MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

Jeelan holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from the University of Toronto. In addition he has studied at Sciences Po and the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris. Over the past year and a half, Jeelan has taken part in two internships as a Political Analyst Intern in Kosovo and as a Project Assistant Intern in Kygystran. He has a keen interest in international affairs and speaks six languages including English, French, Russian, German, Arabic and Urdu. His interests include cross-country running, Nordic skiing, swimming, theatre and travelling.

To the field: Oujda, by the Algerian border

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In late July, I was sent to Oujda to interview a few young clients who received “100 hours for success” training from MEDA Maroc. I took the (quite comfortable) overnight train from Casablanca and arrived in Oujda, right by the Algerian border to the East, on the next day. After having checked-in at the hotel, we promptly set off for the MEDA Maroc Oujda office and I met with our local staff. I was soon thereafter interviewing the first client, Fatima Zahra, who plans on opening her own clothing store once she gets enough experience in the field and has put aside enough money.

Later that day, I had a long and engaging two-way discussion with a group of youth after a “100 hours for success” session and was able to gain a lot of mileage as to the real-life skills and the hope MEDA Maroc’s program instills in Moroccan youth, enabling them to reach for their dreams and achieve whatever they set out to do. I’ve met and interviewed a few more youth and was able to collect valuable information and success stories.

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On language and identity

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So, apparently, I’m Moroccan. No one could ever tell that I’m Canadian by my appearance alone. Due to my French and Indian background, I guess I could look like a great many things. I remember people in Uzbekistan thought I was Uzbek, in China I looked as though I was from the Xinjiang (East Turkestan) Autonomous Region, and Caucasians (from the Caucasus mountains) think I’m Azeri. It’s pretty practical. Even when I do tell someone, such as my cab driver on my first day, that I am from Montreal (I flew from Montreal, but I’m actually from Brampton, Ontario), he assumed I was one of those 60,000 young Moroccans who study abroad. Awesomeness. But… when I don’t speak French, and switch to Arabic I pass for any other Arab, but definitely not Moroccan. I spent the past year studying Fusha (literal) Arabic and a bit of Egyptian dialect. When I talk to people I do so in Fusha. I don’t really fear being made fun of – as I’ve been told I would –; the important thing is to be able to communicate. And frankly, I never get any remarks. People usually ask whether I’m Syrian or Egyptian. I tell that I’m Indian – a habit I’ve acquired in my travels in Central Asia, where your ethnicity is of utmost importance and is determined by your father’s background. Saying that I’m Indian also helps me avoid the temptation of speaking in French – my mother tongue. I’m in part here to improve my Arabic skills, after all. I have Satellite TV with over 700 channels in Arabic from all over the Arab world. It’s pretty cool to have been able to follow political events in Egypt on an Egyptian channel, and watch Turkish soap operas in Syrian dialect. I’m impressed with the fact that many Moroccans understand these dialects. In general, I find Moroccans are gifted with languages. At work The staff at MEDA Maroc is very friendly. Colleagues have helped me buy, and then, repair my bike. They made me try couscous, tagine and other local goodies. I am definitely a fan of Moroccan cuisine now. At the office, I’ve mainly been working on building the MEDA MENA website for Morocco and Egypt, translating a newsletter from Arabic to English and doing other communications tasks. This week, I’ll be going to Oujda to conduct a few interviews with program beneficiaries. It should be interesting.

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First impressions in Morocco

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I can still remember how excited I felt on the Royal Air Maroc plane as we flew over the Atlantic Ocean. I was thrilled to finally set foot in Africa, and after a year of intensive study of the Arabic language, being able to work and live in the Arab world as well. It felt surreal. Then, I arrived. The airport felt pretty international (as they all tend to be) but very African as well. Mohammed V airport in Casablanca wants to become – and to some extent already is – a hub for flights to and from Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and North America. I have often been told that Moroccans don’t see themselves as African (that could in fact be said of many North African countries) – and I believe it’s a question I will try exploring over the next few months. I took a train to Gare Oasis, then a taxi to my apartment. It’s located in the south of the city, in Ain Chock. I wanted to get to know another side of the city and it’s people, away from the downtown glitter. Most of my colleagues were surprised at my choice – I live 9 km away from the MEDA Maroc office, which means, depending on Casablanca traffic, from 38 minutes to over an hour in the bus. It’s hot, sweaty, crowded, and quite frankly – though I’m usually a fan of intense travel experiences such as feeling like cattle at the back of a truck – I’m really not that fond of such promiscuity two hours a day for six months. So, naturally, I bought a bike. My best time so far is 24 minutes to get to the office. And I dare say it’s a great way of keeping fit. It also allows for more mobility and freedom. I never like being at the mercy of cab drivers in any place and have always valued bikes in cities that have no efficient public transport. I can pretty much go wherever I want to, when I want to – provided my legs have it in them for the extra kilometer or two. Rabat My first weekend in Morocco was spent in Rabat. I took the train a Saturday morning from the Casa Voyageurs train station and arrived in Rabat an hour later. I visited Rabat with a Moroccan friend of mine that I had met three years ago in Delhi! The city is so much quieter than Casablanca. To be honest, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the traffic and expanse of Casablanca. It was nice to see something more low-key and relaxed. It’s a nice capital with the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, a nice medina (old city) overlooking the sea, the Kasbah of the Oudaias, and nice restaurants and shops. I really do feel that I’m just scratching the surface as there is so much more to be seen and done. I plan on climbing the Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa, sometime in August. I also want to see Marrakech, Fez, Meknes, Chefchaouen, the Atlas moutains and the dessert.

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