Just got forwarded this link to a documentary on the Creating Community Collaboration project, an innovative partnership between the Kennesaw State University Museum of History & Holocaust Education in Kennesaw, Georgia, and the Ben M’Sik Community Museum in Casablanca, Morocco, that focuses on dialogue and collaboration about contemporary Muslim life and culture. The project is made possible through the Museums & Community Collaborations Abroad (MCCA), a partnership between the American Association of Museums (AAM) & the U.S. State Department.

I had a chance to check out the museum when I was in campus. At first glance it’s surprisingly humble: a small room lined with a few bookshelves, an eclectic collection of artifacts representing every day life in Ben Msik (e.g. a hand-made drill, a package of henna, contemporary costume jewelry, a ceramic vessel), some labeled with hand-written tags. But my sense is that the physicality of this museum isn’t its main mission.

Ben Msik is a community that’s experienced huge growth in area and population in the past couple decades. Most of my students were first-generation Casawi, their parents having migrated to BenMsik from various other regions of the country in search of economic opportunities. The neighborhood is growing and evolving in every possible way, and the university’s student body reflects this. It’s a site of dynamic interaction and flux: each day countless personal narratives are in development, age-old folktales are being told and re-told, family and regional traditions are being re-created and created anew.

Teaching students documentary, oral history, and field research skills and encouraging them to utilize these techniques with their own families in their own neighborhood sends the message that their every day life is valuable and worth documenting. As Liz Gracon mentions in the documentary, the culture of museum-going is uncommon in Morocco and I’m certain that the idea of a community museum is especially extraordinary.

Congratulations to the Moroccan and American faculty, students, and staff who recognized the importance of this endeavor and had the courage and determination to make it happen. Also, nice to see the State Department support on this kind of work as well…

Still waiting for an opportunity to see this:

NYT review of Oliver Laxe’s Morocco film, You All Are Captains

The new semester has started an I am thrilled to be teaching U.S. Culture and Society, a required course for all first-year English majors at my university. As much as I enjoy teaching my writing/composition and research methodology courses, this is the topic that is most directly related to my academic background. Typically this course is taught by a Moroccan professor so my “insider” perspective will be a new dynamic for these students.

Developing a syllabus, selecting readings, designing activities– I feel like a kid in a candy store. I’ve even created a new blog specifically for the class. Of course I am channeling all of my faculty mentors from Dickinson and Lesley. They’ve taught me that “culture” is a huge and unwieldy topic, and an investigation of American culture in an international setting can be especially complex.

Although I put a lot of thought into what I want to teach and the outcomes I hope the students gain, I realized I didn’t really have a clear sense of where I needed to start. I decided to do a short exercise on the first day of class in which I asked the students to email me a question, any question– big, small, serious, silly– that they have about America, and I promised that we’d do our best to discuss them all as we move through the semester.

I’ve posted the responses below, unedited, in the order I received them. My students are extremely bright and inquisitive so needless to say, the questions are tough. Obviously, issues of race, religion, and globalization will need to be addressed. Comparisons and contrasts between Moroccan culture and American culture will need to be made. I’m not quite certain yet exactly how we’ll be tackling this all, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.

How is the religion in USA ?. is there also mosques and all equipment for religion? also is there equality between all people, i mean black and white?

Surveys indicate that more than 61% of Americans aged 20-74 are obese. So why ? [This submission had a footnote: [1] In Morocco,obesity among women is sometimes considered as a sign of beauty but among men it’s viewed as a symbol of disgust and it has no relation to do with beauty. So is it  the same in America ?]

How does the UNITED NATIONS contribute in supporting the status of U.S.A?

What are the most important  steps that the system of teaching in the U.S. follows to get good education for the students ?

What is the difference between Moroccan and teaching lessons american??

Why does America works a lot about science fiction in it’s films? such as films about vampires and inundation films … etc ?

Is there still racism in America ?

Why the american films give a bad image about islam?

What is your point of view of muslims? Are they a normal person like any relagion else or are they a terrorists like most of you think??? i wish you send me your answer honestly

How do you find the level of Morrocan English students ?

How do American people in general think about Arabs? Is it really true that almost all Americans see us as terrorists ?

Why do most of the Americans visit their parents only once a year?  Do they forget about them? Have they forgotten that those parents have taken care of them for 18 years or more?

What is English literature ? Is it for the high qualified?

Are there some parents in America don’t let their daughters study in an other city or country?

Why the american people consider arabs as a terrorists ?

Lately I’ve been watching some documentaries and videos on the internet about 9/11, the new world order and the patriot act and I was asking and I would like to know if the average Joe in USA is aware about the conspiracies to reduce freedom  that happened and still happening or he’s not ?

How much do american poeple know about arabic culture?

What made American culture is spreading so quickly in the world?

