When people ask us what made us decide to move to Morocco, we always give the same answer; for our children to learn Arabic and French. This might not be a priority for everyone but it was important for us. I always felt terrible that my kids couldn’t have even basic communication with my husband’s mother and extended family. It brought me many sleepless nights thinking they would grow up and never know this part of their family, all because of a language barrier.
I know that it’s not feasible or even practical for everyone to relocate overseas but for anyone who is thinking about raising bilingual children you really should consider moving to a country where that language is the main language. In today’s world, living a location independent lifestyle is even more possible than ever before. This is the only reason we were able to move our family. Getting our life to a place where this was possible took a consistent and concerted effort. It also helps that living here means our day to day expenses were greatly reduced.
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I get several emails every week asking me about the dynamics of life here in Morocco or about relationship questions. I love getting email from readers, especially those who tell me they feel a personal connection – what a compliment! Sometimes it can feel like I’m writing into space, but getting those bits of feedback truly mean so much as I continue to write and explore topics that are personal to me but may help someone else. Recently I’ve been getting many messages from families who are considering a move to Morocco, either permanently or temporarily. Every family, and individual’s situation is unique so my advice can’t be all encompassing – it’s merely my observations and experience.
With that today’s question is one I’m regularly asked; should we live with my in-laws or should we get our own place?
My answer almost 100% of the time will be if you can, get your own place.
But, before I leave it at that let me back up and discuss both arrangements. In some traditional Moroccan homes it’s still common for men to live at home after they’re married. The new wife moves into the family home. The couple has their own room but all other aspects of life are shared. The role of the daughter in law is to take on household responsibilities. The mother in law has done her time and so cleaning, cooking, washing etc falls to the younger women – who most often are directed by the mother/mother-in-law on the “proper way” (i.e. her way) to do these things. Most Moroccan women who move into this type of family inherently know and accept that this is the way things are, though they may not like it.
If you’re a foreign woman who is coming into a family like this the expectations are similar though not really the same. I’ve found that most often a foreign woman occupies a third space. You don’t have all the rights and privalages that a man does, however you’re not expected to know or understand the roles as a Moroccan woman would. You can take the both of best worlds but at the cost of never really being fully accepted in either one. Sound complicated? It is.
As an adult who has lived independently, you have your own way of doing things. If you have children you parented them in the way you and your spouse determined before living in Morocco. For example you may not believe in physical punishment for children. Expect that to be challenged. You might have your own technique for cleaning floors, or standard for washing laundry. Chances are it will be different and it will be challenged. You may work out of the home or enjoy going to meet friends for a cup of coffee. Expect that your in-laws won’t understand why you need to do this. Your ways will be foreign even if your in-laws are worldly and have traveled or visited your country. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that your ways are often seen as wrong, when in reality they’re just different.
As a bit of background when we moved here we moved into my husband’s family home and have lived in the house for 18 months. It is a “riad style” home with an open middle courtyard and several floors. We live on the top floor in our own “apartment”. I have my own kitchen, bedrooms, living room, and bathroom. My mother in law along with one sister in law and her children live on the second floor and the first floor is a common area. Because this is the family home it is very common to have my husbands other sisters and their children here, especially on the weekends. I’m going to share the pros and cons, depending on your personality you’ll have to decide what is a pro and what is a con!
Pros and Cons
- it’s a shared home, and so you lack control over noise and who comes and goes.
- there is a lack of privacy and personal space even if you have your own floor
- shared expenses unless this has been divided somehow or established ahead of time
- loss of independence. You are not as free to come and go as you might be if you were living alone – that is without questions and shared opinions.
- Your business becomes everyone’s business – and they often are more than happy to share their opinion either to your face or behind your back.
- skewed expectations unless this has been very firmly established ahead of time.
- Jealousy and competition over the “man of the house” – especially if it’s your husband.
