The Big Graduation Post

It doesn’t happen like you think it will, graduation. I suppose the same can be said of all those grand rites of passage of life: like as not, you speculate a great deal about how it’s going to be, until the day itself is over before you know it, and a lot less grand an affair than you thought it was.

Certainly, when I tried to imagine what graduating from Durham would be like four years ago, I didn’t ever imagine that the cathedral tower would be under scaffolding. You win some, you lose some.

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One of the most difficult things about graduating is that it’s so very easy to use it as your last chance to say goodbye. It makes sense; for some, it might be the last time in a while you see the people who have been your friends through thick and thin for three or four years. Regrettably, for others it might even be the last time you see them at all. That’s a humbling thought. If I have any advice to give, it’s to say your farewells before the big day. Of course there is time for the odd one here or there on the day, but with everybody mingling with friends and family alike, it can be nigh-on impossible to track everybody down in time – especially if you end up on a time limit yourself.

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I’ve had a lot of time to think over the past few weeks, and a lot of things to think about. One of the most enlightening conclusions I’ve come to (and late in the realisation, too) is that, for all of my best efforts, I am not first and foremost a linguist. And if it took missing a First Class degree by less than one percent to realise that, it was a lesson well learned. Language tests, and perhaps grammar in general, have never been my forte, not that that’s ever stopped me from trying. Writing is, was and always will be my trump card. If I hadn’t been so pig-headed about not reading fiction back in Year 13, I might well have let my doubts get the better of me and gone for a degree in English Literature instead.

The fact remains that I didn’t. For all the disparity between my English marks and my marks in French and Spanish, I went for a degree in modern foreign languages. Why? Precisely because of that; because languages were not my strongest point. Talking to people was something I really struggled with. I had no opinions of my own, I felt hopelessly outclassed whenever I had to take part in any kind of intellectual discussion and I tended to avoid any unnecessary socialising.

And in my own particularly sadistic way, I threw myself headlong into the one degree that would give me no choice but to talk to people, to face my fears head-on. And when you’re getting yourself into an extra £9000 of debt per year, it makes no sense whatsoever to go on studying what you’re best at.

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My time as an undergraduate at Durham has been, without a shadow of a doubt, the best four years of my life so far. I might have been to some extraordinary places had I gone for my second choice, St. Andrews, but I most likely would not have found myself in a metro station in Münich with a portrait of Admiral Lord Nelson. I might well have had access to researchers in my primary field of interest, al-Andalus and the Maghreb, but I probably wouldn’t have written such a cracking essay on Spanish banditry. And I might have got involved in a musical, or a choir, or maybe even the funk band I longed for since my schooldays, but I almost certainly would not have found myself wrapped up heart and soul in the collegiate a cappella scene.

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Thanks to one last fling with the Northern Lights at the 70th Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer, graduation was not as final an affair as it otherwise might have been. Knowing that I’d be back in Durham in just over a month took much of the sting out of the farewells, and I left the city dry-eyed and carefree – which is not how I imagined it, but just the way I wanted it. I find that written words often carry meaning a good deal further than the spoken word ever can, and so I made my fondest goodbyes in card form, in case I didn’t get the chance to say so in person. That, too, made the process a lot easier to deal with. In a way, I’d said everything that needed to be said. I could do no more.

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I didn’t have a great deal of say in the matter of coming to Durham. My own mother dropped the name of the place so often as I grew up that by the time UCAS came around, it seemed sacrilegious to even consider anywhere else. And that’s exactly how it panned out, after an initial rejection and a gap year to try again. Bother the prospectuses, there was simply something magical about Durham. I had to go there.

It’s been one long week of thank you’s. To all the friends that supported me, both at home, at university and abroad. To the staff who inspired my interests and discouraged my careless wanderings. To my college principal, who sowed the seed of interest in a PhD in me; to my first Arabic lecturer, who through discipline fashioned a mature love for the language out of nervous enthusiasm; to those who have lived with me these last four years, for putting up with the day-to-day trivial madnesses and misinformed ramblings of yours truly. And of course, to music, for adding so much more to my degree than just books.

The wide world awaits with, at least for now, a smiling, familiar face (and a very strong Villafranqués accent). The far future – the beyond – remains as elusive as ever, but perhaps it doesn’t do to look that far ahead. Three months remain, and then I leave this country for Spain, only this time it will be for a much longer stint than anything I’ve ever attempted before. I can hardly wait.

And you bet I’ll be back to blogging for the whole affair. Just you wait. BB x

The Happiness Machine

There’s a new kid on the block in my host family. My replacement, ready and waiting not twelve hours before I’m out of this joint. The expression ‘not even cold in the grave’ springs to mind… But he’s Spanish (an Andalusian, to be precise) and his name is José María and he’s more than happy to let me witter away in Spanish for my final hours in this country and therefore I couldn’t be happier.

