Year Abroad in Rabat: Part 2. Very Mixed & Clashing Feelings

“It is weird being back at Sussex Uni/in England.” “Yes, I spent a year in Morocco.” “I was studying in the capital, Rabat.” “I loved being there, I really miss my flatmate, also the food.” “I really enjoyed the university I was in, it was a nice change.” These have been my conversation starters for months, particularly now that the academic term is beginning. At first, it was nice talking about my year abroad often, but, now, I’m commencing to feel like a broken record, stuck in a never-ending loop. The problem is that there is a lack of depth and truth in my words. I just keep basing my answers on the cliché “just-came-back-from-an-exchange” student commentary, which doesn’t even really represent how I feel about my time abroad.

On the one hand, I do miss things about Rabat, and I had great moments there, but on the other hand, by the end of the year, I couldn’t wait to come back to the UK, and, sometimes, I even regret doing the exchange. To be completely honest, I have mixed feelings about my year abroad. Very mixed and clashing feelings. First, there is a difference between how I feel about my experience living in Rabat (and Morocco in general), and how I feel about my experience studying in EGE. Then, within both aspects of my exchange, there are negatives and positives. And, as I’m unable to prioritise the different resulting elements, I end up unable to conclude whether doing the exchange was a good idea or not. To understand this dilemma, I should speak about both aspects of my year abroad more deeply. In this post, I will focus on the first one.

Life in Rabat was certainly different to life in Brighton, where I normally reside. Firstly, instead of staying in a dorm in a university’s campus residence, I settled for accommodation in the private sector. I rented a room in a 3-bedroom flat, located in a residential block just next to EGE (1-2 minutes away walking). The house was clean and homely, with a large living room and a decent-sized kitchen. The common areas had a traditional style, with not much decoration, but some antique touches, as well as paintings on the walls which added some colour to it.

The room I was initially allocated was spacious, with pastel orange walls, a big white wardrobe, and a comfortable old-style bed, as well as a small terrace. There was also a TV and a chair, though I never really used either. A few months after arriving, I did end up switching my room after one of my flatmates asked as a favour. The one I moved into remained my chamber for the rest of the year. I was very similar, just with blue walls, a long tea table, a sofa, and no terrace. I was actually happy about this change because the other room got too warm when it was hot outside.

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For my first time renting privately, I thought of myself as lucky. I couldn’t complain much about where I was staying. It was much cheaper than my rent in the UK, yet I shared with only two people, not the usual eleven. There were only two salient issues: there wasn’t heating (during winter, I had to wear a lot of layers whilst in the flat), and the shower’s water was, more often than not, cold as ice (I had to boil water in saucepans to clean myself with warm water). The later was the most annoying problem of the two, because trying to get hot water, to begin with, was hard: it involved using a lighter and getting way too close to a gas bottle. However, eventually, I learnt to manage these issues, and live with them.

Aside from hot water whenever I wanted it, the only other thing I really missed from living on campus at Sussex was the free internet (WiFi) and having a cleaner. Fortunately, the former wasn’t expensive, whilst the later was made easy through sharing clean duties with my flatmates. Yes, my flatmates. I shared the house with two other girls, both Moroccan students, but in different universities/centres, and at a higher level (master & PhD). One of them greeted me when I first arrived (the PhD student). She showed me around the house, and she even invited me to have dinner. I immediately felt very welcomed by her. The kindness didn’t stop there: she really helped me to settle in during my first weeks in Rabat.

The day after I arrived, she showed me key places in the neighbourhood, Madinat Al Irfane (which means “The City of Knowledge” in Arabic). Al Irfane is known in Rabat as the student area, as it is full of universities, faculties and institutes, with some apartment blocks here and there. At some points during the day (e.g. noon), the streets in the neighbourhood were busy and chatty, but during others (e.g. evening), everything looked very empty and lifeless.

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A key spot to know in Al Irfane was Le Campus, a small set of shops and cafes situated in a roundabout. This became the place I frequented the most whilst living there, as I needed to go to the shops to top up my Moroccan SIM card (until I discovered you can do it online) and to casually buy groceries and food. When I went to Le Campus, I normally spoke in Arabic, which became regular practice for me. At first, the vendors seemed surprised by my command in the language: they often tried to speak to me directly in English or French, or where confused by how I wasn’t speaking in either of those two languages. But, eventually, Arabic became our main communication method, unless I was unsure of how to say something (in that case, they helped me).

