, as well as all of the nature and learning opportunities that are available through the Atlas Cultural Foundation and Chloe. If I could I would definitely go back and adventure in the Atlas mountains again, and hopefully run into my favourite two girls there; Noor and Saadiya!

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It has been a few weeks since our return from Morocco and yet it feels like only yesterday that I was being woken up by the early morning call to prayers and the sounds of roosters and mules in the mountains. Although I would get annoyed by them sometimes, I found it very special and meaningful that these call to prayers, and by extension, their religion brought about increased solidarity among the Moroccans.

I’m grateful that Canada is a multi-faith country and I appreciate that everyone has the freedom to practise whatever beliefs or non-beliefs they choose. However, I also appreciate the constant reminders of faith in Morocco that seemed to be everywhere you go. No matter where we went in Morocco, the call to prayers occurred at the same times, followed by the sight of many believers of all ages making their way to the nearby mosques. I also find it beautiful that religion is integrated into their language. For example, “Inshallah” means “God willing”, which usually follows conversations concerning something that is to happen in the future, “alhamdulillah” means “praise to God”, which is often used in greetings and in sharing good news, and “Bismillah” means “in the name of God”, which we often said before eating. People are constantly reminded of their faith in everything they do. This helps the Muslim Moroccans keep each other accountable for their faiths and to always be mindful of God’s presence in their lives.

In Canada, one could argue that there are similar references to a god in the English expressions used here. For example, there’s “oh my god”, which is used when someone is shocked or surprised either in a good or bad way. “Thank god” is used to express relief, and we say “I swear to god” to stress the truth behind what has been said or promised. Although my guess is that they’re of religious (Christian) origin, it seems as though the religious connotation has been sucked away from these phrases. In fact, they’re often areas of contention; some Christians believe that using such expressions carelessly, without regard for the religious connotations, is a form of transgression against the third of Ten Commandments to never use the Lord’s name in vain. It was interesting to realize that unlike the expressions tinged with religious undertones in a Muslim country like Morocco, those used in a multi-faith country like Canada are not delivered nor received in the same way.


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Morocco: The Unofficial Wrap-up 

It’s pretty sad actually. I never thought I’d miss Morocco this much. It’s only been a couple of weeks since we left but it already feels like an eternity.

I fell in love with Morocco. It’s a hella’ beautiful country. We arrived in rain but left in sunshine. I came here without knowing any Darija but left with a plethora of it in my brain.

The mediterranean palm trees, the beautiful ocean, the scenic mountains, and the hot desert. If you can think of it, Morocco probably has it. The Medina’s we visited also had everything. Morocco has everything — it is everything.

Our visits to NGOs brought knowledge and inspiration to my soul. Our lectures that felt like they lasted forever helped connect theory to thought. Our site visits across the country brought out aspects of academia rather than tourism.

My Rabat was waking up at 7:30 every morning to take a shower. My Rabat was taking a petit taxi everyday to and from school. My Rabat was going out to eat for lunch almost everyday of the week.49506_dsc00642at

My Casa was arriving in Morocco after a rainfall. My Casa was travelling to see NGOs in action. My Casa was my point of departure out of Morocco.13211130_10208612884935317_1825438502_o (1)

My Fez was filled with heat and sweat. My Fez was accompanied by a water bottle wherever we went. My Fez was taking in how gorgeous the view was.IMG_1701

My Beni Mellal was a trip to the foot of the mountains. My Beni Mellal was a stay in luxury. My Beni Mellal was the gateway to eternity.IMG_0629

My Zawiya Ahansal was a trip of a life time. My Zawiya Ahansal was where memories were made. My Zawiya Ahansal was a journey to be repeated.IMG_0936

My Marrakech was a foreigners paradise. My Marrakech was a beautiful square at night. My Marrakech was a sight of sick friends.IMG_0971

My Morocco was my Morocco. My experience was unique to me. I’m sad I left Morocco but happy I made the effort to come.DSC_0120_01 copy

Inshallah, we will see each other again! – Uwais Patel, student at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.