- there is almost always someone to help with the children
- you can alternate cooking. For example in our home my sister in law always makes lunch that we all typically eat together and we each prepare dinner for our respective families.
- You’re rarely ever alone.
- Cost of living is reduced. If you’re on a fixed income this is one way to not have as many housing expenses.
- A greater sense of family
Our first year living in the house was not a happy time. Not only was I dealing with culture shock and adjusting to life here the issues that come with living in a shared home took their toll. My mother in law and I rarely saw eye to eye. While she was thrilled to have her son back in Morocco I often felt that she saw me as a threat and a competitor for his affection. This was very strange for me. One of the reasons we moved here was so that he and our children could spend more time with her! I had never experienced this type of competition for affection and truthfully didn’t know how to respond. She also didn’t understand why I would spend all day upstairs in our apartment, it took a long time for her to grasp that I wasn’t avoiding them but I was working. It took a long time for her to realize I wasn’t going to come and wash floors or do laundry like a Moroccan wife would – but I was happy to contribute financially and pay for someone to come to the house to do that work. In her defense because I felt so much pressure to “be” the person they thought I should be I did avoid them. I would stay upstairs for days on end just so I didn’t have to answer the questions.
I am sharing all of this in hopes of giving others a look into what this transition was like. Today I am at peace with our decision though ideally we would be in our own apartment nearby. I know there are some of you reading who will say, “well they’re just trying to help! They just want to share with you and show you there’s another way.” To which I say yes, certainly. Be open minded of course but also don’t be afraid to hold your own. For example, I refuse to hit my children and have had countless arguments with my in-laws about this practice. In Morocco it’s seen as normal but for me it is a hard and fast line I won’t cross. Many times I have been asked to just see it their way and change my way, and in some ways yes I can do this but it shouldn’t always be the non-Moroccan that is asked to make the change, sometimes it has to be them. Don’t be afraid to put your foot down, draw your boundaries, and stick with it!
When I became a Muslim 10 years ago there was no doubt in my mind that Christmas would still be a part of our lives. For me it was one of the most magical parts of childhood. Long before I was an adult worrying about budgets and gifts and Santa, and how should we, of two different cultures raise our children, and a million other questions it simply was the most wonderful time of the year. Way before the culture wars, the religion wars, the shaming and “haram/halal” banter, it was the time I felt so incredibly happy.
I’m going to take you back in time so you can see where I’m speaking from today. When I was a little girl we had several Christmas parties with family, usually at least four. It began in mid-December and ran until the New Year. For each grandparent’s house there were certain things that I remember being special. This year, I’m remembering those times and am heartbroken that I’m missing them all.
Long before the parties my mom would start decorating. We would go and cut down a small pine tree for our porch and buy pine boughs that she put in front of the house with big red ribbons and lights.My mom didn’t do tacky Christmas decorations, she just did beautiful things. We never had a real pine tree in the house but there were plenty of decorations. My mom’s parents had a camp in the woods and after Thanksgiving we’d go with grandpa to cut down a real pine tree that we could have and decorate. On December 1st our chocolate advent calendars appeared and we gobbled our daily sweet hidden behind the paper window. Up went the Christmas countdown with the days of December and a little mouse on a string to slip into the daily pockets. School programs, church activities, and after school activities – Christmas took over in December. When it came close we started our family traditions.
With my dad’s parents we would have dinner with my aunts and cousins at my grandma and grandpa’s house which was an eternal Santa village. My grandma really loves Santa. Chances are she has more than one thousand figures, ornaments, and paintings. We’d have cheese ravioli and homemade red sauce, garlic bread (that seriously no one made better than grandma), and cookies for dessert. When we were younger they chose our gifts but when we got older it was a special treat to go shopping with grandma to chose our own presents, that of course had to be wrapped and saved until the night of our dinner. We would always play in the back bedrooms, sneaking pennies to get gumballs from a machine grandma kept hidden while grandpa would grumble back at us (in the most lighthearted way of course) to see what we were doing. The house was small but somehow we all crammed around the kitchen table with just inches between the chairs and the counter top. When the night ended we’d warm up the car, bring out our gifts and drive home half asleep.