My flatmate also showed me other important places in Rabat, including the areas Hay Riad, Agdal, and the City Centre/Medina. Hay Riad was a residential neighbourhood that resembled a suburban district: it was a rather posh and middle-classy area, with company offices & government buildings. It also had a big supermarket, inside a shopping centre, called “Marjane”, where I did most of my monthly grocery shopping. Marjane operated like a big Asda-George: you could find anything in there, and it wasn’t expensive. Alternatively, Agdal was another area to shop in, though it had a more “high street” appearance, with a lot of clothing shops, restaurants, banks, and cafes. It also had apartment blocks: many students, as well as normal citizens, lived there. The best thing about the neighbourhood was that it was well connected to Al-Irfane, thanks to a modern tram that ran regularly.

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Lastly, there was the City Centre, where the main train station was located. It reminded me of a typical Spanish city centre, with government buildings, informal vendors, a variety of shops, restaurants and cafes, all next to the Medina. It is important to note here that many cities across Morocco have an area called the Medina, it isn’t specific to the capital. A Medina is characterised by its old-fashioned and historic-site appearance, made up of narrow streets full of people, craft shops, and vendor stalls. They are normally the oldest, or one of the oldest, zones in a city, and it is easy to get lost in them if looking for something specific, but also not hard to leave as simply walking straight would get you out somewhere.

In addition, a Medina is a good place buy things like food and clothing for cheaper prices, but you have to be smart and not show ingenuity, particularly as a tourist, because it is all about bargaining. Indeed, during my time in Morocco, I had to learn to bargain properly, as I had never been good at it (I’m not good at standing for myself against others). Knowing Arabic helped me often, to both show knowledge of the culture and to develop trust quickly, but still, I often gave up easily. Bargaining just made me uncomfortable, not simply because I thought I was often being deceived, but because in most cases, when converting to £, the product/service I wanted to get wasn’t even expensive. I felt bad for trying to get cheaper and cheaper prices.

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Rabat had many other neighbours apart from the mentioned above, but I never got to explore them properly. The mentioned are the ones I frequented the most, as they were easy to get to from Al Irfane. My main transport method in Rabat was the taxi, which was fortunately very cheap and reliable. I never used the public buses because I was advised against it, and, sadly, the tram didn’t go through the whole city. In a way, the taxis functioned like public transport: a single ride was shared by as many people as could fit in, even if strangers to each other. You could get on an empty taxi, and then the driver would randomly stop get someone else waiting down the road. This system was safer than I thought at first: I ended up feeling very comfortable using the taxis after the first few rides.

As with the vendors in Le Campus, I normally tried to speak Arabic with taxi drivers, but sometimes, if instructions were too tough, I had to resort to French Google Translations. I never had major issues, though sometimes, giving directions to the location of my flat was hard, and I had to settle for telling them to take me to Le Campus. I was actually lucky that taxi drivers in Rabat rarely tried to rip-off foreigners/tourist (i.e. the price counter was normally on). I didn’t have that experience in other places I visited in Morocco, such as when I went to Casablanca for a vaccination. The trick I ended up finding was making sure I got the taxi away from train/bus station (to seem less like a tourist) and with a Moroccan inside (so the counter is on).

Looking back to my time there, I’m confident to say that I adapted to living in Rabat, and Morocco in general, very well. I didn’t have a major cultural shock, I never felt totally lost, and I never hated living there. I found it easy to move around, to eat out and submerge myself in the Moroccan cuisine, and to do most of the things I used to do back in Brighton. Most of this was thanks to my helpful flatmate, who made everything very easy for me: she was always there to help me, even when I didn’t ask for it. She ended up becoming my closest friend whilst I was there. We didn’t go out together much, as we were both busy, but we talked often about how our days had been, and any random issues we had. We kind of looked after one other, and I didn’t feel the age gap between us at all. I never had such a close flatmate in either of my two years living in halls at Sussex, and I made even more friends there. I still miss her a lot.