My host family were quick to notice the change. Very quick. ‘Ése Ben que salió por la puerta esta mañana, ¿dónde esta?‘. He’s gone. The quiet, hesitant, reluctant Englishman who used to come home at irregular hours of the afternoon, sit in what he thought to be companionable silence and then retreat to his room is now mouthing off like a human Gatling gun, in Arabic as well as Spanish. He’s gone, and in his place is this loud, jokey and irrepressibly good-humored Spaniard. Talk about schizophrenia. I have a very bad case of Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to my two linguistic personalities. Never mind getting that dual nationality, I’m still struggling with dual identity.

The host family were quite taken aback. I don’t think they were expecting such a drastic change in personality. The father even went so far as to show me the difference between the two Bens by means of a few crude imitations. Was I really that quiet? Did I really sit at the table with my hands by my side and say as little as possible? No me lo creo ni yo. After just an hour or two speaking Spanish to this Andalusian my whole personality has changed just like that.

I’d quite forgotten just how good it felt, just to be speaking that language again. Why? What’s the reason? How can a language make me so happy? Is there a linguistic reason? Is that why Spaniards are such jolly people, by and large? Or maybe has it got something to do with the drastic increase in body language, which makes me feel like a teacher again? Or is it because it’s the language of my grandfather, speaking through me? I’d like to think that. But in truth I can’t explain it. It’s just magic. My perpetual happiness machine. In goes Spanish, out comes happiness. It’s as simple as that. I just needed reminding.

And a good thing, too. This time tomorrow I’ll be back in Guirilandia and probably pulling into the drive round about now. No more Arabic study. No more al-Kitaab. Just one whole year with the Happiness Machine. I cannot wait.

The host father came in to bid us goodnight. I apologized for not being this way over the last two months. I’m grinning like a gargoyle and laughing and switching freely between Spanish and Arabic and it’s all because I had an hour ‘in the machine’, so to speak. It’s such an amazing feeling. It’s like the whole world is bright and sunny and full of colour. I need to be living in a country where they speak this godly language. I need to be living in Spain.

In perfect honesty, this is not at all how I expected to be ending my time in Morocco. I was expecting one last chastisement over something trivial, or a panicked search for something lost, a friendlier-than-usual dinner, or something along those lines. Instead I ended it in Spanish mode. Curious, perhaps, but it bodes very well for the future, and it’s reminded me – yet again – what I need to do to be happy in this life.

I just need to talk. Y ya que sabemos cómo se utiliza esa máquina de felicidad, no hay ninguna duda sobre mis planes para el futuro. España, vengo por ti. BB x

Lee, Martha and Aidan

Every once in a while one of those days comes around when everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong. Yesterday was one of those days. It’s tempting fate to tell everybody you meet that it’s okay, you can stay out late tonight, because thank God it’s not tomorrow you have those extra three hours in the afternoon… and Fate is a devious little minx.

I think I got back from Martil at around two forty-five on Monday morning. It must have been close to that, as I recall the clock on my bedside table read three o’clock when I was setting the alarm for seven. I’d spent every last dirham of my small change – even those super-helpful half-dirhams – in a taxi spree over the weekend, so four hours’ sleep or none at all, I was simply going to have to walk this morning. The result was that I almost missed breakfast, zombied my way to school and pretty much sat through the morning class just blinking to stay awake. To make matters worse, I started ghosting during our preliminary discussion, cursing in my head every time my teacher came to the end of an explanation, questioned it (limaadha?), answered it, and went on to add yet another point (wa aidun). It can’t have been any longer a discussion than usual, but it seemed to drag on for hours.

Twelve o’clock was never more welcome than when it came, but five minutes before the hour one of my teachers popped his head round the door and informed me that my afternoon class – you guessed it – had been moved to Monday instead.

I didn’t have my Moriscos book. I didn’t have the necessary reading done. I didn’t have any coins for a taxi. I hadn’t had nearly enough sleep for a six-hour day. And now I didn’t even have enough time for lunch in between.

Kat came to my rescue and threw a few dirhams at me for the ride home. I made a beeline for the taxi ranks, rode home in the usual cramped conditions and collapsed straight into bed when I got back.

One hour later I was up again and motoring through the Spanish text in the Moriscos book on the Hornacheros, since I simply did not have the energy, even after an extra hour in bed, to power through twelve pages of Arabic. I barely had half an hour for that, as the host family (thankfully) insisted I have a quick lunch, which they’d sped up on my behalf.

And you know what? The punchline is as predictable and as priceless as the set-up: it turns out my teacher had got a little confused and my class need not have been moved at all, as it was meant for Tuesday anyway.

He was very apologetic on the whole swallowing-up-my-entire-afternoon front, but I didn’t really mind by that point. I think I’d simply given up caring. A Texan friend of mine once told me ‘you can sleep when you’re dead’ when I was in a similar frame of mind (refresh your memory here), and this time I bought it. Besides, it was a very enjoyable topic of discussion. At any rate, I didn’t exactly have long to dwell on it: Alex shifted his departure some seven hours earlier, and so I did the unthinkable and asked to leave class early, because come Hell, high water and all the paradoxes of Jahanna I was not going to let my dear friend leave without me.