On Christmas Eve we always went to my mom’s parents. When we were older we went to the midnight candlelight church service. I can still smell the pine boughs, see the entire church dark except for the shimmering lights we each held in our hands, and everyone singing. From there we’d go to my grandparents house. They had an insulated porch off the back and grandpa would have a big fire in the fireplace waiting for us. My cousins and I tuned in the radio so that we could listen to the NORAD Santa tracker, following to see when he was close to us. We knew that Santa would be stopping at the house because our parents secretly arranged for him to come with a big red bag of gifts. Dinner was always hot turkey sandwiches, Italian sausage and lots of side dishes. The olive tray was where we’d sneak as many as possible to make olive fingers. Of course there were gifts here too, all in anticipation of the big event.
On Christmas Day we woke up early and eagerly awaited what was under the tree. I remember our stockings were stuffed full and there were gifts under the tree. I don’t remember the gifts so much but I do remember sitting with my mom, dad, and sister opening them. Soon everyone would come to our house for brunch. When it was all done it was like the end of riding a giant wave. But we knew next year would come soon enough.
When I married MarocBaba whether we would have Christmas or not was not a question. I couldn’t wait to share this time of year with him.We took rides to see the lights. We went shopping for gifts for my family and I even surprised him with a plane ticket home to Morocco on his first Christmas in America. We had fun buying Santa gifts for M even though he was still too little to know what was going on. MarocBaba never pushed back, he never saw anything wrong with joining my family for this tradition. Sure, we didn’t go to church anymore but that didn’t mean we had to sit at home. He really loves Christmastime and so when we went to Germany to find Christmas he was 100% on board!
Many Muslims ask me why we celebrate Christmas. They berate our choice and insist it’s wrong. That’s fine. But, for me turning my back on Christmas is turning my back on my family, my culture and my identity. Something I refuse to do. When I became Muslim I didn’t become Moroccan, nor do I want to magically Arabize myself and shun my own culture. If anything I’ve become more confident in my identity and myself. Asking me to forget this is like asking a Moroccan or an Egyptian when they move to the US to forget their holidays, their childhood memories, the things that made them who they are today because it’s somehow “wrong.” I didn’t grow up with Muslim holidays. While my nieces and nephews squeal with glee for Eid al Adha, I shrug my shoulders. I don’t get it, I don’t understand why it’s a big deal but I respect that it is an important part of their identity and life experience. For those of us who embrace Islam, we come from a different background. We have a different identity and a different set of experiences. It’s difficult for someone who has always been Muslim to see and accept those differences.
My children are being raised to know they are the product of two unique and important cultures. They have an identity that transcends borders. We are raising them to know, understand, and celebrate who they are and where they come from. I hope when they’re older they have magical memories of Eids and Christmas’ – and that will be the best gift of all.
Many months ago I shared an article on my Facebook page that was another blogger’s negative experience in Morocco. There was a variety of responses (you can jump over and read them all) but what I found the most was that opening up the conversation gave me a way to being to understand and more importantly put into words my own feelings.
We’ve lived in Morocco for 16 months.
It’s been great, challenging, happy, sad, frustrating, wonderful, and sometimes just downright hard.
But, I haven’t always been honest about what I’m going through, partly because I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining. So let me try to explain. For many, there’s a romanticism involved with “moving to Morocco” and especially moving to “Marrakech.” I get that. I’ve heard people say how lucky we are, and how they’d love to do it. But, we’re not lucky – we chose to make this move and you could choose to make it too. We don’t spend everyday living in the lap of luxury. We work, take care of our kids, go to buy groceries, and do everything else people do no matter where in the world they live. By choosing to move here, we also gave up a lot. Everything has trade-offs. One of those trade-offs is the inevitable emotional rollercoaster.