Another reason why living in Morocco went fine was because it reminded me a lot to Spain. Culturally and geographically speaking, Morocco has a lot of similarities to Spain, particularly in comparison to the UK. This is not surprising, as Morocco and Spain have a very intertwined history. Hence, the country wasn’t that new or strange to me. I barely felt as if I was living in a Muslim-majority country, compared to the usual Christian-majority countries I live in. It was only very noticeable during Ramadan, because everything was closed, and nobody was on the streets during the day. I also didn’t feel as if I had to dress or act differently as I usually did in Brighton, except perhaps being more warm and sociable: Moroccans were very welcoming people, and more communal-life oriented than I was used to.

The only major change in my behaviour was being more cautious about my own safety, primarily because if something were to happen, I would struggle to communicate it properly in French or Arabic. I just used my common-sense, and I avoided going anywhere unusual without knowing where exactly I was heading first, as well as without telling my flatmate. I also didn’t travel during the night, and I tried to go through busy places if on the streets during the evenings. Yet, these aren’t things I never did in Britain. I was just more thoughtful about them because I wasn’t familiar with the country. In addition, I will admit my prudence was influenced by the pre-exchange warnings on how, supposedly, common are crime and street harassment in Morocco. Nevertheless, I never had a major issue, just an uncomfortable situation once with a man on a train that didn’t escalate.

Living-wise, I only really had four significant problems in Morocco: weather, customs, tipping, and border controls. I could barely go out during the day when I first arrived, on the summer, and a few months before I left, in spring, due to the heat (it gives me awful headaches). I had to go to Casablanca airport to pick up the suitcases I shipped to Morocco from the UK, which ended up being a hours and hours process of waiting around in a warehouse, as well as running around between different offices. It took me a while to get my hand on the tipping culture in the North African country, as I struggled to know when and how much I was expected to tip in different situations: sometimes I thought people were just being nice, but then I realised they expected some money for their help, and other times I tipped too much because, when changing to £, the price wasn’t that high for me.

Without a doubt, my most frustrating moments in Morocco were all the passport checks during border control when leaving and entering the country. One time, I was so overwhelmed that I even cried. To cut the story short, I was normally asked too many questions about where my parents were from, and I was stopped for long periods of time whilst my documentation was taken away. Once, I was asked for my second Senegalese passport randomly, which I don’t even own, and which legally I’m not even entitled to (i.e. not my parents’ nationality). Another time, the officer asked for my national Spanish ID card (this shouldn’t be asked for), and started tapping it with his desk, clearly to see if it was fake.

All those times it was obvious that it didn’t register with the officers how I was Black and Spanish: they thought I was a fraud/my documentation was fake. The times I complained and asked for an explanation of those situations, I never received an answer. This issue became increasingly annoying as it kept happening whenever I left or entered the country. It was the main negative aspect of living in Morocco: travelling as someone Black/ with a Sub-Saharan African background. I never had any racist incident whilst in the country, but the burden of getting in/out was too much.

At first, I didn’t even want to make a big deal out of it, I thought I was being maybe paranoid, but as soon as I discussed it with others, such as my Moroccan flatmate and a professor from my home university, they were quick to point out it was racism. All I could think to feel better about these constant situations was how “lucky” I was to have a Western passport and a university student card, as it made things much easier, but that thought also made me upset: those were privileges that others like me didn’t have, and they still didn’t deserve to be treated that way. As much as, legally, I’m a European citizen, I’m still (proudly) Sub-Saharan African. I’m used to micro-aggressions and so on, but neither so direct nor from authorities.

It is weird and sad how most of my time living in Rabat, and Morocco in general, went fine, yet because of the border check problems, I feel reluctant to visit the country again. However, the reality is that this can, and will, happen to me in other places (it already did once, when I went to Palestine and had to go through the Israeli border officers). I guess it is something I have to live with, particularly since I like to travel and want an international career. Besides, even if it makes me feel awful for a few hours after the situation has passed, it alone can’t completely taint my whole experience in the place. It doesn’t for my exchange. The true dilemma comes when I combine it with the other side of my year abroad, the important side: studying in EGE.

