Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Archeological Museum

Sometime in November Noa and I went and found the Rabat Archaeological Museum. It's a small place, but it houses Morocco's largest collection of historical artifacts. Morocco is actually pretty interesting archaeologically; the museum features objects from Neanderthal, Phoenician/Carthaginian, Roman, and Islamic civilisations.

The main hall of the museum. Entry costs 10Dh, or about $1.15.
 Some of the earliest evidence of humanity comes from this region, and there were a few prehistoric displays. There were a few objects from Phoenician traders, but the vast majority of the museum was dedicated to Roman objects.

old stuff
A Roman mosaic
Ancient Roman columns, out in the rain.

The largest Roman settlement here was Volubilis, which we visited at the beginning of November. The museum had a lot of marble busts and statues as well as a whole room full of Roman bronzes. Upstairs was an Islamic-era collection; there were some early Christian artifacts as well as gold coins, astronomical instruments, and other Islamic objects.
One overwhelming feeling was how small and open the place was; we were the only ones there besides the guard outside, a guide who showed us around for a while then left us, and a cat who walked freely inside and out and could have slept in the ancient brazier if it had chosen to. Ancient stone tablets and mosaics were outside in the rain and wind. 

Afterwards we found a real French restaurant nearby. The food was actually French--they served wine and bacon--and all of the diners were French expatriates. We had lunch and crêpes for dessert.

And something completely random I saw in the Medina that day.
For Christmas break we get two full weeks off, and it sounds like AMIDEAST has some fun stuff planned for us. I don't have the itinerary quite yet, but I'm sure there will be all sorts of adventures to write about. Or something like that.

A Friday couscous from a few weeks ago. The white drink is leben, a
fermented yogurt milk sort of thing. It's pretty good.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Fall Break part 1

We just finished our fall break, a two-week vacation including the holidays of Eid al-Adha and the Green March.
Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, starts on the tenth day of the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar, exactly seventy days after Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan. Eid al-Adha is also known as Eid Kbiir, the "big feast," as opposed to Eid al-Fitr, which is Eid Saghiir ("little feast."). It celebrates Abraham's willingness to follow God's commandment to sacrifice his son Ishmael. (This was a test of obedience. At the last minute Abraham was told not to kill his son and was rewarded for his faith. See Q. 37 and Genesis 22.) In remembrance of this every family sacrifices a sheep, of which one-third of the meat is given to the poor, one-third is shared with friends and neighbors, and one-third is kept and eaten with family. 

Quite literally, as a sheep to the slaughter.
On the terrace outside our apartment there were in fact three sheep slaughtered in a row: one for our host family, one for relatives who came for the holidays, and one for the family next door. After this (I won't include pictures) the sheep were skinned and began to be cut up. That day and the next we ate all the best parts: heart, liver, stomach, and intestines on Friday, then kidneys, lungs, and brain on Saturday. The next few days we ate a lot of mutton.

The following week we took our first group trip outside of Rabat. We went to Fès and nearby Meknès, a few hours to the east.
Meknès was the capital of Morocco during the reign of Moulay Ismail in the 17th century. We visited the old stone fortress as well as a large underground prison.

An impressive bab (gate) leading into the Meknès medina. The petits taxis
are light blue here, and red in Fès.

The compound seen from the outside
The granary, with very thick walls

Moulay Ismail is known for being a cruel ruler. This complex
 held thousands of prisoners in dark, crowded conditions.

Ruins of the extensive stables

Next we went to Volubilis, the ruins of a Roman town. The Romans abandoned it in the third century but until then it marked the southwestern boundary of the Empire. The settlement became wealthy through growing olives, and there are many upper-class houses. The site, like most of the ruins in Morocco, was largely destroyed by the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

The temple of Jupiter

Overlooking the surrounding countryside
A mosaic in one of the houses

The triumphal arch.
From Volubilis we set off to Fès. When we arrived it was already fairly late so we didn't see anything that night but checked into our hotel and went for dinner. The next morning we got into our tour bus--clearly emblazoned with the word TOURISME--and headed into town.

(The rest of this post is continued below. Technical difficulties.)

Fall Break part 2

(continued from above.)

The bab of the royal palace. Note the ridiculously conspicuous tourists to the left.
The medina, seen from above. This medina is the largest in the world, and
probably the most extensive car-free urban area anywhere.
The main entrance into the medina.
All your bab are belong to us.

Just as in the Rabat medina, you can buy pretty much anything here. The Fès medina, however, is much more crowded and there are throngs and throngs of tourists.
One place we visited in the medina was the Medersa Bou Inania, an old Islamic school with a mosque inside. This is the only madrasa in Fès that has a minaret tower.

The Fès medina is huge. We went through a residential quarter--there are 100,000 people living in the medina--as well as centers for handicrafts and metalwork. We visited a traditional Berber carpet shop:

Traditional dyes include blue indigo, green mint, and
yellow saffron.
This blanket is made with white sheep, black sheep, and
camel wool.
We also visited a shop that sold fabric made from cactus fiber. Other destinations we visited are the shrine of Moulay Idriss and the al-Quaraouiyine mosque school, (debatably) the oldest university in the world.
The couscous I had for lunch was particularly good.
Our last stop was the famous tannery quarter. Here animal hides are turned into all sorts of leather goods, but especially baboush, the traditional Moroccan slippers.