I go through periods where I felt catatonic. One of those times looked like this. The kids had gone back to school for the afternoon, and even though I had plenty to do I couldn’t move. I laid in bed, curled up, and I cried. And cried. And cried. Over nothing specifically, really I couldn’t even put my finger on what was wrong. I knew that I had hit the low point of culture shock. MarocBaba came into the room and held me, and let me cry, and told me it was normal and that everything would be ok. (Remember, he went through this in the US) I apologized to him so many times for how I had acted when he was going through this, and how if I had only known what it felt like I would have been better, have been more compassionate, more understanding. But until you’re there, until you’re looking at it face-to-face you just can’t know.
Culture shock has four stages; the honeymoon stage, rejection/frustration, depression/isolation, and adjustment/adaptation. I can tell you when I went through each one because I see it now. In the beginning everything is new and exciting, but then small frustrations start to creep in. The “why can’t they do it this way?” and “they’re so backwards,” comments become common places. It’s a very negative time. I was there. Then the worst. The depression and isolation. I didn’t want to be around anyone. I went to sleep as soon as possible. I didn’t want to go out. If I did go out I had to have someone with me. In fact there were times I was so paralyzed with anxiety I couldn’t even drive the car. How can I forget binging on Kit Kats for several weeks straight.
I’m slowly coming out of this. Together (MarocBaba and I) are learning what works and how to move past it. For me, getting away and having new experiences is a big help. Even if it’s just going for a car ride, or drinking coffee in a favorite cafe. Of course, trying new restaurants and taking longer trips is a great way to boost my spirits! I know I can’t stay in the house for more than a day or two, I need to get out. I also know having regular interactions with people outside of my immediate family is important. The more language I learn and freedom I have the easier life becomes.
I don’t blame Morocco as a country for my feelings, I know that they’re natural parts of moving somewhere completely new. Sure there are things about living here that are enough to drive anyone up a wall and that test your patience but it’s a part of finding a rhythm and accepting some parts of a new life. If you’re considering an expat life know that these emotions are going to happen at some point. You might not realize it when you’re going through them but you will eventually.
Remember, there’s a light shining on the other end of that (sometimes very) long tunnel.
Many people make the decision to move abroad or live nomadically when their children are young and not yet of formal schooling age. Then there are those of us that decide to do it later in life. Our first year I had grand plans. In fact I had a plan, a back up plan, and a back back up plan (or three). Education is very important to us and it is what worried and excited me the most about moving to Morocco. When we left the US we weren’t sure where or if our kids would be going to school. My schooling plans were;
A. Enroll them in a Moroccan/French private school near the house. OR
B. Hire a tutor to come to the house and work with them for several hours a day on language and homeschool them in English for the rest. Then send them to a Moroccan school. OR
C. Plan A plus do additional homeschooling in English.
Plus some other variations of the above. No matter which plan we went with I knew I wanted to do some supplementary learning in English with them so that they would stay on track with their US peers. I did a lot of research and found different programs to help them with things like Spelling, Reading, and Math. One thing I didn’t think about, but may just be the single most important skill/lesson they need to learn is ethics.
Every culture has its own definition of what is and isn’t ethical. To some point that’s ok but for kids and parents that are straddling a cultural divide it becomes a bit more tricky. When I heard about a new game called Quandary that develops ethical thinking skills I was really intrigued. Lately we have been talking a lot about what we will do for our children’s secondary education as I believe higher education here is less than ethical and I would rather not raise my children in that system. I can already see them grappling with what is and isn’t ethical.
The game doesn’t focus on how much your child does or doesn’t know. In fact it kind of reminded me of Oregon Trail – which is the greatest game ever! Quandary however is set in the future instead of the past and players make decisions to solve problems as the leaders of a colony on a new planet. To make the decision they need to consider facts, opinions, and other input just like in real life. There are no “right” answers, but whatever path they choose does have consequences (good and bad). The game never tells they player they’re “making ethical decisions” or which they should have done, rather it guides them through scenarios that they could face in real life.
