Monday, January 25, 2010

the homestead

Corrections from last time (thank you Papa):
-It is tajine, not tagine.
-Celery in French is celeri, though it was actually green zucchini and not celery in last week’s tajine.
-The sweet and savory pastry Ibrahim served for our last meal at the CCCL is called Pastille.
-The national soup is known as Harera, and Farida’s version was indeed better than the restaurants’.

Tonight marks the end of the first week of my home stay. Sunday is winding down, and three sounds: 1. the TV showing the beginning of the Cote D’Ivoire versus Algeria soccer match, part of the Africa Cup (which Morocco did not qualify for) 2. the pressure cooker, signaling the approach of dinner, whistling away from the kitchen and 3. the cheerful babble of my four year old sister, Riham, compete with my laptop for my attention. Welcome to life as the newest member of the El Bounti family.

I am technically one of two children in the family, but the age differences do not quite make sense in that respect. I was told the first day by Farida that she and Rachid, my host father, see me more as a brother. She is 31 years old and he is 36 years old, so the title of sibling is more accurate for me. I was very pleased when she said that, because I did not want a family situation which felt too much like high school with lots of rules. Based on this past week, I think that it is an accurate designation, and overall I am very pleased with my Moroccan family.

I feel like an equal member of the family. The key, which Farida gave me on my first day, is an important sign of this. I feel that house keys are not to be given out lightly in any society. I am welcome to anything I want in terms of food, and any possessions I need are free for my use. House key is the wrong word; I should say home key. This place where I live is far from a house, yet it is in every way a home.

We live in the Medina (the old part of Rabat, meaning ‘city’ in Arabic) in a building off of a very narrow street (that before last week I would have labelled an alley). Once I arrive outside the front door I yell up to the third floor, “Farida, c’est John!” She responds by turning on the stairway light, and I wind my way upstairs to the door.

By American standards, this is a tiny apartment. There are basically three rooms, and I have one of them all to myself. It is probably normally a guest room, and I am told that I am the fourth foreign student that has occupied it. It is a decent-sized room with a double bed, a short couch/lounge chair, and a small table. I will be living out of my suitcase for my time here, but that’s not a problem. One of the most important features of my room, and one that I am most thankful for, is the door. Specifically, it opens and it closes.

Besides a few minor gripes arising from cultural and domestic differences (these will work themselves out with time, inchallah), I have no problems with my family nor do I foresee any problems. But the size of the living space dictates the close proximity of me to my family for the portion of each day that I am home, and I know that in a month or two that door could be my best friend. It is also good to be able to retreat to read, write, work, and of course sleep.

Speaking of close proximity in living space, let me describe the rest of the apartment. The kitchen is in the back at the end of a narrow hallway. It is a bit smaller than my kitchen in Allston (which feels crowded with three or four people), yet this one feels bigger. We eat breakfast there at the little table, small cups of strong sweet coffee with breads, pastries, and a choice of spreads. One of my gripes is the absence of peanut butter, which is not widely eaten here. I am told it can be found at the western-style supermarket, Marjene, at the edge of town; I will let you know if I find some. If not, perhaps someone who will be visiting me might like to bring some, preferably Teddie’s brand natural peanut butter…I would be eternally grateful.

A large armoire/shelving unit runs the length of the hallway. It houses all of the family’s clothes and personal possessions (besides shoes, which have a box under the kitchen counter). There is a small sink next to the front door where the hallway ends. This is where I wash my hands and face, brush my teeth, shave, etc. The last room, and most important one, is between the hallway on the left and my room to the right, and it is known as le salon.

In a bigger Moroccan house, the salon is the formal sitting room that hardly ever gets used. The exception would be for receiving (and sleeping) guests. Sure sounds a lot like those fancy and little-used parlors in American houses, huh? But there is no comparison when describing our salon, because this room is used more than any room in any American house I have ever seen.

As is normally the case with the Moroccan salon/living/family room, couches line the walls. But couch is a loose term grounded only in the pillows that support your back. Without these pillows you would probably call this item of furniture a bed, and that is exactly what it becomes during the night with the addition of blankets. My whole family sleeps in the salon each night, and each morning the blankets disappear and it returns to a sitting room. We eat lunch, snack, and dinner there, and we also watch lots of TV and movies there.

In two words, I would describe our salon as comfortable and multi-functional (when the cheese keeps the chips together it’s like one nacho; therefore, the hyphen makes two words into one). Lounging is not just acceptable, it is encouraged. No matter what position you wish to relax (or nap) in, the flexibility of the pillows can accommodate. The multi-functionality of this room is really what makes this house a home.

When I come back from class and I need a place to flop down and unwind, I know I have it. The salon provides shelter from the hectic, stimulating, and at times very overwhelming Medina, and it is a comfort that cannot be found in my bedroom (despite, or perhaps because of, its privacy). Because I know that it’s not the room itself but rather the people who have made it that way that are important and meaningful about the salon. Farida’s smile, and the snacks and tea she puts out, are really what make it feel like home.

Well that is the entirety of my home here in the medina of Rabat, or almost all of it. You may be wondering: ‘JD, what happens when nature calls?’ Well folks, as they say, save the best part for last. It’s not that my bathroom situation is very difficult or different from what I am used to at home in the States, nor am I required to go out back to the hole in the ground. It’s just a bit cumbersome at first, and using the facilities requires some adjustments.

The ‘bathroom’ is behind a small door that is just outside of the entrance to the apartment, which means it is quite obvious when someone has to go. This does not create awkward situations within the family, but rather it’s something I will personally have to get used to. I use the word bathroom, but I think water closet is actually much more appropriate. Not only is it the size of a closet (a small one at that), but everything inside is often covered in water.

That is because it is also the shower room. I am grateful for the shower head and the hot water available for my use, and I have no real complaints. The cumbersome part is trying to keep my towel and clothes dry in this tiny space while working the shower head with one hand and using the other hand to get clean. I also have to simultaneously keep an eye on the floor to make sure water is not leaking out into the hall. I don’t want to make a bad impression by flooding the building.

The toilet is western-style, but it lacks a flush mechanism; rather, it’s a bucket-flush variety. This procedure requires some skill, and I have only begun to master the technique. No worries, plenty of time to practice.

Enough of these details; I hope you now have a somewhat accurate picture of my life here. If you need a laugh during your day, just imagine me juggling shampoo and a showerhead while spraying water all around a tile closet. Ma’salam, goodbye friends and family. My next post will cover the public bath, the Hammam. Love from Rabat.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, I commented this afternoon! Where'd it go? Anyway, thanks for using your excellent writing to show us the details of your everyday life. Your description of Farida's caring brought tears - lovely.