Year Abroad in Rabat: Part 1. A Less Familiar & Certain Place

After clicking “Publish” on WordPress, sharing this, the first post of a 5-part blog series, I’m very relieved. I should have done it a long time ago, yet various issues got in the way. Now, it is something less to worry about from my hectic to-do list. Yes, life has been stressful for the last few weeks. I’m entering my final year as an undergraduate, and I need to plan what I’m going to do afterwards. However, whilst I’m worried, I’m neither anxious nor full of doubt about what’s going to happen, particularly during the upcoming weeks.  I just know what to expect. Nothing is out of the ordinary. I’m at my university’s campus. I’m looking forward to more lectures and seminars from modules I have just started. I will be working some shifts at my usual jobs. I’m getting on with a couple of recently adopted volunteering roles. Nothing too different, too adventurous, or too nerve-wracking.

Looking back to a year ago, I was in a very different place. A less familiar and certain place. More worrying and stressful. On an evening like this one, instead of being in my bed in my flat at my university’s campus in the UK, I was on the back seat of a minivan driving in an unacquainted place. Whilst it was dark outside, there was enough lighting for me to see the fast-moving surroundings through the vehicle’s windows. The numerous amount of palm trees down the road indicated I had really left England and its oceanic/temperate climate. I was now in a place that reminded me of Southern & Eastern Spain, and its Mediterranean climate. Not just because of nature, but also due to the coastal appearance of the houses across the streets.

As I gazed outside for more recognisable sights, my ear heard fast-spoken French and Arabic words it couldn’t totally understand. I had been studying the later for 2 years, the former for even more, yet my fluency and confidence in both were limited. That was the first time I had to use them in a real-life situation. Fortunately, when the taxi driver picked me up some moments ago, I was able to utter some basic greetings in Arabic and some nearly-coherent French sentences. From the moment we got in the car, the conversation between him and I had been non-existent, as he was on the phone most of the time.

At some point, the driver turned towards me, which made me panic a bit because I feared I wouldn’t understand him, or he wouldn’t understand me, though all he did was hand me his phone. I put it on my ear and heard a voice addressing me in English. It was one of the team members at the international office of Ecolé de Governance et D’Economie Rabat (EGE Rabat). She was making sure I had arrived properly and I was okay. I didn’t expect it, and I really appreciated her kind gesture. We had spoken before, but just over email. She was the one who had sent me details on how to book a driver to pick me up at the airport, and she had also helped me to secure accommodation upon my arrival. I was infinitely grateful for both arraignments.

After talking with the woman, though still nervous about the new adventure I had just started, I felt a bit more relieved, realising I wasn’t totally on my own. Now, at present, you might be wondering where I was back then, and why. If you read the title of this post, you know a basic answer to these questions already. If you follow me on social media, you may know a more detailed answer. However, in either circumstance, you almost certainly don’t know how or why I got there. To understand the responses to all these questions, it is important to go back to years and years ago.

In summer 2014, I was entering was last year at college, and it was my time to choose universities for my UCAS application. Among various, the option of spending a year abroad was a deal-breaker: it had to be offered for me to be interested in a course and an institution, as it was something I really wanted to do. It would be a good chance to be outside a British/European environment for a long, but temporary, period. Not only would it help with my desire to have a somewhat “international” career in the future, but it could potentially be a great experience to diversify my knowledge/skills. Moreover, if I had something clear about my future time at university, it was that I wanted to maximise it as much as possible. My goal was doing most to everything that was possible, particularly travelling, whilst having a relatively secure and stable source of income.

Although I really fancied the idea of going abroad, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a placement in industry (work experience) or an academic exchange (studying). I thought I would eventually figure it out once I began my degree. Of course, I was right, and by the beginning of my second year at Sussex Uni in 2016, I decided to go for an academic exchange. Following some thinking and research, I applied to be nominated for either one of two overseas universities I selected, one in Morocco and one in Canada. My main motivations behind those choices were them being 1) outside Europe, 2) affordable, and 3) places where I could improve my foreign languages skills.

Morocco was my preferred option, not only because it would allow me to work on the two languages I wanted (French & Arabic), but because they offered an intensive Arabic research-based study program. Besides, the country was in Africa, and close enough for me to travel to countries like Senegal easily. In addition, it would be the biggest possible change from the Anglocentric/British way of thinking in my academic subject area. Even though I loved my university, I was overly used to the content and teaching style by my second year. That had many positives, as it allowed me to prepare better for assessments, but I felt too comfortable at times. I needed some change.

