Have you ever stayed with an English family – maybe when you were studying in a language school because you wanted to improve your English? Well, our friend and colleague, Michael, went to stay with a Moroccan family in Fez – and this is what happened…
At the start of 2014, fed up with the routine of work, and seeking new adventures, I set off on January the first to Morocco for a language learning experience in the city of Fez.
I chose to stay with a Moroccan family for two reasons: first, I decided it would be the fastest way of learning Arabic, the language I’d been having a stop-start relationship with since living in the Middle East in my childhood; secondly, I wanted to discover more about the Moroccan way of life. Since reading A Year in Marrakesh by Peter Mayne, this North African country had held a seductive power over my imagination. Thoughts of snake charmers, Berbers, spicy-smelling souks and dancing monkeys were never far from my mind.
Surely, I thought, this would be more entertaining than my prosaic and predictable daily existence in London; a life which largely consisted of trawling through an email inbox and forwarding on mails for other people to take action; of attending meetings where nothing was ever agreed on other than to have another meeting. I found myself questioning what the purpose of all of this was, where was the joy and natural curiosity to discover new truths about the world?
And so on day one, after I had arrived in the late afternoon at Abdoulhakem’s and Fatima’s house, I was eager for my cultural experience to begin. It wasn’t long, however, before I realized that I wasn’t prepared for some of the cultural differences that existed between my world in London and my new, unfamiliar surroundings in Morocco’s oldest city.
When I asked if I could take a shower, I was shown where the bathroom was; a room no bigger than a broom cupboard, there was no evidence of a shower as I far as I could see – just a toilet, a sink and a bucket out of which coiled a yellow, stained hosepipe. Abdoulhakem pointed at it and I understood that I was being told to fill this bucket with the cold water from the tap. Now, maybe I’ve been mollycoddled with the experience of hot power showers and bath mats but the prospect of stripping down and washing in temperatures colder than outside (in mid-January in Fez the mercury dips to 5 degrees) brought me out in goose bumps. Abdoulhakem looked at me bewildered when I explained to him as best I could in Arabic: ‘shower prefer myself with water warm, possible?’
At the end of what could best be described as a mixture of pantomime acting and pidgin language, I understood that the best solution to this would be a family outing to the Haram where I could get washed with ‘very, very hot water’ and feel ‘clean like a newborn baby’.
Misunderstanding number one out of the way, I was offered to share some food in the small kitchen. After being invited to help myself to some delicious tajine, some slightly watery tabouleh and some heavy looking but equally tasty lamb kofte, I envisaged that the next activity would be Arabic tea, coffee or maybe some sweets. But Fatima would excuse herself soon before the plates were spotlessly clean, and emerge from the kitchen with more dishes, laden with rice and chicken and prunes and chickpeas. This went on for literally two hours, during which my protestations that I was full were completely ignored and more food was piled on my plate as if I was a malnourished child.
Lesson two in my homestay experience: it is practically useless to refuse the offer of food in Morocco. They will just fill up your plate anyway.
Then there was the difference in attitudes to personal space and privacy. After these gargantuan feasts, I would often politely excuse myself from the living room and go to my bedroom where I hoped to study and use the Internet. This proved to be an almost impossible task.
Each time I would close the door to my room, and before I drew breath to begin my work, there would come a knock on the door. ‘Why are you shutting yourself in your room? Was there something wrong? Why not come to the living room and play cards with the kids? There was more food on offer, there was Arabs Got Talent on TV, Hakeem needed some help with his English homework’, and so on it went…
Many of my experiences were shared by other students in the language school I went to. And despite the initial frustrations at not being able to communicate, most people felt as I did, that Moroccan people went out of their way to make us feel comfortable in their homes as guests, as members of their families and not as commodities which were undoubtedly providing a large proportion of their monthly income. They had even given me my own bedroom while the two boys slept in the living room.
Although I continued to find it difficult to come up with excuses to decline the offer of a sixth helping of couscous, of saying that I’d rather study than watch the TV repeat of last week’s show, I realized that I was having a formative experience and a privileged insight into the life of a Moroccan family, which I wouldn’t have had in the comfort of the student residence up the road.
By week six, I’d also mastered enough Arabic to tell them that Arabs got Talent just ‘wasn’t my plate of couscous’!
Michael Dewar, Roaming Reporter for My English Friends
My English Friends offers homestay English language courses in Brighton
All our families have bathrooms!