There was another stunning guitar performance at Casa’s Ville des Arts last weekend: Duo Walili. My favorite song was Myriem, written by one of the duo, Ahmed Guendouz, for his young daughter. Myriem was in the audience. About six years old, she was decked out in her most sophisticated concert dress. It was hard to tell whether she was nonchalant or utterly captivated by the dedication. I suspect I’d be a little bit of both.

My Moroccan auntie counts this 1990 power ballad as a favorite song. A couple months ago, she played it as she was teaching me to cook harira. I was impressed that she knew each and every lyric, and sang the whole thing in a clear, beautiful voice.

We listed to it again the other day and watched the video. With the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and other North African countries, the 20 year-old images and words seem to have a renewed poignancy.

Of course there is a lot of debate within and about the country right now. Catchphrases are thrown around in media and in conversation: Will Morocco be the “exception”? Is it “immune” to the “contagion” that is sweeping the rest of the region? Is Morocco “ready for democracy”? But Morocco’s situation is unique in its complexity and these questions are not necessarily the most relevant ones to be asking (as this opinion piece nicely articulates in English).

Yesterday’s February 20th demonstrations came and went without much eventfulness and fortunately little violence, at least in Casablanca. American Citizens Services had sent out a Warden Message detailing that a “demonstration for change” was planned in downtown Casablanca at Avenue des FAR while an authorized “pro-government demonstration” was scheduled for Avenue Hassan II near the Wilaya. Leading up to the day, these two camps seemed to emerge on Facebook as such: those who were for protesting on Feb. 20th and those anti-protesters who planned to make a statement by staying home and/or participating in the pro-monarchy counter demonstration.

Interestingly, a quick visit to the primary Facebook page for the Feb. 20th “movement for change” group showed me that out of the 26,374 users who clicked the “like” button in support of the page, only one is a friend of mine. Instead, many of my other Moroccan friends and acquaintances changed their FB profile photos to pro-Morocco and pro-King Mohamed VI images, or they steered clear of revealing their opinion via the social media site altogether.

My pal Petit à Petit shared this first hand report of the pro-government demonstration here in Casa. Sadly, the situation in some other Moroccan cities and towns did not stay so calm. It has been reported that some local gangs and other “knuckleheads” (as Menino would say) used the demonstrations as a excuse for low-scale looting and attacks. It is clear to me that such violence is localized and not affiliated with any protest movement, and hopefully others see that as well.

I imagine the situation will be changing day by day and I will do my best to stay informed. For those interested in additional Morocco-specific reporting in English, check out: MoroccoBoard.com, Reuters Morocco, and Al Jazeera English. Other blogs and analysis suggestions for my Google Reader are welcome.

Witnessed some extraordinary guitar playing at Villa des Arts this evening… check out Tarik Hilal, a composer and guitarist whose work is influenced by flamenco, jazz, and Moroccan musical traditions.

One of my fellow ETAs shared this article about writing trouble spots for ESL students of Arabic. For me, it was a reassuring to read as it perfectly describes many of the issues I wrestle with in teaching my introductory writing class to first year students.  The refrain “language is culture” is often repeated in the study of intercultural communication. My experience teaching English to students whose first language is typically Arabic and whose second language is typically French has given me a rich real-world context to consider this.

The author’s assertion that ESL teachers need to recognize that they are “changing thinking patterns” in their students is really  a significant one. Knowing that “Arabic language accepts and even welcomes synonyms repeated in one sentences because it shows the eloquence of the writer and stresses the idea,” and that the ideal essay structure in Arabic is one that is linear and adds new information in the conclusion, is an important reminder to me that the ideals for written rhetoric (and all language actions) are culture-based.

Simply harping on and on to my students about run-on sentences and the use of commas versus periods is not proving effective. What’s missing is an understanding of the culture behind these bizarre English language rules–how it differs from the culture of their first language, and even how it differs from the culture of their second language. So next class, just for one day, I will leave my English-teacher/grammar-police uniform at home and wear my interculturalist cap instead. For me, it’s much more comfortable anyway.

PS. I’d be curious to see a list of trouble spots for English learners of Arabic or learners of French…

In addition to all the other important activities I engage in here (traveling every weekend, eating piles of delicious Moroccan food, learning how to repose), my primary responsibility is to teach. My placement is in the English department of one of Casablanca’s two public universities. The campus is located in Ben M’Sik, an area known to be the largest and most densely populated of Casa’s six districts. I’m learning more and more about the community (e.g. that it is a destination for many new migrants to the city, that it is economically fragile, and that the local government is active in trying to improve its social conditions) and I hope to write a more complete blog post about it later on. Suffice to say for now, my one hour bus ride there each morning takes me a long way from the designer stores and French colonial details of Casa’s center.