It doesn't smell that bad...
Yellow slippers are especially traditional.

All sorts of nice leather things

The next day we had planned to go back to the medina, but never made it. On the way home we stopped by Moulay Yacoub, a site with natural sulfur hot springs. The hammams there are a popular destination for Moroccans on vacation, and we got our first authentic hammam experience.

I would have loved to spend more time in Fès, and it's far enough away that we probably won't be back, but now at least I've been. We saw the famous medina, and got Meknès and Volubilis as well. Now it's back to school until Christmas break. Sometime in the spring we'll once again dress up as tourists and visit another of Morocco's great cities.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

mostly school, again

Yes, sometime last month I said I’d post when school was settled down. I maintain that I’m still not entirely sure whether I have math class on Tuesday or Friday (last week it was both, and the week before it was neither), but I can’t claim I haven’t had anything to write about. Soon we will have two weeks off for fall break; that includes Eid el-Adha, perhaps the biggest holiday of the year, and we will also take a trip to Fes. But for now, it’s mostly just school.

I have two or three two-hour classes each day, plus one on Saturday. (I have fewer classes than normal because I’m not taking English or P.E.) We may or may not have a half-hour lunch break at noon. In the morning, getting to school, I take a grand taxi. Getting home is always an adventure, but I most often take a grand taxi.

My classes are: French, Spanish, history, math, biology, and physics. Class often consists of copying down notes either from the board or by the teacher’s dictation. For math and science my class has only nine students, and in the other subjects we combine with the rest of the Première class (20-30 students). 
The main focus in the last two years of high school is preparing for the Bac (Baccalaureate) exam. Students can take either the French Bac or the Moroccan one and a good score is critical for getting into a good university. 

Grades are given on a 20-point scale like the Bac. Scores above 18 are rare and what we consider an “A” is about 14-15 here. We’ve already had a few tests (contrôles, maybe more like quizzes), but there will be larger tests (épreuves) and regular practice Bacs (similis). Fortunately I haven’t had to take any of the similis for French, because poetry analysis is pretty much no fun. I don’t usually have all that much homework here, but apparently the other school (l’Institut) is quite different.

Classes are in French, but there’s plenty of Arabic spoken around, and many people like to speak English with me. The other students are all taking English as a (third) language but some already speak it pretty well, in addition to Arabic, French, Spanish, and perhaps a second first language.

A picture, because it's boring to only have text. This is the café next to our apartment.
One advantage is that when there's a soccer game on, you know whenever something exciting just happened.
The weather here is still pretty warm, but less so than it was in August. It doesn’t ever get very cold We’ve had a little rain and should get a lot more in the winter.
So, generally, things are going pretty well. I should have more to post at the end of the month, during our school break, but for now things have settled down into a routine of school and regular meetings at AMIDEAST. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Old Medina

A unique part of many North African cities is the medina, or old city. (Not to be confused with Medina, the city in Saudi Arabia.) The Arabic word means “city” or “town,” and this was usually all there was at the time the French arrived. Many existing cities were destroyed to make room for French settlements, but in the case of Rabat the medina was preserved and the ville nouvelle was built around it. 
I’ve now been to the Rabat medina three times, but the first two times we were moving too quickly for pictures. Here is at least a glimpse of what it looks like and what you can find. (The internet connection is slow so I'll have to put up relatively low-quality images. Sorry.)

Avenue Mohammed V at the entrance of the medina

Avenue Mohammed V is the main street through the centre-ville. It leads from Parliament and the main train station into the medina. There are many shops and vendors here but the main place for shopping is Rue Souika (literally Souk Street.)

I'm tempted just to say you can find anything here, but there are some things you tend to see a lot of: 

Shoes, both traditional...
...and Western.

Mounds of spices,
dried fruit and nuts,
and lots of women's clothing.
The mannequins are creepy. 

For some reason,  Franklin & Marshall clothing can be found all over.
There are lots of shops selling shirts with English (supposedly) on them. It usually doesn't make any sense and can be quite entertaining. My favorite is still a (men's) shirt featuring a werewolf with shiny pink eyes and, among other quasi-sentences, "You can trll merf me. You do not worry."

Some areas and shops are clearly geared toward tourists.

Some places cater more to local tastes. We also saw a shop selling
cow feet and heads, but I'll spare you the picture of that one.

And apparently Moroccan carpets are famous.
(Or, Moroccan carpet sellers are infamous.) 

Then suddenly the shops end and you once again find a street with cars on it. After you cross the street (easier said than done), you come to the walls of the Kasbah des Oudayas, the fortress on the coast.

Old and (relatively) new.

The main bab (gate or door) of the Kasbah
Apparently even the ancient stone walls are under construction.

Inside the Kasbah: narrow blue streets,
and tiny blue doors like the one here.
 Imagine living in a house like this.
The end of the Kasbah overlooks the main beach of Rabat.
The beach and medina of Salé seen from the same spot.
Plus, a nice view of the Hassan Tower and Mohammed V Mausoleum.

There are still vast areas of the medina left to explore. And then there's Salé.