I confess that I didn’t expect to spend my last hour with Alex helping him to dry-clean his clothes with a hairdryer. If the hotel staff had actually hung them out to dry like he’d asked instead of putting them through a second wash, I’m not sure what we would have done. But that made things a little easier, I guess. We walked down the alley from Reducto and every other Tetouani going about his business gave him something akin to a farewell salute, entreating him to return one day. It was quite something to see.

Five minutes later we’d exchanged farewells, shaken hands and gone our separate ways. It was both the easiest and the hardest goodbye I’ve ever had to make. Goodbyes are like little heartbreaks, I suppose; the more you go through, the easier they get. All the same, it wasn’t easy seeing that little yellow taxi turn out of Plaza Primo. I’ve been lucky enough over the last six weeks to have such a good friend so close at hand, especially after all of nine months in Spain on my own. I was looking for a good friend. I found one.

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This post is dedicated to you, bud. To a top hiking buddy, to shouldering all of those god-awful Clarkson impressions, to keeping me afloat with my Arabic, to stopping me from unleashing my personality test on everybody I met, to hearing me out when I had only war to predict and to being an all-round friend. It may be some time before our paths cross again, but they will. I promise. Until the next time, bud. BB x

Go with Peace

Jimminy. One more week and it’s all over. This year abroad, at times both the fastest and slowest year of my life, is drawing to a close. The old tablecloth analogy is back in force: somebody gave the table a tilt back in April (or was it September?) and now everything’s sliding towards the edge at an increasing rate (which is a real shame, because Tetouan was beginning to feel like home). As has been the case throughout the rest of the year, I’ve a fair few goodbyes to make, though as any frequent traveler will know, these get easier every time. So I’ve one last farewell to make before the end.

Or not. Because it’s not just goodbye to the team at Dar Loughat. It’s a bigger step by far.

It’s goodbye to Arabic studies.

Hey, now, don’t give me that look. If you’ve been reading carefully throughout the year, you’ll have seen this coming a long way off. You might even have cottoned on sooner, since I didn’t really make up my mind until the last days of June.

The blog, however, speaks for itself. It tells a tale of depression and despair in Amman and the golden friends I found there; and perhaps, the beginning of the end. It tells the story of how I fell in love with my grandfather’s country all over again; how Spanish became more than just a language, but the key to happiness itself; how I found in Extremadura the paradise I’ve been searching for for so long. Of the One-that-could-have-been and the opening of my eyes to the rest of Iberia. And in amongst all the musing posts in between, it reveals a slow but steady swing towards the heart of the matter, a realignment with the most important thing of all: finding where I belong. In retrospect, it’s obvious. It was always going to happen. It was simply a question of when. And in one of life’s great paradoxes, that realization came when I was more confident with my Arabic than I’ve ever been in my life.

Happiness was the key. I had to be truly happy to see the truth.


I reckon I still have a fair amount of explaining to do. I built up a bit of a reputation for myself in first and second year as the keenest Arabic nut alive (though I outright refuse the term BNOC). Granted, all of that time spent juggling societies, subjects and a social life in second year wore me down a bit, but at heart I was still a bloody keen bean. Always on time, always ahead of the game… Almost always optimistic. (Seriously, I was insufferable in first year, just ask any of my classmates). As a result, this is probably still a shock move for those of you who know me. Well, I’ll do my best to explain my decision.

