Fes, Morocco, is a place like no other: The narrow, cobbled streets of the old section of the city are filled with vendors not only selling the basic food and clothing, but showcasing pristine craftsmanship skills passed down through countless generations. The city evokes feelings of other-worldliness or of traveling back in time, and is considered to be the most medieval city in the world.
Yet because it's so old, the ancient medina section is having the expected problems of wear and tear. Buildings that once were vibrant are now derelict and unused. Though most of the medina is still going strong, there's a lot of work to be done to keep the traditions alive.
For the past three weeks I've been calling this mystical place home, looking past the bustling markets and into the local lifestyle. I, along with several other students also taking a gap year before starting college, have been living with local host families and learning about the many different facets of Moroccan life by experiencing them first-hand.
One of the most defining characteristics of the country's culture is its religion, Islam. Morocco is a Muslim country, and as such dress is conservative and the call to prayer can always be heard from the many mosques. But Islam doesn't dominate the culture in a bad or frightening way. In lieu of the American tendency towards prejudice against Muslims, it's refreshing to be exposed to the reality.
Morocco has a reputation for a more tolerant Islam, so it's a little easier to blend in than it would be in a more conservative climate. Many women, especially younger women in urban areas like Fes, don't wear the hijab, the Muslim headscarf. Women throughout the country are becoming more free; my homestay mother is separated from her husband and going through a divorce, and this isn't the scandalous affair it once was.
Yet there's still a divide. Women are still mainly confined to the home; my host mom works as a hairdresser, but her mom hardly ever leaves the house. Men don't treat women as equals, but they respect them for the most part. It's a slow progression, just as the women's movement was in our own country.
Walking around the city I definitely feel like I stand out, but more as a foreigner than as a woman. It's much easier to distinguish visitors from locals in Morocco than it is in the U.S. because in America there's such a diverse mix of cultures so that people of any ethnicity could be American, whereas in Morocco most non-Moroccans haven't been in the country for very long.
Because foreigners aren't ingrained into the culture, I've found that cafés and taxis prefer to give business to Moroccans. However, stores usually make more of a profit off of foreigners because, assuming they have plenty of money, the vendors give them a higher price. My group and I have become fairly adept at bargaining, the Moroccan way of setting a price, to defend against this.
Many people I've met have a positive view of America because of Obama; our trekking guide watches the news a lot. Yet different outlets yield different images and viewpoints. When I was talking to a cousin of my homestay mom, she mentioned how the life depicted on the shows "My Super Sweet Sixteen" and "The Hills" is so crazy and lavish. I had to explain to her that our lives aren't like that!
Cultural exchanges are a great way to break these stereotypes. Ideas aren't being forced, but rather we learn from interacting with each other. In the book I'm reading, "The Caliph's House," travel writer Tahir Shah writes, "Morocco takes you in. Before you know it, you have a home and friends, and you've forgotten your troubles." I've found this to be so true, which is wonderful. I feel like I've found a place within my homestay family and the life here and am becoming a part of the foreign but comforting culture.