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As you already know, the TIME group spent the month of October living in the Fez medina with Moroccan host families. Most of us lived in pairs and all of us lived fairly close to each other. In the few weeks we were in homestays, I learned a lot about Moroccan culture and myself in the process.  At times it was challenging, but I am extremely grateful for my host family’s hospitality and the experience overall. Here’s a little taste of my homestay experience in Fez!

My Homestay Family

My homestay family consisted of my host mom Khadija, brothers Taha (20) Badr (13) and Saad (9). Khadija’s sister also often spent the night at our house. Our house was a riad-style house, and I shared a room with Amy, who is another girl on  TIME. The rest of the family slept in the same room, which was across the hall from our room.  Often we would eat dinner in their room while watching television. A show we frequently watched with them was a Turkish show called ‘The Magnificent Age” or something like that, but everyone calls it “Sultan”. Dubbed in Darija, the show follows the life of the Sultan Suleyman the Great and the drama within his harem. Amy and I couldn’t understand the dialogue, but with the help of our host family and the dramatic music in each episode, we were mostly able to figure out the happenings of each episode. Starting at 8:50 pm and airing every night except for Thursdays and Fridays, Sultan was always something we looked forward to.

Me, Taha, Amy, and Khadija

Amy, Me, Saad, Badr, and Khadija

A typical day would go as such: wake up, eat breakfast in the dining room with Amy and Khadija, catch a taxi to ALIF, have class at ALIF, catch a cab back to the medina (the hardest part of the day by far, as everyone is trying to go home for lunch and the taxis are all full), have lunch with the whole family, head back to class for a few more hours, go to Café Clock to work on homework and use the internet, head home around 8:30, eat dinner, watch television, and then go to bed. We did this almost every weekday. On the weekends, we favored wandering around the medina and stopping into Café Clock for a qawa (coffee). It was very interesting to have such a set routine – while we had some semblance of one in Turkey, the routine we had in Morocco was much more rigid. It got to be boring after a while, but it made the days go by very fast.

The Food

            Moroccan food is delicious. Khadija was a great cook and Amy and I enjoyed sampling all of the dishes put before us (well, almost all of them – more on that below). For breakfast, we always had hubz (flat disks of bread that Khadija would cut into fourths) a variety of spreads (Laughing Cow cheese, jam, Nutella, this paste stuff I don’t know the name of that was delicious, and butter) and mint tea (like drinking spearmint gum in liquid form – so good!). Amy and I got very good at slitting our hubz down the middle and stuffing it with as much Nutella as it could hold. Lunch was always a big affair – being the biggest meal of the day, the dishes were always elaborate and rarely repeated. We most often had tagines (kind of like a pot roast with meat and veggies, but cooked in a special tagine dish) with various salads, hubz on the side, and fruit for dessert (apples, oranges, plums, pomegranates…). My favorite tagine from Morocco was chicken with plums and onions – delicious! Dinner was much smaller and often times very sweet. Some things we had for dinner were crepes with honey, flan, sweet sticky rice, and a sweet milky soup with noodles. Often times we also had tomato soup with lentils, noodles, or chickpeas. Moroccan sweets and dates (my favorite!) were often served on the side. And of course, the ever-present hubz.

During my time in Morocco, I’m pretty sure I only held a fork a handful of times. Knives were always at the table to cut the hubz, and sometimes spoons for the side salads or soup. The utensil I used the most? My hands! Tagines were always placed in the middle of the table and everyone would dig in with their fingers, no matter if it were beans, potatoes, or chicken. At the beginning of our stay, Khadija would often tear off pieces of meat for Amy and I, as we didn’t quite know how to go about eating with our fingers. It was definitely an interesting experience each day to see what we were eating and how we were going to go about doing that with our fingers. Hubz was also a popular utensil, used to scoop up beans, lentils, and the like. I’ve never eaten so much bread in my life!

Living in the Medina

            Living in the medina was quite the experience. First of all, it took Amy and I a couple tries to be able to find our way back to our house from outside the medina. Thankfully our house wasn’t too far into the medina, and we lived very close to the other St. Olaf kids, so we always had people to walk back with during the night. Our house was a 10-minute walk from Batha, the square where we caught taxis. The area we lived in was very residential, with the only shops being small stores that sold snacks and water. A community over was nearby and every so often the street by our house would smell like baking bread (which was a pleasant change from the usual smell of the medina, lemme tell you). Medina dwellers don’t have yards, so children scamper around the streets and play soccer amidst the passersby. The heaviest traffic that goes by are mopeds and donkeys carrying Coca Cola, but that doesn’t mean the medina is tranquil by any means. Often Amy and I would awaken to the sounds of children going to school and a man with a cart advertising his fresh veggies loudly for everyone to hear. A 15-minute walk away from our house was the Bab Boujeloud, also known as the main entrance of the medina. This was often a starting point for us to go out and explore the many shops and tanneries inside the medina.