  1. Spain happened. Specifically, the British Council assistant placement. We were warned; I didn’t listen; I fell in love. Because if you seriously want to push ahead with two languages, it’s absolutely essential to balance them, especially when it comes to…
  2. …the Year Abroad. Ya3ni, at least half of the class will have spent a minimum of six months in an Arabic-speaking country by October. That’s two more than me, and considering the speed at which I advanced in Tetouan, I’d be tempted even to discount any and all ‘progress’ I might have made in…
  3. …Amman. And in all honesty, I don’t really want to use Amman as an excuse, but it is. My time in Jordan was certainly eye-opening, full of highs, lows and plenty of laughs, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more drained in my life. This is honestly the least of reasons, but because of the effect it had on my attitude towards Arabic, it’s a reason nonetheless.
  4. Career paths. My companions have such noble ambitions with Arabic. Not me. I’ve mapped out the next five or six years of my life and they don’t stray very far from a homely little village somewhere in Spain. In light of this, improving my Arabic further seemed a little pointless.
  5. Priorities. A lot of people learn languages to travel, to communicate, for work, for business etc. the list goes on. But I don’t want to learn Spanish. I want to master it. As in, not just to speak it like a native, but to be able to write it as though it were my mother tongue. That’s going to take commitment, drive and serious levels of focus, the kind you can’t share with an Arabic degree.
  6. Simple credit-crunching. With 80 credits from Arabic last year, the language is already going on my degree title, so I’d be gaining nothing by moving on. If anything, I’d be risking…
  7. …a shot at a potential First. Arabic 2B, brilliant though it was, cost me dear last year and brought me crashing down to an overall 67. A First-class degree at Durham is something even my own mother never managed, so to achieve that… It’d be nothing short of legendary.
  8. The book. I started learning Arabic, amongst other reasons, because I needed it for my book. How could I ever hope to write convincingly about the Arabs if I couldn’t understand their language? Well, I’ve got to the stage where I can speak, read and write Arabic with respectable fluency. I’ve even learned calligraphy along the way. My work here is done. Which reminds me…
  9. …I never actually intended to take Arabic beyond the first year of university. Looking at my plans from school and the gap year that followed, I apparently meant to go on with French. It looks like Arabic simply took French’s place in my heart. And that’s completely, wholly and unashamedly down to…
  10. …the group vibe. Durham’s Arabic class of ’17 is no more and no less than the most wonderful, capable and hilarious bunch of people I’ve ever known, and they have been the lifeblood of my degree thus far. But in perfect, mercenary honesty, that’s not the best reason to jeopardize a First. I applied to Durham partly because of the fantastic college system, but to be honest, I never really fitted in at Aidan’s. I made a few unforgettable friends there, but it was in my degree that I met the people most important to me. And isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?

It wasn’t an easy decision to make. In fact, it took all of three weeks to fully sort out, in the end. But I worked my way this far and I succeeded. I can speak Arabic with almost the same confidence as Spanish, even though my vocabulary is only half the size. I can discuss Barbary corsairs, Tuareg mythology and Andalusian heritage with my teachers at speed. Gone are the days of Assad drinks milk, fathers that work in the United Nations and being fa3lan wahiid all the time. I’m walking out with my head held high.

I’m really going to miss sharing class with these wonderful folks!


Next year isn’t going to be drastically easier. Far from it. What with a short-fat module, the dissertation and the inevitable music commitments, the first term alone is going to be a serious uphill climb. But Spanish is my weapon, my Tizona, and I am determined to make this work. I know, at last, where I belong. BB x

When ‘No’ is a Cultural/Moral Faux-Pas 

Of all the misadventures on this earth, I didn’t expect to wind up in the cardio ward of a general hospital during my stint in Morocco.

No, don’t worry. It’s not me. It’s the mother of my host family; there was an accident involving a police car and now she’s hospitalized. I’m just sitting here to show face, typing this up on the old iPad (and, if I might be so selfish, feeling very hungry). The entire family were here a couple of hours ago, but they’ve all filtered out and left one by one. It’s just the old guard, now. The old guard and me.

And of course, it’s Dārija on all sides. My posts from Jordan from last year imply that within two weeks I’d tuned unto 3mia. Not so with Dārija. It’s just too different a sound. Some of the words are the same but the accent is just too strong. I guess it’d be like studying the Queen’s English and then being exposed to Cajun. 

The trouble is, I was asked if I wanted to come along. I certainly could have stayed at home and got some more of that essay done, but what was I supposed to say? No, thank you, I’ve actually got a lot of work to do? How soulless is that?

But then, this is exactly how I’ve ended up in these scrapes before. I went to a funeral in Uganda once, for a family member of a former member of staff. We’d never met her, but one of my companions got it into her head that it would be kind of us to go along. That meant a five-hour drive out into deep country, far away from the English-speaking hub of Lira, to attend a lengthy service in a language none of us understood a word of for a woman none of us had ever met. That I spent the entire journey there and back wedged between the two fattest women in Africa didn’t help matters.

The trouble is, I guess, that I’m just very bad at saying no. I think a lot of Englishmen are. Maybe that’s why we have the word awkward and so many other languages don’t: we need it. What does that say about us as a nation? I’m just throwing ideas about here. Anything to take my mind off this Dārija.

Everyone’s off now, except the father, of course. One of the family took the car with them, which means I’m stuck here, I guess. Stuck in the general hospital with no power in my phone and a missing pen. For how long, I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The good news is that the mother seems to be recovering. Also, food has arrived in the form of biscuits and a Danone yoghurt drink. I’m even feeling a little guilty for venting like that back there, I guess that’s what hunger does to you. Thank goodness Ramadan’s over. In a while, crocodile. Let’s hope it’s not all night. BB x

Time Lords and Holy Water

Two seasons of Doctor Who in as many weeks. That’s getting dangerously close to an addiction. Fortunately, it was as much a memory run as it was a time-filler; the buck stops with the last of the Tennant episodes. For some reason I never got into the Matt Smith series. Maybe I grew up.

Yeah. Like that’s ever going to happen.

If my last post made it sound like Eid was one long endurance test in the kitchen, this one ought to shed some light on the matter. If the truth be told, I spent both Eid itself and the following day very much out and about, purposefully burning off any and all calories gained over the weekend. With all those sugary Ramadan sweets, I had plenty of energy to burn.