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Bslâma Morocco

IMG_1908 (1).JPGThe week in Zawiya Ahansal certainly passed by quickly. From all the moments of interviewing people to camping out in Zawiya Ahansal was undeniably remarkable. Everyone I met has become a part of my life and every memory with them is certainly memorable. Every interview performed made me learn a lot about Moroccan culture. Every person’s experience was insightful and influencing for me. Most importantly being in the Sheiks house and interacting with everyone in the village was by far my favourite part. Living in Zawiya Ahansal for a week made me a part of something so magical. Learning the Berber culture and being immersed as one a member of this village allowed me to embrace another side of me.

The day before we departed Zawiya Ahansal we were invited to interact with local children from a school nearby and prepare activities for them. Many of these activities included making a volcano replica, feelings chart and painting. Jennifer and I were in charge of the painting section for that day. All of the students were divided into 5 groups and by the end of the day, every single student was able to complete all activities. The painting activity was definitely fun for the both of us. We got to practice what each colour was and allowed everyone to express themselves through painting. All of the students were eager to be creative and were very engaging. All of the students drew Berber symbols and surprisingly drew hearts and spelt out “love”. All of the paintings were beautiful and each individually expressed stuff differently. What I really saw that surprised me was the interaction between boys and girls. Although they were some few boys who like to intimidate their fellow classmates, the majority of the boys were inclusive with the girls. One boy showed what the younger female student should paint and encouraged her to draw whatever she liked, making her more open to the activity as she was very shy in the beginning.

After a very fun and exhausting day, the Sheik and the community prepared the farewell party for us. This was certainly something I have been avoiding the whole trip, knowing that I would be leaving Morocco very soon. As everyone was preparing for our party, you can see everyone was getting more upset that the day would be over soon. As it began to get dark, I stood outside the house and took in everything. I began to realize how the trip has turned out to be. This trip not only has given me memories but it has also provided me with friends. Every small detail I have about this trip has meant a lot to me. It has taught me to embrace every small moment in life and to live a little. As we finished our dinner of tagine, salads, and Moroccan tea. Everyone dressed up in traditional Moroccan outfits and dancing around in a circle. The night was filled with laughter as a band of men played the drums and sang, while we all joined together in a circle and sang along. At this moment, I realized how so much has changed in a month and how much I have grown ever since. All these people I see in front of me have all become a part of my life. My time in Zawiya Ahansal was unforgettable. Zawiya Ahansal and the people who live here have taught me what a community really is, and support towards one another comes a long way.

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Bye Rabat, Hello Zawiya Ahansal

Leaving Rabat was one of the most difficult moments in my life. I can still remember my very first day since I was nervous to meet my host parents, and how intimidated I felt getting my own taxi as well as how overwhelmed I felt about learning Arabic. Although I felt those emotions on my very last day in Rabat I realized that it was all in my mind, for now, I feel as if I’ve become a part of Rabat. Now I don’t acknowledge myself as a tourist, I feel as if I am one of them too. My last day at Rabat made me realize how much I’ve grown up since I arrived in Morocco. I am able to get my own taxi, I can bargain, and I am able to have a conversation with someone in Darjia. Not only are those the reasons of why I miss Rabat, but a big part of my experience involved my host family. Living in another country, especially with a Moroccan household, can be both terrifying and memorable. Growing up I was always surrounded by my own comfort zone. This trip certainly took me out of it, as well as this introduced me to do what I am capable of.

Living for 3 weeks with another family and adapting to their lifestyle was definitely unforgettable. From changing my diet to my sleeping patterns was hard but possible. Moroccan families show their affection towards their guests by continuously feeding them. I know this because my host mother would say “Kuli Kuli” to Erin and I. I’ve always set my own portions and what I would eat, but living in Rabat challenged my food habits. Little by little I’ve incorporated bread in my diet as well as drinking Moroccan “sleeping” tea before bed. Not only has that changed in my daily routines but as well as arriving home and telling my host parents what I did in school was different. I mean it’s not like that’s uncommon for me to do, but the effort my host parents had in asking me how my day was, is something I can never forget and I am very thankful for. If I had the opportunity to change the program schedule, I would certainly stay in Rabat much longer. On the very last day at Rabat, every one of us believed that Rabat was going to be the best part of this trip, little did we know our minds were going to be blown away.