Ultimately, my university accepted my application, and I got nominated to the Moroccan institution, my first choice. Next, months of paperwork and other preparation came. I had to apply directly to the university I was nominated for, sort out my funding for the year, deal with insurance matters, plan travelling, and attend preparatory workshops. To be honest, that process wasn’t very tough, since the Study Abroad officers at my university were very helpful. I sorted my insurance and funding through them, and they gave me, and other outgoing students, comprehensive information packs. Nevertheless, issues did arise throughout those preparatory months, some more significant than others.

The most salient problem I had was the one I expected the least: when applying to the Moroccan university, I discovered I was no longer able to do the intensive Arabic research-focused program I had planned, and really wanted, to do. They had out of the blue increased the Arabic requirements for it, and I no longer qualified.  This made me incredibly upset, as it was what the main aspect that made me apply to be nominated to that university. My discontent was such, that I even discussed with the Study Abroad officers not doing the exchange.

Had I known earlier, the Canadian university might have been my preferred option, because at least I knew the modules I could do, and I liked them. Meanwhile, I couldn’t find much information about the normal exchange program for the Moroccan institution. In the end, I proceeded with my application as semi-planned, applying to the university I had been nominated for, holding on to my desire to improve my Arabic even if things weren’t as I wanted.

Another prominent issue I had was non-study related: organising my actual journey to Morocco. Booking the buses and plane wasn’t hard, but packing and deciding what to take with me was. Since I’m an independent sort-of student, meaning I don’t really have a proper home outside my university’s campus, I had to take all my belongings to Morocco with me. I really couldn’t leave anything behind, except goods that fitted in two big bags that a friend could store for me in her house, and kitchen utensils that I gave to my family. The rest of my things were split into two sections: stuff I paid a company to ship for me (4 big suitcases), and stuff I would carry with me on the plane (3-4 medium and big suitcases).

Unsurprisingly, since I own too many things, I ended up having to leave a lot of my unpacked/unsorted things behind, for charity and for recycling.  I must admit that I was very sloppy in this area, not properly organising, researching and thinking about my plans. The shipping company didn’t come till a day before I left, which I spent majorly freaking out because the delivery of my suitcases to pack my belongings was delayed by Amazon, and it was that exact day as I had to give them away. From then, I ran out of time to properly organise the rest of my things. Whilst everything I ultimately left behind, intentionally and unintentionally, was non-essential and/or replaceable, I did mourn the loss of some of my favourite clothing.

However, I didn’t have much time to feel sad. The 5th of August of 2017, the day of my departure to Morocco, was truly chaotic. I left my room on campus in such a hurry that I couldn’t even clean it properly. I was late to the Brighton coach station for my bus to London Victoria, and, consequently, the one to Stansted Airport. I was overwhelmed at the airport when checking-in because we had to use self-checkout machines and there was no one helpful around. And, I was stopped for long during the security check because, due to a check-in mistake, I took with me a bag with liquid products that were too large to be carried onboard.

At last, I ended up having to semi-run to my departure gate, being in such a hurry that even the flight attendance noticed, as I was very out of breath. In retrospect, my train-wreck appearance probably helped to conceal the fact that I was unintendedly carrying an extra bag with me, which I didn’t manage to check-in. So, I guess it wasn’t a total disaster. Yet, it was definitely the worst travel experience I had ever had. It was a nightmare. The relief I felt when finally sitting down on the plane, taking off with all the bags I had left my university’s campus with, can’t be described with just words. I was also exhausted, and I could barely do anything during the 3-4 hour flight, just eat and try to go through some Arabic notes.

Looking back at the whole ordeal, it is funny how the worst part of that journey was my departure from UK, the place I knew and was familiar with, and not my arrival to Morocco, somewhere I had never been before. The later was not only not troublesome, but it was an absolute non-event. I landed safely in Rabat, capital of the North African country, went through security without major hassle, and found my pick-up driver easily, who drove me to my accommodation without any problem. Still, I was far from calm or self-assured when we arrived outside the private apartment block where my flat was located, as the only thing I knew about where I was going to live was the price and the address.

Circling back to the beginning of this post,  I will reiterate how, on an evening like this one a year ago, I was in a very different place. A less familiar and certain place. Which slowly became my new secure home over the following weeks. How? Stay tuned for the next post of the series.