Our almost 8 year old and 10 year old sat down together to play the game and enjoyed it but I think it really made more sense to M. It is recommended for 8 and up and while I think younger kids can enjoy playing the concepts may be a little lost on them. Age does make a difference and the older the child, the more real life experiences they are likely to have had. The game is free on their website and also available as tablet apps.
Other Games We Use
While we limit screen time for our kids, we also let them play educational and sometimes not educational games – especially when we’re traveling. Some of our other favorites are;
Hooked on Phonics — this app is a huge favorite for K who is learning to read in English with it.
Spelling City – Add in your own spelling words or school words and play and practice.
Khan Academy – For videos on many subjects but especially Math.
Quandary is a free game – give it a try and let me know what you think! I’d also love to know any of your favorite learning games for kids.
This is a sponsored post and I am receiving compensation for sharing this game however, as always I only share things that I have used and believe in.
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“Home is not where you live, but where they understand you”
~ Christian Morganstern quotes
“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”
~ Matsuo Basho
I’ve been grappling with the concept of home from the moment I stepped on the plane earlier this month. When people ask, “where are you going?” Do I say, “Oh, we’re going home!” But are we really going home? After a few days at my mom’s house MarocBaba asked how it was and I definitively told him, “this doesn’t feel like home anymore.” Then last weekend as we stayed near where I grew up I instantly found comfort in the forest. Not a single place just being surrounded by towering trees as far as I could see.
So what is it, where is it?
Earlier this week I happened to go through some notes I have written down in a notebook I always carry. I am always writing but rarely go back to them. When I came across this entry from October of last year, I knew I’d found my answer. Here’s what I had written;
“Oh, yes we’ve been to Morocco. It seemed the further south you went the more, what’s the word…restrictive it became.”
On a rainy morning as I sat at Barjas airport in Madrid an elderly American man took up the seat next to me. We started talking over the muffled announcement of an Iberia clerk. He had asked me if I was looking forward to “going home”. I had a particularly hard time answering as it became precariously real to me that where I was going wasn’t really home. I had no address. I wasn’t even a resident at that point. I was visiting. My home now was in Morocco.
“Yes, it’s true, it’s more conservative in Marrakesh in some ways.” I stammered out.
“We went to a restaurant but the only people there were a few men so we went somewhere more comfortable. You know we raised our daughters to be just as good as our sons. We thought it was so strange that women weren’t outside.”
I sat puzzled at his analysis. What was he saying? I have rarely felt restricted in Morocco – aside from the language barrier. Women were everywhere! Was he talking about a different place? I felt my re-entry to the Western world was even more strained. Had I forgotten in such a short time how people perceived the Muslim world – which my husband and I had regularly joked Morocco was far from? Hadn’t they seen the women who were running shops and businesses? Or those running their kids back and forth to school? Or the schools themselves run and staffed by women? The women driving motorcycles all over the city?
There’s a problem I realized in the West, that I think boils down to appearances. I hesitate to say West because I’ve found the attitudes of Europeans is not the same as Americans. Yes, it’s true in Morocco many women wear hijab and traditional djallabas but it has little correlation to their standing in society or opportunities. I struggled to interject this into the conversation, that I didn’t feel like I was somehow not as good as men by my experiences living in Morocco. I just couldn’t put all the pieces together fast enough to explain to them. To defend my new home.
It was on that overcast Thursday that I realized I really had created a new home. I felt that strong sense of place, the desire to defend, and to share my place. Good or bad, it was our home.
That was it. That was my answer.
MarocBaba told me as I struggled at the start of our stay, “Home is wherever we’re all together. Maybe it’s here now, maybe it’s there later, maybe it’s somewhere we haven’t discovered yet. The world is our home.”