True to form, I messed up. The calories got burned, well and truly, but so did my back, my neck and my legs. Talk about splash damage. But when splash damage comes in the form of an entire day on the shores of the Mediterranean, who’s really complaining?

I confess, beach days are not really my idea of a day well spent, but for once it was nice just to kick back and relax by the sea, happy in the knowledge that last week’s conundrum was, finally, resolved.

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Spot the Italians (hint: it’s got something to do with the Sun)

The Dar Loughat team has exploded from six to eighteen over the last week. The result is that the gatherings have got louder, cheaper and perhaps a little less personal. And perhaps for that reason I’ve been pulling away a bit this week, loner that I am. Curiously enough, that led me to spend the day after Eid with the Host. I didn’t have much of an idea as to what, where or why. The father simply knocked on my door in the morning and asked if I was coming with them. He didn’t say where. But aren’t they the very best of plans: the one that you have no idea about?

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Hello Africa!

The destination, as it turned out, was Moulay Abdessalam, a holy site and place of pilgrimage for the Sufis of Morocco, sat high atop a mountain in the Bouhachem range. If I hadn’t twigged that I was in Africa yet, I certainly did when I saw the shrine. At the top of a flight of rock-cut steps, the shrine – a small white building with a green door cut into the side – seemed to grow out of the rock, sheltering a huge cork-oak sprouting from its centre. The floor, too holy for human feet, was nailed down with smooth cork-oak bark, and men walked to and fro across it barefoot, chanting and praying and bowing before the tree. It was mystical enough a spectacle, but add to that the swirling mists, sometimes thick enough to obscure everything ten metres away and more from sight, and it was almost otherworldly.

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Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

I suppose cameras aren’t particularly acceptable in such situations – I’m still stinging from that run-in with a couple of camera-fearing Chaouenis back in May – so I contented myself with a distant shot and resorted to sketching it instead, though how that is a less offensive practise than photography continues to escape me.

Continue up the mountainside a little way and you come to a telegraph mast, from which one of the locals willingly leads you to a metre-long fissure in the rock. According to local tradition, the rock is a test: those who can pass through the fissure will be blessed, and those who cannot will be cursed. Something like that, anyway. The words bendito and maldito were clear enough. As for the test itself, it revolves more around technique than skill: the nature of the fissure is such that there is a way to get through, though it requires keen observation and no small amount of manoeuvring.

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Claustrophobes beware

Yours truly made the cut in less than a minute. I put that down to a staunch refusal to grow fat on Moroccan cuisine than any skilful footwork on my part, though I have to say it seems a rather sexist challenge: I just about managed to squeeze through with the rocks grazing my back and chest. Any amount of gym, good eating or femininity and you’d have no hope in hell. I’m blessed, then – but at what cost, I wonder?

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Scarce Swallowtail – GOTCHA

We stopped on the way back to fill up on fresh water from for a sacred spring. To dispel any myths there, we were filling up industrial-sized plastic water bottles by the bootload, although I did suffer to drink straight from the well by means of a smoothed-out bark ‘cup’, as Moses and his followers might have done in the stories of old. Pretentious, much, but I was loving every second of it.

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How to drink, oldie-worldie style

We took a late lunch in the misty forests. I was in one of my strange, quiet moods and contented myself with watching the mists swirling through the trees. It was a pretty magical sight. This time last year I was dodging traffic, crawling into a hole with Henry Rider Haggard and steadily losing my mind in the dusty streets of 40ºC Amman. To think that at the same time of year I could be standing in a cold, misty forest with the wind in my hair and the sound of birdsong… It’s everything I wanted and more. Morocco, you’ve done me such wonders. Thank you.

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Africa, forest, mists, but no gorillas (there might be some macaques about, though)

Everybody’s heading out today; half for the mountains, half for the beach. As for me, I’ll be staying right here. Our Fes plans fell through due to illness, which isn’t so bad a thing, as I have a lot of work to do today. Essays – the bane of our lives. The sooner I’ve got some more of this work done, the sooner I can get back to enjoying my time out here. A target language research project is all well and good for assessing one’s advancement in a language, but it doesn’t half cast a shadow over your enjoyment of the year abroad. Just a thought, and not even mine, but one I adhere to. Katie certainly had the right idea there.

Well, three weeks remain. This time in three weeks I’ll be on a plane bound for Madrid, and then for home. But whilst it’s the end of the story for me, the story is just beginning for so many others (ugh, how crass a line is that). So, whilst you’re here, don’t forget to see how things are going on with fellow bloggers Alice Abroad and the dream-team at Langlesby Travels. Doesn’t everybody need a breath of fresh air from time to time? Blogging can seem a pretty solitary activity, but in actual fact it brings you so much closer to people by opening a window on a world you might never have seen before. It also keeps your writing muscles very well flexed. As an exercise, I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Which is odd, really, because I don’t go in for recommending exercise as a rule.