View into the courtyard outside my classroom

My first day of teaching was a scene out of of a movie. I had no idea of what to expect. I knew the title of my course was Introduction to Writing, but I was was given no curriculum and was handed no syllabus. My supervisor, the head of the English department, advised me to wait a full fifteen after the scheduled start of class to enter the room (we’re working in a high power-distance society here, interculturalists!). As we waited outside the classroom biding time and looking over the courtyard, he waxed poetically about his first day 25 years before. Then, he handed me a broken piece of chalk, walked me to the door and wished me luck. I held my breath and walked into a room of 70 smiling students.

Over the past few weeks I’ve given myself a crash course in designing syllabi, handouts, quizzes, and mid-terms. I’ve gotten to know my students as polite, motivated, first-year students who are choosing to attend university and major in English despite many personal, social, economic obstacles. I’ve taught them how to correct run-on sentences, how to write topic sentences, how to celebrate Halloween, and how to draw a Thanksgiving turkey. We are all progressing– shwiya b’shwiya— they in learning English and me in learning how to teach.

My classroom

The search for an apartment in Morocco can be tricky business even in a big city like Casa. Craigslist and online rental listings are virtually non-existent, furnished flats can be hard to come by, and the cost of rent is always a complex negotiation involving multiple variables.

Some of my colleagues assigned to smaller cities and towns found themselves with no other option but to rent the primary types of places available: huge, newly built, unfurnished full-floor apartments. And by “unfurnished” I mean that the renter is responsible for buying/bringing literally each and every “furnishing” needed to make the house functional: refrigerator, hot water heater, light fixtures, and the like.

But in Casa, a city of migrants, business people, students and foreigners, transitory living is more of a norm. Nobody looks askance at a young foreign woman looking to rent a small studio on her own for just eight months. Furnished apartments are not uncommon; you just need to know how to find them.

My Moroccan aunt took me under her wing and recommended that I look into a neighborhood called Maarif. It is the neighborhood where she and her nine siblings grew up in the 60s and 70s and where her mother continued to live until she passed away. Officially, Maarif is a huge neighborhood that includes the Twin Center hotel and shopping mall, the designer stores along Boulevard Zerktouni, and even the Mohamed V stadium (home to Raja Casablanca futbol team). But the heart of Maarif is a set of narrow avenues and streets situated in a grid. At mid-morning and in early evening the streets are crammed with shoppers as Maarif is known as one of Casa’s best shopping districts. Bakeries, produce stands, clothing boutiques, jewelry stores, hair salons, electronic shops, and cafés line almost every block. The moment I set foot down the liveliness that is Rue Ibnou Nafiss, I knew that it would be the perfect neighborhood for me.

I followed my aunt to a small housewares shop near the house where she grew up. She knew the proprietor and asked him if he knew of any apartments for rent nearby. He said did not, but he recommended we ask the pharmacist next door. The pharmacist gave my aunt a big hello and directed us to a wooden cart on the sidewalk where a man was selling cactus fruit. This man suggested that we ask at the dress shop around the corner. The owner of the shop, a designer/seamstress, was a neighborhood friend of my aunt. We chatted for a bit and browsed the racks while she offered to call someone she knew. Not long after, a smartly dressed old man appeared. Ah-ha! I had been told about such guys—“samsars” –men about the neighborhood who act as informal real estate agents and get commission for matching landlords and tenants.

He led us briskly to an apartment building on a quieter side street. There, we were met by a frowning landlady who proceeded to show us a dud apartment. The price was right, but the décor was horribly dark, musty and unclean. I politely declined as we walked with her back downstairs and out the door. I imagined we were done, but less than thirty seconds later the samsar snuck us back into the building. Out of nowhere a new landlord appeared and took us back upstairs. Unfortunately this second option was equally as bad as the first. Disappointed, I shuffled out behind my aunt into the hallway. Just then, the door to the adjoining apartment opened. A kind couple invited us inside a clean, light-filled, tastefully-furnished apartment. The TV was on, there was a laptop set up on the kitchen table, and comfy Moroccan sofas lined the living room. I simply sat, confused as to what we were doing there and not understanding a word being spoken around me. Then my aunt filled me in: the man and women were landlords and this apartment was for rent! They happened to be in there doing small repairs when they heard us stomping around next door and decided to look into the hallway.

The couple and I hit it off right away. They are from Meknes, they have a son and grandchildren living in Florida, and a daughter my age who lives in Casa. My aunt used her expert negotiation skills and got the price down to exactly what I needed it to be. I was told I was welcome to move in the next day (five days before the first of the month) and I did just that. Later, my aunt presented me with a new key chain for my new set of keys, explaining it as a Moroccan tradition. And now I’m home!

My Moroccan Salon

Maarif Kitchen

View of my "American Kitchen"