Yes, I like the sound of that.
This year really tested my faith in a lot of ways. In the US it’s common to hear among Muslims (and specifically convert Muslims) how they simply can’t wait to move to an Islamic country for some type of Muslim-utopia they’ve imagined exists. Frankly, I’m far too cynical to even believe this exists (nor do I really know if it’s something I want to exist). I went through a lot of stages in my culture shock journey. Some I wrote about here, some I wrote down for myself, and some I tried to quietly stuff away. I try not to be negative, but I do promise to be real.
One thing that tested me to the limits was the unwanted attention of men. It’s somewhat unavoidable and for a long time I was terrified to even go out without my husband because I just didn’t know what to expect. Before we moved I had lost 100 pounds and was struggling with my new body, the added onslaught of attention was so outside my comfort zone. I’m happy to say I’ve moved past that. It was so bad that for awhile that I harbored a very negative opinion of men in general. Older men (in the 30-50’s range) frankly made me nervous and scared me. I’m not writing this to stop anyone from visiting because in truth nothing has ever happened to me aside from some catcalling and lingering looks. My feelings were a mixture of my own feelings and emotions. But this was a transformation that hardened my heart. I wavered in my faith, I wondered if I was still in the throes of culture shock, and as I wrote in another post I stumbled through what should be a wonderful month, my first in Morocco, of Ramadan.
The night before we left the country for our vacation in the US, I had the encounter that brought tears to my eyes and took me full circle.
It’s made me stop to take time every day to pray, a practice I had wandered far from. It’s also made me really consider why I had grown so hard. That night, after the breaking of the fast and evening prayers, I walked out the door to our car. Normally, men in our neighborhood – especially much older men (60+) divert their eyes and walk past. But, that night was different. An older man, probably in his 70’s walked past and looked me in the eyes with a smile, softly said a blessing and pressed a date into my hand. It sounds so simple, but I was completely choked up. If you read my post on Multicultural Kid Blogs, you’ll know my “Ramadan in Morocco” experience made me sad, but this one interaction redeemed me.
I got into the car and then I began to think about experiences in the weeks leading up to this point. Interactions where I was met with kindness. It occurred to me that in both Portugal and Spain, the two places I’d been to in May and June the most memorable encounters were with men over 65. In Portugal, MarocBaba and I found ourselves a bit lost and looking for our way to a tram in Lisbon. At a stop where we obviously looked confused a man came up to us and asked, in Portuguese, where we wanted to go – or at least that’s what we guessed he asked. We decided to try and ask in French (most older Portuguese people speak French or at least understand it somewhat), how to get to the tram station. He was so patient and explained the best he could with the addition of hand signals where to go. Again, so simple but as two people who would easily be identified as Muslim/Arabs we’re not always treated so kindly.
When I went to Spain with my best friend we were in Ribodesella, a very small city on the northern coast. Where we were staying was a long walk (like 3km) from the bus station and on a portion of the Camino de Santiago. We only traveled with backpacks so I get that we could be looked at as pilgrims. The area was really rural and we crossed paths with an old man heading in the opposite direction. He stopped us and (again this is us guessing what he said) asked us if we were pilgrims on the walk by indicating with his outstretched hand the symbol for the camino (a 5 ribbed seashell). We told him we didn’t speak Spanish but he then gave what I took to be a blessing for our journey. My few times sitting through a Catholic mass may have paid off.
All of these encounters on their own really could just be considered coincidence. But to me they were all linked together. Month after month I built up more and more resistance and frustration – so much so it was like a block I couldn’t get through. But each friendly encounter, each baraka bestowed on me, knocked down a layer of defense.
Baraka means blessing in Arabic, and I’m certain the blessings of those men, in their own ways were the turning point I needed. All it took was a few simple acts of kindness to turn my world upside down. With so much sadness, anger, and bad news around us, I have one question.
What small kindess will you do today?