Until the next time, I’ll try to keep you posted as often as I can. The end is so near I can taste it, but I’m not about to lose sight of the goal with the final line in sight. Let’s smash these last three weeks, ya3ni. Positive attitude, that’s what it’s all about. That’s what it’s always about. BB x

A Question of Appetite

The fifth week in Tetouan is drawing to a close. Eid has come and gone and Ramadan is over. The streets are full of smiles again and I have my own key. Dobby is free. I really should have done some more posting over the last week, as I’ve been pretty busy – but there’s your reason. It’s been a rather non-stop five or six days, both in and out of class. When I haven’t been in class or tempering my Arabic skills with the Host, I’ve been wining and dining with the massively-engorged Dar Loughat student body, burning several shades of red at Cabo Negro and frittering away four gigabytes of mobile date on Doctor Who, not to mention putting a great deal of thought aside for my Target Language Research Project on Spanish banditry legends and, in the not-quite-so-long term, my dissertation – to be confirmed in a couple of weeks, if the rumours are true. The end of the Year Abroad might be drawing near, but the pressure’s not about to be released. Not yet, anyway.

The biggest headache of the last week – and probably the biggest reason for the lack of posting – will become clear in a few months’ time. All I’ll say is that it was a very difficult choice to make, and that Cortés, Tariq Ibn Ziyad and Alexander the Great would all understand.

Breakfast this morning was standard fare. Mint tea with not too much sugar, honeyed r’ghiif (Moroccan pancake) and another ticking off from the Host, who can’t get their heads around why I never ask for things.

Ben, you never change. You are always quiet. If you want something, you must ask. You never ask. When Alex was here… etc etc.

I’d love to use the excuse that I’m English and that I’d rather die of shame than ask for something, but the previous student who stayed here was also English, and by the sounds of things even more reclusive than I am, so that’s not going to work (I was also a little irked that they’d gone back to comparing me to him, which they used to do all the time a while back. I really tired of it). My reasoning was that I simply eat and drink what I need; anything else is just extra.

If you want something from the kitchen, take it.
I did, though.
What did you take?
Water. Delicious, cold water.
You have a choice. Anything you want, if you are hungry. What would you do at home?
The same. Cold water.
Just water?
Seriously, though. I love water.

There’s a cultural divide there, especially when it comes to food. Not a divide, a fissure.

This year has taught me that, for all the wonderful creations of my housemates last year, food will always be for me a means to an end and not an art. I need what little I can to get by and no more. Morocco, like Uganda before it, seems to have no understanding for the concept of a small appetite. Can you blame them, when the Arabic language itself has no distinction between vegan and vegetarian? Fortunately I am neither, which makes traveling and flitting between cultures infinitely easier, but it doesn’t negate the fact that I’m in a world where the concept of an appetite is a thing of myth. I’ve lost count of the number of times where I’ve eaten so much that my ribcage felt like it might just burst. Lailat al-Qadr – last Saturday night, and one of the holiest nights of the Islamic calendar – has become a byword in the family for disaster, as I had to wade through two iftars and three dinners, consisting of all of the usual delights, but on a much larger scale.

But Ramadan is over. No more rushing home at irregular hours for that 7:41pm iftar every night. No more six o’clock fights in the streets. No more guilty fast-breaking in Reducto. The wait is over and the smiles have returned. Oh, and no more excuses for my TLRP. It’s do-or-die time. BB x

Halfway There

I’ve crossed the halfway mark. As of five minutes ago, I’ve been in Tetouan for four weeks. Four weeks exactly remain. It’s strange to think that the year abroad, essays outstanding, will be over soon. It feels like I’ve been away from home for so long. Jordan dragged, but Spain was over and done with in the blink of an eye and now I’ve only four weeks left at this Arabic game, inshallah, before I can return home at last and, for the first time in over a year, not have to think about where my next placement will take me.

At least, not for a month or so.

Victoria left for home this afternoon, which leaves me as the last of the old guard, if four weeks makes a veteran. I think I’m going to miss her, and I don’t say that about just anybody. She’s bound for brighter and better things and I can only wish her all the best wherever she goes. She’s been such an inspiration whilst she’s been her. It’s not every day you meet somebody who speaks nearly fifteen languages to varying degrees.

Goodbye Victoria!


Inspiration is so very important to me. I had an English teacher once who once complained about a parent asking her to motivate her child; her response was that she was ‘paid to teach, not to inspire’. I’m pretty sure I’ve used that example before, but the argument still stands: she was so very wrong. Inspiration is fundamental in teaching. When the pupil is ready etc. You know the phrase. I won’t repeat it. Inspiration is essential, especially for a subject as challenging as Arabic, and I’ve been so inspired by the people here at Dar Loughat. By Dris, the man who seems to know everything; by Jamal, the diplomat; Alex, the adventurer; Victoria, the original polymath; Katie, the courageous. For somebody who was dragged out of Spain by his heels, it was absolutely essential that Morocco delivered the goods and got the job done, and so it did – and how!

