I was very curious before coming to Morocco whether my “ethnically ambiguous” appearance would make it easier for me to blend in. Sometimes it does (like the time a woman in the gym locker room started rambling to me in super-fast Arabic as if I understood her. I think she was complaining about something…I just nodded and smiled) But most of the time, it’s pretty obvious I’m a foreigner. Especially once I open my mouth.
In all honesty, not knowing French or Arabic has been challenging. Taking taxis is always stressful because I don’t know if the driver will understand where I’m trying to go. Buying food is stressful because I don’t know if I’m being ripped off. And walking around my neighborhood is stressful when someone stops me and I don’t know if they are asking me a question, trying to help me, or if they want something from me.
If you are a tourist in the city center, it is easy to get by with English and limited French. People are very friendly and used to tourists wandering around trying to find the Majorelle Gardens, Koutoubia Mosque, or the medina square. But once you leave the main city, you might not be so lucky.
I live just outside the range of where any tourist would have reason to go. It’s actually the perfect location because I’m only a 10-15 minute walk into the city, but I feel like I’m in a much more residential, Moroccan neighborhood. This means the cost of living is lower, there are more mom-and-pop shops, fewer people speak English, and it is obvious I am not Moroccan.
But I’ve settled into my little neighborhood and am finding little comforts around every corner that put me more at ease in this foreign place. The man with a donkey-pulled cart filled with just bananas gives me a deal that even impresses my Moroccan roommate. The produce shop around the corner has an insane bounty of vegetables that surprises me with something new every time (and I can trust them to give me the right change even though I have no idea how much it actually cost). Near the bakery, a woman and her son who I once gave some bread and a little money to try to teach me Arabic. She also tried to tell me how to cook this strange leafy vegetable I was carrying, which resulted in two more people being dragged into the conversation to translate the recipe into French.
And big (if you know me, I mean big) bonus that I didn’t know when I bought the apartment is access to an all-women’s gym just a 5 minute walk away. For only $25 a month, it’s well, not the nicest gym I’ve even been to – not all the equipment works at the same time, sometimes it could use a little scrub, there’s not much air circulation…but it is a space where I can run and bike and sweat in a t-shirt and shorts and feel 100% safe and comfortable. Listening to the chatty ladies in the locker room after they finish their exercise classes reminds me of home, and I imagine what their conversations are about – kids, parents, work, losing weight, the weather. By now, I think most of them know I don’t speak Arabic or French but we always share a friendly “salem” and “shlema” (hello and goodbye) and a smile.
I feel more comfortable in this neighborhood than I did even in New York, where I spent last summer. In NYC the more I walked around and the more I realized people noticed where I lived and where I commonly walked, the more uncomfortable I felt. The catcalling and staring never lessoned and I always was on guard. Here, the more people notice that I actually live here and am not just a tourist that wandered too far outside the city, the more welcomed I feel. I told this to my friend from Amal, and she said that once people know you are a part of their neighborhood, you become a part of their family. They look out for each other, especially women. There is something really heartwarming when I pass another woman on the street and she greets me with a warm smile that seems to say “I don’t know who you are, but you are welcomed here.”
Every day is still a challenge, especially at this point in my year where homesickness is really starting to hit (no Turkey this year), but I’m keeping on and discovering new things about my environment and myself with every hiccup and roadblock that comes my way.