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Hospitality in the City

the view from my hotel in Rabat


Rabat is known in the guidebooks as the "bland city."

For nine days, 112 Peace Corps Trainees occupied a hotel in downtown Rabat, roaming herd-like from session to session and indulging in the ubiquitous, sweet-as-sin mint tea and pastries in between. We had 24-hour police protection around the hotel, yet PC staff gave us plenty of freedom to explore the city on our own during free time.

Rabat is beautiful: the Old Medina is labyrinthine and magical, the percussive notes of Darija dancing with the smells of spice stands and shawarma. In ancient Chellah, storks nest in the upper levels of the ruined structures. The Atlantic waves crash into the walls of the Kasbah, lapping up around the lighthouse. Lounging on the breakwater, one can watch the sun gently lowers herself behind the delicate veil of ocean mist.

"Bland" can not, in other words, accurately describe any part of my experience thus far.

Allow me to share a few first impressions:

Desperate Measures

On the bus ride from the Casablanca airport, I saw my first bidonville. From the country road, I could see the drab liminal housing of poor Casablancans, filling up acres of land. The cinder-block construction was minimalistic in the extreme and crumbling in parts. I asked a Moroccan sitting in the seat in front of me about the bidonville.

"This is not bidonville," he said. "You will know bidonville when you see it."

Ten minutes later, I saw it. Built not of cinder-blocks, but scraps of trash sheet metal, plastic tarp, and discarded particle board, the bidonvilles formed as massive populations of the rural poor flocked to the city in hopes of finding a job. Upon arriving, and having no jobs or spare cash, they had no choice but to camp out on the outskirts, making shelters out of whatever they could find.

Upon first glance, the bidonville looked like a landfill.

Of course, our bus didn't take us into the bidonville or even near it. We went to Casablanca, to a nice Hotel along a major thoroughfare near downtown Rabat. I must learn more about these desperate neighborhoods called bidonvilles.

Making Noise

Sunday was our day off. A group of fellow PCTs and I began our journey down the thoroughfare towards the city center. I noticed along the way several autos passing by with strange flags in the windows. We took a few steps. Then, I noticed several people on the sidewalk with us were carrying these flags as well. After a few steps more, I realized that everybody on the sidewalk was going where we were going, or rather, we were walking into something they were all going to.

Half a block down, I heard the cry of the masses chanting in unison. Soon, the streets were filled with columns of organized protesters, carrying banners and flags, a grandiose display of solidarity with Palestine. I could not see the end of them, for they were too many. They sang songs, chanted slogans, and marched down the street while additional protesters formed along the sides, waving their flags.

Note, these were not just students and they were not just men. There were so many women involved, in fact, that they formed their own column.

The children helped by taking up corners of the large flags.

I approached the Moroccan LCF (Language and Cultural Facilitator) in our group.

"How often do these protests happen?"

"Very much. Maybe three of them every month."

"What do they protest?"

"Usually, it is a few things. They protest for Palestine, Syria, women's rights."

We eventually took a turn away from the protests, but just a few blocks away, ran into a Railroad Union demonstration...

"Come and See My House, See My Family"

Besides hitting the usual tourist spots in Rabat (the Chellah ruins, the Tour Hassan, the Kasbah) on our day off, my group gallivanted through the old Mellah (Jewish quarter) as well, searching for adventure. We found a cat stealing a dead chicken from a plastic bag, a group of unruly li'llns, and shop after intriguing shop of anything you can imagine. It was in one of these shops that my roommate struck up a conversation with the purveyor, and soon we had all been invited to stay for tea. The hanut owner spoke a little English, and therefore some of our conversation was misconstrued, but his brother eventually came and cleared up any remnants of confusion between us. All in all, we were in their shop for something short of two hours. At no time did they pressure us to buy anything, and at no time did it even occur to them that we were in debt to their hospitality.

On another night, a group of PCVs traveled down to the Kasbah area again to see the beach and obtain a few postcards. Near the water, a fellow smoking a cigarette struck up a conversation with our group. He spoke little English, but had excellent French, so we were able to make out more or less what he was saying to us. Within minutes, he invited us into his home, saying, "Come. See my house, see my family."

Of course, we did just that.

The man, as it turned out, is a professor at the University in Rabat. He was obviously in the upper crust, for his house sat right in the Kasbah, and his patio opened right onto the ocean. He showed us around the house, the room where an American exchange student was living, and a litter of kittens tucked away in a hallway cabinet. Then, he took us around his neighborhood, showing us the best sights and making broken conversation about the arts, a music festival, the beauty of Morocco. After a while, he took us back to the highway and showed us how to get back home.

The people here have an openness to strangers that is unheard of and even frowned upon in America. This manifests itself not only in the unusual hospitality of its residents, but even in everyday, pedestrian tasks. Stop anyone in the street to ask them a question, and they are happy to give a helpful answer and ask about the health of your family to boot. A shop owner may take you around his establishment by the arm; strangers touching strangers is quite the norm, and nobody seems to mind the physical contact

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At the time of this posting, I am serving my training period in a section of Fez. At some point during this two-month period, we will be handed our two-year assignment. I will be pushing hard for a site that is either rural, poor, and in the mountains (first choice), a rural, poor, non-mountainous site (second choice), or a poor, urban area. In other words, I must be working with the "wretched of the earth." I will not be satisfied working with a population that simply wants to play frisbee with young Americans; I joined Peace Corps to confront poverty, join in the liberation of women and men, and discover what it is to be human, and this I intend to do.

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P.S. Much has happened since I began writing this post. I will continue to write, although my posting will be pretty sporadic, as it is apparently too dangerous to be outside my host family house with my laptop. Look forward to hearing about my CBT experience, language progress, the skinny on my host-family, and the great hammam.


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