P.S. I apologise for my choppy writing, I’m trying to get done with this series as soon as possible because it should have been published a long time ago.

Poem: In Memoriam

“There is so much I want to say
So much I want to tell
Yet, my cords just fail
And in tears, they fade away

Should have seen it coming
There were actually warnings
Downplayed till the mourning
Already foresee the numbness of homecoming

As, home isn’t the place, sought in vain
Till going insane, finding no terrain
Home is an abstract state, humane
All about people’s love, or its remains

Now the later are in my mind
You adding sweetness to our rough lives
One of few who didn’t leave us behind
Full of proof is my archive

So now, what should I do?
Move on without you?
How? I have no clue
We didn’t even get an adieu

Such a lack of peace
That can’t even cease
Due to the Queen and her caprice
To explain more there is no need

Wish love truly was above all
Even the evils from the underworld
Thus you could know
I cared, I missed you loads

Looking back at our last chat
Must admit it is a nice throwback
Still, was short and it lacked
Cliche, but wish for above that instant

However, I guess this is how it ends
Need to accept, denial just burns
Can’t keep being people’s concerns
Regretting there weren’t full amends

Please, don’t resent me in heaven
I will pray everyday out of the seven
So the intergenerational wounds lessen
May we meet again in El Edén.”

Thinking of my late grandfather, who passed away a couple of weeks ago. DEP Abuelo 🌹❤

Written by Emilie F. Yaakaar.

All Rights Reserved © 2018

diaspora /dʌɪˈasp(ə)rə/

“The dispersion or spread of any people from their original homeland.

“Scattered. That’s a good way to describe the people who belong to a diaspora. Different places, different directions. Can be visually pictured as tiny dots all over the globe. Some dots move regularly, others have been still for a while. In some places and at particular times, there is a particular concentration of them in certain areas. The dots come together as a beautiful and diverse mosaic, which is fluid and ever-changing. A variety of languages, cuisines, religions, traditions, attires, and arts interwine, with similarities and differences that can be attributed to the past and the present, both equally convulated. The historical and the contemporary can be so muddled, so complex, that the dots go from philic to phobic very often. Way too often. This instability invokes a lot of projected anger, ongoing frustration and repressed sadness. And, some outsiders might prefer it that way, because divided the diaspora falls and consumes itself like a blackhole. However, united it is ironclad, and even during the most fervent clash, the diaspora knows this inside its heart. Thus, many of the dots are growingly more philic, attempting to celebrate and come together, even in spaces were such concord can be a threat to others. Moments of harmony and collective-love are the goal, during which there is a share of souls from across the world. And, while there is always this ideal, there is never perfection. There is disruption and there is peace, there is sorrow and there is cheer. Difference is as essential to a diaspora as similarity. Both coexist. Sometimes the different directions take to the same places, and the different places lead to the same directions. Because, a diaspora is always scattered, yet akin.”

Photoset and words (except for definition on top) by Emilie F. Yaakaar. Pictures during the Africa Summer Festival 2018, hosted by the Africa Centre in Southwark, London. Full single pictures can be found here: All Rights Reserved © 2018

Latent at the Cinema

“Apathy… Apathy. Apathy is so deadly. It is a phase and component of depression and depressive phases that many people overlook. You don’t feel awful. But, you don’t feel good. You just don’t feel anything. And… I think that’s terrifying. Because when you don’t feel anything, nothing matters. And when nothing matters, you care less. Caring less is always the beginning of the end. You sit down in a cinema room where your depressive daily life is being played, not finding the plot interesting enough to actively engage with the story. You paid for the film, or well, someone else did (probably your parents) and all you can do is watch, not even hoping it will get better, but just waiting till it ends. And when the film ends, you just get up and leave. In an actual cinema playing a fictional story, this doesn’t matter much or at all. You just wasted money and a few hours. However, when it is your life, your actual daily life… It gets real. Because sometimes you don’t simply waste a few hours and a bit of money. You can waste days, weeks, months and even years. You spend so much time latent at the cinema that people start to forget about you, and you begin to forget about what is really living. And by the time the film is over for good, you look around, and find yourself alone and lost. And that just leads to more sorrow and pain.”

Written by Emilie F. Yaakaar

All Rights Reserved © 2018