As we drove to Zawiya Ahansal I was determined that I was excited to leave and get back to Canada. But once we arrived at Zawiya Ahansal I was mind blown. Words cannot express how beautiful Zawiya Ahansal is. The landscape of this village was unbelievable. How the river flowed and how the houses were structured gave me a news flash. Growing up in Toronto made me adapt to the city life and the beauty of the modern world. But arriving in Zawiya Ahansal made me realize the beauty of nature. Everyone I passed by was so friendly and accepting. I slowly started to realize that it was normal for everyone to greet you and have a conversation with you. Nothing was private in Zawiya Ahansal, everyone knew everything that happened. We got to stay at the Sheik’s house, very similar to a lodging, and we were provided with warm meals and bedrooms. Not only was the Sheik caring but everyone who worked in the house and other villagers was all so welcoming. Everyone made sure our comfort came first, and that we were not left unsatisfied. The work and care that was put into our arrival were very thoughtful. I just knew after the first day that this week was going to be unforgettable and leaving was absolutely not going to be easy.

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The Journey to Zaouiat Ahansal

After an enriching three weeks in Rabat, it was time to say our bittersweet goodbyes to our generous host families and the supportive staff at AmidEast. The final week of the program was set to take place in the remote village of Zaouiat Ahansal in the High Atlas Mountains. We took two days to reach Zaouiat,the first was spent travelling the well-paved highway to Beni Mellal where we stayed overnight. Early the next morning, we began our trek into the mountains. The winding and twisting road to Zaouiat brought us higher and deeper into the High Atlas mountains. We passed herds of goats, rows of cardboard boxes that Dr. Amster informed us were bee farms, and even small groups of grazing camels that belonged to the traveling nomads of the region. The closer to Zaiouat we travelled, the sharper the mountains became until we saw a few with snow capped tops! Nearing the final half hour of our journey, Dr. Amster turned around and spoke to the bus, “If you look to your right, you can see Zaiouat!” Nestled in a valley between the fantastic mountains, a cluster of sand coloured flat-roofed buildings could be seen in the distance. I was a excited to enter into a Berber, or Amazigh, community. Having recently visited the Research Institute of Amazigh culture in Rabat, I was looking forward to hearing the indigenous language of Morocco and experiencing the particularities of Amazigh culture.

Upon arrival, we received a warm welcome from the Sheik of the village and Cloe Erickson, the President of the American NGO Atlas Cultural Foundation. Our suitcases were loaded from the bus into a couple of range rovers and driven up the dusty road towards the Sheik’s guest house. With the unmercifully beating down on us, we began the short 10-minute trek on foot, our eyes greedily taking in the beauty of our new surroundings. There is a stream that runs through the heart of the village, lush green trees and vegetation flanking its edges. We passed donkeys draped with colourful carpets, carrying children or adults, and usually carrying supplies. Although we had only just arrived, I noticed that we hadn’t passed or seen anyone that seemed to be around our age, let alone teenagers. I wondered if the young adults were forced to leave Zaiouat to find work in the nearby towns and cities, not unlike the work drought that many young adults experience in my home province of New Brunswick.

After we had settled in and had lunch, Cloe gave us a presentation introducing Zaiouat Ahansal and the work of the Atlas Cultural Foundation.  The mission of the Atlas Cultural Foundation is to collaborate with rural Moroccans to improve their quality of life in the fields of cultural preservation, community education, and public health.  The public health programs of ACF include health awareness days, refuse programs, a community garden projects and the creation of laundry wash stations by the river to limit pollution. We conducted a series of interviews in Zaiouat and the nearby villages with community leaders, from the president of the women’s literacy program in Taghia, to the Sheik himself. Prior to our arrival in Zaiouat, we drafted a series of questions about public health in the region that were answered throughout the week. For example, one of the questions we asked was: Are you confident in the care of the doctor? The answer to this question varied depending on the person being interviewed and their personal beliefs regarding traditional medicine and biomedicine, but what surprised me most was the status of the doctor in Zaiouat. Officially, a doctor was assigned to the village three years ago. According to the locals, he has not been there once in the past three years. Their local clinic is run by nurses and midwives, and if there is an issue that requires a doctor, they must go to the nearest town which is a couple of hours away by bus. How is it possible that a doctor is assigned to treat the needs of a particular community, and not only fails to show up, but does not face any consequences for his absence? If there is one reoccurring theme from what we learned throughout the program, it’s that in Morocco, there is the law, and then there is what actually happens.


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