My Favorite Homestay Memories

  • The very first night Amy and I arrived in our home stay, we had sweet rice for dinner and Khadija wrote “Amy and Katie” in cinnamon on the top of it.
  • One night the whole family stayed up later than usual and we all played games – mini bowling (they had a tiny bowling set with little pins and a tiny foam ball), cards, and various clapping games. The card game we played the most is one I’ll call “Bonjour Madame, Bonjour Monsieur” – it reminded me of slapjack or Egyptian rat screw. I was not very good the first couple rounds, but got better at it as we played more rounds. We were all laughing the entire time and stayed up way past all our bedtimes having our fill of fun.
  • One of the last days there, Khadija taught Amy and I how to make mint tea. It’s a fairly simple process (that involves more sugar than I’d like to admit), but it was cool to learn something so intrinsic to Moroccan culture from my host mom.

Experiencing Eid

Since the very first day in our homestay, our family was gearing us up for Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday in which they commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismael (Muslims assert that it was Ismael, not Isaac) to God by sacrificing a sheep, cow, or goat. Amy and I were nervous from the get-go, but as Eid creeped up on us and we saw cows and sheep being led through the roads of the medina, our apprehension intensified. On the Sunday before Eid (which falls on a Friday), our family brought home our sheep. Our sheep was very loud the first day, but after that was very docile and quiet. He lived out his final days in the squattie toilet near the kitchen and watched over us as we ate breakfast and lunch. I refused to pet him despite my family’s encouragement, not wanting to get attached to something that in a few days would be slaughtered (he was also pretty dirty).

** Warning: This gets a little graphic**

When Eid finally rolled around, Amy and I apprehensively awoke and ate breakfast. The sheep was tethered in the dining room and stared at us the entire meal, chewing his hay and baah-ing loudly like he knew his fate. At around 10 a.m., Khadija’s mother, father, other sister, and various cousins came over for the slaughter. The butcher showed up with a plethora of knives and proceeded to tie ropes around the sheep’s legs as Amy and I cowered from the balcony. The sheep didn’t even struggle – he just took it and stared up at Amy and I while we squealed, “Did they do it yet? Has it happened?? I don’t want to see this!” A few prayers and one flick of a knife later, Mr. Sheepy was gone. I remember looking away right when they made the initial cut in his neck and then peeking over to see blood pouring out onto the dining room tile. Khadija and her sister went to work squeegeeing the blood into a drain in the floor while the butcher cut the sheep’s head off, tied up the back legs, and hung it from the balcony over the living room (the same one on which Amy and I were freaking out). The butcher then made quick work, skinning the carcass and removing all the organs, and then he left to head to the next sacrifice.

Mr. Sheepy post-Eid, hanging in the dining room, and Taha

After cleaning the entire room and separating the organs, Khadija pulled out a tiny grill and lit a fire in it right in the dining room. As the smoke traveled past our bedroom window and out the sides of the roof, Amy and I were called down to lunch. On the table was a chicken tagine, and mysterious meat kebabs that Khadija had grilled. “Taha, what part of the sheep is this?” I asked my host brother, pointing to the kebab. “Umm, I am not sure,” he replied. “I will look it up!” He proceeded to leaf through a Darija-English dictionary until he came across the right words. “Heart. And liver.” Maybe if I hadn’t just witnessed the very sheep from which the organ kebabs came from be slaughtered I would have tried it, but Amy and I both opted not to (and continued to opt out of eating the intestines and stomach the following days for lunch).  While I am normally adventurous when confronted with new foods, this was an experience I just couldn’t stomach.

After hanging in the dining room for a day, the meat was separated by the same butcher. Most of the meat is actually donated to the poor, a concept I found cool. All parts of the sheep are eaten (even the eyeballs and ear cartilage), another interesting but very resourceful thing about Eid. While I was initially apprehensive about the process, I am glad that I (mostly) watched the whole thing. It was a very interesting insight into Islam and the customs that go along with it. I also became more aware of where food actually comes from. In America we are so disconnected from our food – the journey from farm to fork is long (and often filled with chemicals) that to have a sheep slaughtered right in front of me and then have it’s meat for lunch was an entirely alien concept.

Overall, my homestay experience was a great one and I am so grateful to my homestay family for making my stay as comfortable as it could be. Shokran bezzaf!