Village Stay

March 3, 2010

I have just recently (as of yesterday) returned from three-night excursion to rural Morocco. Our class of thirteen students stayed in the village of Boujaad, about four hours south of Rabat. It is located in a region that is particularly well-known for sending migrants abroad, both legally and illegally. Unfortunately, due to an impressive language barrier, we as students of Migration and Transnational identity could glean very little information from our welcoming and gracious hosts.  However, as students of Morocco, we an encountered an unfathomably wealth of information that may not all fully register until much later in our academic and personal lives.

Ah, but this is me speaking far too academically. The experience was amazing for a dozen different reasons. It was also rather trying at times, but for smaller and more pointed causes.  So! Where should I begin? I almost just want to launch into a long winding spiel of anecdotes. Maybe that is exactly where I should begin…

My four-day host family was young, small, and quiet. Both my mother (Fatima) and father (Muhammad) looked to be barely thirty. Their eldest child was an eight year-old son named Abdeltif. Following him was a succession of three girls, ages of five (Lasna? LouSena? I swear her name changed every time they called it/tried to get me to pronounce it), two (Hesna. By far and beyond the name I heard called out most often), and an infant (I was told the name once, and from that point on, she was only ever referred to with so many coo’s and ooo’s attached that her name was perpetually left indiscernible to me). Also added to this young family dynamic was the four-foot tall fairy grandmother who hobbled around as if she would turn to dust if I looked at her too hard. And yet she managed to run across the field brandishing her cane like a sword at a straying dog with such speed that I have to sincerely question her hobbling gate.

I was really confused when I first tried talking with my family. For one, the accent of that particular region is so heavy that even native Moroccan’s from the city (ie, our academic assistant) could only understand about half of what they were saying. It felt as though I was plunged back into the first week of my home stay, with only five words of Darija to my name. For two, my family was extremely eager to talk to me, and were completely unperturbed by the fact that I could not understand a word of what they were speaking to me. Right off the bat, my grandmother kept calling my “Jeen” or “jin,” though I know they could not know my middle name. Further, they knew perfectly well that my name was Cony, and could pronounce it well (indeed, the five year old enjoyed my name so much that it became a kind of mantra on and off throughout my stay).

Later on, I began to suspect that they were not calling me “Jin” as a name, but that I was somehow related with this word. I understand that jin are considered as spirits or ghosts in Islam, and that some rural areas have a much stronger belief or superstition in jin. Further, I started to understand from the many long, one-sided conversations with my grandmother that “jin” was somehow related to her. She would say the word in relation to my face, and then indicate herself and a tear falling from her eye. For the entire four days I was utterly baffled. Grandmother would insist upon sitting me down and continuing what I believe was the same story, while Fatima and Muhammad would watch the conversation with slightly amused expressions.

To add to my incomprehension, I was informed dozens of times by the little boys of the neighborhood that my grandmother was crazy. Certainly she was the only elderly woman I ever saw wandering about after the kids on her own (keeping pace with their energy, inexplicably), but I never got the impression she was crazy. She seemed to carry on perfectly lucid conversations with the neighbors.

The last part of my little puzzle came from sitting with my young host-siblings and my grandmother in the evening of my first day. Hesna reached for my hand and I thought she wanted to look at my bracelet, so I started to unravel it when my grandmother took my hand in her own and pulled back the sleeve of my shirt a little. The kids took up the activity and pulled back the sleeve of my other arm and remarked over (what I presume to be) the whiteness of my skin. In the days that followed, I noticed that my grandmother (and following her, the rest of the family) would start remarking about Jin in reference to herself and myself whenever she was looking intently at my hands or skin. Or else jin would come up during the calls to prayer, but on those occasions, it was only with my grandmother, when none of the rest of the family was around.

This long description of “jin” and my encounter with the word is all to say that I never concretely learned what was being said to me. When I asked for Asmae (the academic assistant) to translate for me, she inquired, and everyone, including her, seemed to become confused. Asmae translated for me that my grandmother was known as an eccentric in the village, and the subject was dropped. But this I had already gleaned from the comments of the children throughout my stay.

When I returned to Rabat, I described my experience (with a bit more detail) to my host sister. She and I then spent a long conversation piecing together the very few things we knew, and she suggested two things. One, was that the grandmother (and the villagers) believed to some degree or another that the grandmother was possessed by a ghost. Second, that I appeared in their home like a ghost, as I was a strange and rather ephemeral being, and that I was remarkably pale. I do not know if this was directed at me specifically, or at the host students in general, so I can’t really say how valid any of this speculation could be.

I was frustrated (as always) by my own inability to communicate directly, and I appreciated so much more upon my return the system of communication that I have developed with my host mother here in Rabat. Though I can speak only a little more Darija with her than I can the villagers, we have at least developed an understanding of one another’s personalities and methods of non-verbal communication. I had not realized what a wealth of understanding I had developed until I was removed from it. Nor had I realized the sincere feeling of place and home I come to enjoy in my home in Rabat. When I walked up the steps of our apartment house, I really felt like I was returning to my space. My home, here in Morocco. I don’t think at any other moment during this study abroad experience I have felt more jubilation at being here. Right now. At this very moment.

PS: I know I am supposed to be uploading photos with my blogs, But I have been having extreme difficulty in first loading the photos, and second getting them to appear in the blog. I am sorry if once again, my photos have not shown up at all. I do not understand what is going wrong, but I will continue to try and work with the program and see what is amiss.

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