Relations with the host family have got significantly easier, too. That’s probably because I’ve been going out less of late, but maybe my rising confidence in Arabic has dealt a fair hand in that. The library in my room is a gold mine of information, the food every day and night is amazing (and much too plentiful) and the conversation is fantastic. That the father has a firm naturalistic understanding from his palaentological hobbies is just an added bonus, really.

Oh, I’ve been spending my time wisely, I have…


We had a few teething problems, I admit, but I discovered recently what I had guessed to be true: my predecessor was a bit of a social recluse, prioritizing a rapid mastery of Arabic over any and all gatherings. He rarely left the house, spent every spare hour out of class with the family and was constantly asking questions. The family just kind of assumed I’d do likewise, I guess. Is it any wonder, then, that they were a little confused by my silence, preference for books and long, long walks at the weekend? I reckon they’ve got the hang of me by now – insofar as anybody ever can – and my deep attachment to my own freedom. Maybe I’m more British than I thought.

I think I’ll go for my own apartment in Villafranca next year. BB x

Release the River

I’ve been known to set out on the odd ridiculous adventure from time to time. Traversing Spain from north to south was one. Dana was definitely another. If the truth be told, I’m frankly surprised it’s taken me until my third week to get up to any hijinks out here in Morocco. I guess my sense of duty to a host family that would rather I spent more time with them than adventuring got in the way.

Nonetheless, the heart wants what it wants. And today what it really wanted was a decent ramble. And that’s exactly what it got.

The plan – if there ever was one – was to take a taxi as far as Martil and follow the coast to the hills to the south. Maybe we’d make for the mountains, or maybe for the coastal road. A man with a plan would have known. Fortunately, I had in my companions, for the first time in a long time, two such people for whom the total absence of a detailed itinerary was not a problem at all, if not a cause for celebration.

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Tetouan isn’t exactly a village, but it does have some gorgeous views

 

We were in Martil for half seven in the morning. My host family had tried to dissuade me from such an early start the night before, claiming that there would be nobody up and about at such an hour on a Sunday morning. As it happens, there were plenty of taxis bound for Martil, and we had a full cab; truly, as there were eight of us crammed into that 1970s Mercedes at one point.

Martil proved to be a false start, not because of the enticements of the Mediterranean, but because of the river. After passing a minor tributary, a mere feint of the Oued Martil, we found our way blocked by the real deal. It was much too deep to ford ‘Vietnam style’, even for brazen adventurers like the three of us, and despite making eyes at a lonely fisherman and his boat on the spit of sand that was just not quite long enough to be a bridge, we eventually had to accept the fact that we had nowhere to go but backwards.

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Checking a decent map beforehand wouldn’t have been such a bad idea…

 

Down, but definitely not out. We tracked down a grand taxi that could take us to Azla, a short distance down the coast. That the taxi had to return to Tetouan to get to Azla – the only bridge for miles being a stone’s throw from my street, of all places – was a little facepalm-inducing. But our cheery taxi driver set us down in Azla without a catch, proving that they’re not all of the bad sort Arch and I encountered in Oulad Berhil, and, choosing the dry riverbed for our guide, we set off inland.

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Dry rivers are and always will be the very easiest of roads

 

The first half hour was nothing short of a Boy Scout adventure. The dry riverbed made for easy going until the bamboo walls that lined its fringes crept in and over and we ended up trekking through a bamboo jungle. Alex made the smart move to turn this to our advantage, taking a long and sturdy cane for a makeshift hiking pole. If we hadn’t followed suit, I suppose the going would have been significantly more difficult further on. Thank goodness for boyish tendencies.

The river took us deep into the Riffian countryside, well away from the beaten track. The river valley itself was an explosion of colour for late June: the glittering stream came to life after a couple of kilometres or so, where great bushes of flowering pink lined the water’s edge and dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies of all descriptions flitted about the water, including some of the most beautiful pennant-winged specimens of the latter that I’ve ever seen. The locals – we met with just a few on the road – were cheery enough, though more than a little bemused, I suspect, at the sight of three wayward adventurers heading deep into the hills with bamboo-cane poles. The scenery was suitably African, at least, and it was really rather hard not to whip out the camera at every turn.

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‘Man is in proper Africa, fam.’

 

We stopped here and there where shade allowed. Man can’t tan like a boss all day, not even with a regular lathering of sun lotion. The valleys of the Rif, it should be said, are a great deal kinder on the shade front than Wadi Dana. After following the river and the road for a couple of hours we reached a turning point and – bravely or foolishly, who knows – cut across country to keep our westward bearing. Keeping west meant a very steep climb in the burning sun, but where in Dana we were long since out of water reserves by the time we began the ascent, I still had a two-liter bottle and a half to myself this time, and the going was a good deal easier for it.

