January 30, 2023
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ColumnsThe Jetsetters

The art of Moroccan teatime

One of the first things I did with my Moroccan host family — my “new family,” as my 17-year-old host sister emphatically told me in French when we first met — was sit down for the Moroccan tradition of teatime. Tea is a pretty big deal in Morocco. Every day, usually at some point between 4 and 7 p.m., Moroccan families gather to drink the traditional Moroccan blend of green and mint tea — each pot sweetened with about 15 cubes of sugar — and eat an assortment of pastries, bread, cheese and sometimes eggs. It’s one of my favorite times of day. They often also serve this type of bread called rghaif, which is essentially a grilled, doughy flat bread they spread The Laughing Cow cheese on. It is fantastic, and the closest thing I’ve gotten to a grilled-cheese sandwich so far.

During this particular teatime, they also served coffee. Morocco’s not really known for its coffee. The coffee is usually instant, made with a mix that looks like cacao nibs that I’m guessing is some sort of fake coffee bean concoction. They drink it with lots of hot milk — so much milk that it’s basically just milk with coffee, not the other way around. In true Moroccan tradition, they also put four to six cubes of sugar into their small coffee cups.

In the States, I drink coffee at least twice a day and always totally black. So, after watching them fill their small glasses three-fourths full of milk and with just enough coffee for it to turn a very light beige, I asked for my coffee without milk. I realized this was the wrong thing to ask, after watching the look that was exchanged between my host sister and host mother. It was the way a mother would look at her daughter after a guest put his or her bare, smelly feet on the dinner table. Ever the generous hostess, my host mother poured me the coffee anyway and handed it to me a little suspiciously. My host sister put the mountain of sugar cubes in front of me, and they watched me quietly as I drank my coffee without anything in it.

In the three weeks that I’ve been in Rabat, I have had many challenges. I’ve been dropped off on the opposite side of town and told to find my way back to my school within two hours — accomplished in 20 minutes, I’m proud to say. I’ve been handed 20 Moroccan dirham — about $2.00 USD — and been asked to go bargain for something in the medina, an ancient walled, maze-like area in Rabat full with residencies and a sprawling marketplace. I’ve gotten food poisoning and been earnestly lost in the city. Of all of these things, living with my host family has been the hardest. Unlike my family in the United States, my family in Morocco does not speak any English, just Arabic and French. At Ithaca College, I took Modern Standard Arabic for four semesters. MSA is used in writing and formal situations. In Morocco, they speak a dialect of Arabic called Darija. When I asked my Arabic professor if Darija was difficult to understand, she sort of grimaced and told me that she, a Tunisian woman and native Arabic speaker, could not understand Darija.

Luckily, my host family can also speak and understand MSA and usually do so for my benefit. Unluckily, going a semester without taking any Arabic classes and being thrust into a very stressful, constantly Arabic-speaking environment meant that when I first got here, basically all of my useful Arabic skills had gone out of my head. Most of the time I feel like a hyper-aware toddler who can only speak a few sentences. Imagine having all of the same thoughts, feelings and observations, but having no way to share them with the people you live with and who you’re trying to get to know. It’s exceedingly frustrating and discouraging.

It’s helpful that I’m totally immersed in the language at home and have Arabic class for two hours every day. Today it only took my host mother repeating herself four times for me to understand what she was asking. At breakfast and tea, I happily take my coffee with milk and even add a cube of sugar. Still much less sugar than everyone else at the table — but hey, it’s some progress.

Evin Billington can be reached at ebillin1@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @EvinBillington