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Alex and Victoria – and, in the distance (that little white strip to the right), the road

 

The mountains, our waymarker, turned out to be a great deal closer than we’d thought once we got to the top. In another couple of hours we could have made it to the slopes. But we were already halfway through our supplies by this point and Tetouan, visible in the distance, seemed a much more sensible destination. We did nab a killer panorama from an abandoned watchtower of some description sat atop the hill we’d fought so hard to summit, which made the climb all the more worth it.

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See that massive expanse of white in the haze? That’s Tetouan

 

From there, it was a mere two hours downhill to Tetouan and a well-deserved shower. The family still couldn’t really take it on board that I’d walked home from Azla – I like to walk, OK? – but I guess they’re getting used to it by and by. It’s been almost three weeks since my first day at Dar Loughat and I haven’t used a taxi since day one. Like I said, man likes to walk. Man will always like to walk. Man was born to walk. And if man gets the chance, man will walk his way to Cape Town one day. BB x

Fast Breaking

It’s funny, the difference a day can make. Twenty four hours ago I’d have been tempted to title this post ‘Man vs Food II’ and it would have come across as a rather negative, Ben-gets-defeated-by-dinner-again sort of post. Right now I’m a little groggy, having just woken up from a much-needed afternoon nap, but the high that’s kicked this post into action has taken Monday’s negative finish and given it a firm kick out the door.

Coming back from Rabat and a more relaxed attitude to fasting has thrown the first two weeks’ routine off the rails, I confess. Apparently one of the various excuses for not abiding by the fasting laws – besides illness, pregnancy and being on one’s period – is travel. As a non-Muslim I’m under absolutely no obligation to fast, and it was only because it seemed the logical thing to do that I started fasting in the first place, but it has since occurred to me that there’s no shame in backing down over a light lunch here and there. 

There’s a lot of misconceptions about Ramadan. It’s a bit like the phrase Allahu Akbar: people tend to take it on face value. Here’s a really eye-opening insight I picked up today from a friend of mine. The Akbar part can be comparative or superlative, and if you let the media and its endless portrayals of gun-touting rebels carry you away, it’s easy to assume that it’s a gesture of defiance; ‘Allah is greater than any other (false) God’. In truth – or at least, in this interpretation of it (which I fully endorse) – it’s a simple reminder to the faithful that God is greater than whatever it is you’re doing right now. Harmless, right? Now that’s a pretty effective call to prayer. Better than a couple of church bells, at any rate.

Back to Ramadan. As far as I can tell, Ramadan isn’t about denying yourself food; it’s about getting closer to God. Fasting is just one way of focusing on such matters, reminding you daily of your obligation to the man upstairs. It’s that drive that gives believers the strength to persevere. I’m not a Muslim, so it’s little more than an act of respect or cultural appropriation on my part to act like the world around me. Fasting isn’t easy: I challenge anyone to try throwing their daily routine amiss with that two o’clock suhūr and still trying to get up for seven for that fifty minute walk to class. Faith is a greater fuel, however, and it’d be foolish of me to fight on without it. One day, I hope, I will find my way to God, but until then I would only be going through the motions, playing at mimicry. I’ve always been frustratingly stubborn, but on some matters the light, I find, is a little easier to see. Faith is one of those areas.

So without further ado, it’s out with the false scruples and in with the £2 tajines.

Now that the shackles are off, I’m going to tackle the meat of this post (there’s a knee-jerk reaction in pun format, if there ever was one). After a solid two hours’ research on the Barbary pirates, I ducked out of Dar Loughat this afternoon with comrade Alex to investigate our options for lunch. For the first time in two weeks I actually felt really rather hungry today, not to mention nursing an odd, woozy feeling in my head. In the latter I wasn’t alone; there were a fair few complaints about fatigue today across the board, even more than might be considered normal during Ramadan. The only difference is that the Levante has been blowing warm and strong all day, that westerly wind that’s supposed to dull the senses and even drive men mad. Believe what you will, I was tired and hungry. Alex offered to show me a local joint he’d uncovered and I was game.

Over lunch – a ridiculously cheap and delicious kofta stew – Alex shared a little of his knowledge of Egyptian Arabic with me. Something clicked upstairs, something that’s been dormant for a long time. Here was a guy who had had just as many years at the Arabic game as I, but one who, like my Parisian classmate, had beaten the language into submission over the course of time through a combination of drive and maintained interest. I found myself inspired to go home and study, and that takes some doing. Between the two of them, they’ve shown me that it’s not impossible to get to grips with the grammar. I’m no pessimist, but I do need reminding of my own capabilities from time to time.

It’s taken two and a half weeks to get to this stage. Two and a half weeks out of eight and only five remain. But I’m here at last. That’s what matters. And I haven’t even started the culture classes yet.

Watch out Arabic. I’m going to take you down. Just you wait and see. BB x