Second Prize Winner of the 2018-19 Writing Contest

Sophia Zaller, Class of 2019, writes about her experience living with a host family during the Winter 2019 Rabat: Middle Eastern Civilizations in Morocco program.


For months, I debated between two study abroad programs. My options were offered the same quarter, fulfilled the same core requirement, and offered similar opportunities for travel and exploration outside of the host city. The key difference: while students on one study abroad program stayed in university dorms, students on the other were welcomed into a local family’s home for the duration of the program.

The homestay component of the Middle Eastern Civilizations program in Rabat, Morocco is either a driving force for those who apply to the program, or the main reason that students chose to study somewhere else.

The vast majority of students who study abroad through UChicago live in dorms, budget hotels or shared apartments. I understand the allure of a closed door, a language bubble, and the freedom to stay out and sleep in late. But after spending the summer between my first and second years studying abroad in China through UChicago’s Wanxiang Program, I craved a more challenging experience. In China, I’d lived in a university dorm. While this living arrangement had allowed me to bond with my fellow American students, I was compelled to engage with my surroundings in a new way. Once I named cultural immersion as a goal, studying abroad in Morocco was an easy choice.

After receiving my acceptance into the program in March of my third year, I spent the rest of the school year and the following summer procrastinating by researching Morocco’s customs, history and train routes. While I was able to nail down the details of my itinerary, any information about my homestay remained elusive: we had been told that we wouldn’t receive our homestay assignments until we arrived in the country. I was apprehensive. Of all the homestay horror stories I’d heard, the worst came from close to home: while interning in India last summer, my sister had inadvertently lived with a family who’d misrepresented their dubious ties to radical political groups. Despite my nerves, I vowed to myself that I would take full advantage of the homestay aspect of Morocco.

Before I knew it, I was on a plane from my hometown of San Diego to Houston, then to Lisbon and finally to Casablanca. I was one of the only fourth years in the class, and my encounters with my peers on the program were limited to the pre-departure meetings hosted by UChicago’s study abroad coordinators. As a result of unexpected flight delays, I arrived last to the hotel where we would be spending our first few nights as we adjusted to the time zone and completed orientation. My roommate at the hotel, Juliana, and I became fast friends after we found common ground in chatting about a sociology article we’d both read in transit. We requested each other as homestay roommates the next day.

After a few days of orientation, which involved such icebreakers as “perform a skit about how you would act in the hammam (public bath)” and “find the most ambiguous object in Rabat” (my team won that challenge by submitting a rubber spout for a sink that we found in a corner store), we received a form containing the information of our homestay parents. Juliana and I hesitated for a second before tearing open the folded paper, which revealed that we had been assigned to an older couple by the names of Aisha and Muhammad — though we quickly learned that they preferred to be addressed as Hajj and Hajja as social markers of their religious pilgrimage to Mecca. Completing the Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and I came to understand that those who had returned from the journey were held to higher standards of behavior by their peers.

Our program coordinator, Doha, ran through some basic etiquette so we’d avoid offending our new families right off the bat. “Greet everyone in the room each time you enter, kiss once on the left cheek and twice on the right, and never eat with your left hand,” she instructed. Since many of the homestay families didn’t speak English, Doha stressed that our non-verbal communication would be especially important in expressing our gratitude as guests.

Suddenly, Doha began calling my classmates in pairs and directing them into the hallway, where their homestay parents apparently awaited. As the size of the group dwindled, the nervous energy in the room ratcheted up as each student wondered who would be waiting for them outside.

I breathed an audible sigh of relief when Doha finally rattled off my and Juliana’s names. We stood up and walked through the door, where Hajja was standing on the other side. She was older than my parents, with sparkling brown eyes and a striking cobalt hijab.

Juliana and I kissed her cheeks as was customary and did our best to introduce ourselves in the halting, broken Darija (the Moroccan dialect of Arabic) that we’d picked up from our “crash course” during orientation. She humored my attempt at pronouncing smyti Sophia (my name is Sophia) and mtcherfin (nice to meet you) before repeating the phrases back to me and wrapping us in a warm hug.

Hajja led us home, followed by me and Juliana dragging our overstuffed suitcases through twisting city streets and attempting conversation on the way. Venn diagrams of our language skills would’ve barely overlapped — neither Juliana nor I had any experience with Darija, and Hajja knew no English. Juliana could speak a bit of French, a commonly spoken language in Morocco as a result of the nation’s history as a French protectorate. We converged in Spanish, which I’d taken in high school. Our restricted vocabulary allowed for some basic communication. In Spanish, Hajja told me that she had lived in Rabat for most of her life, and had a son who had moved to London in search of a better job. I learned that she had picked up Spanish because her son had married a woman from Spain and given her two grandchildren, whom she cooed over in a way that was apparently a universal hallmark of grandparents.

We arrived at the door of a pink apartment building and Hajja ushered us inside, where she gave us a tour of her home — our new home. We used our limited Darija to express our appreciation, tossing out compliments like zwina (beautiful) and mzien bzef (very good). She directed us to sit down while she bustled around in the kitchen, humming to herself. She emerged with a tea tray, three delicate cups and a silver pot balancing on its mirrored surface. Steam rose from the teacup Hajja passed to me. “Atay ba nahnah,” Hajja said as she gestured at the cup. I knew that “atay” meant “tea,” but it took me far longer than it should have to realize that “ba nahnah” actually meant “with mint” instead of being a convenient cognate for “banana.”

And so we drank the tea and admired photos of Hajja’s son and grandchildren. Just as Juliana and I were standing up to help Hajja clear the dishes, Hajj walked into the apartment. I later came to understand that he was returning home from the mosque, where he diligently reported each evening to pray.

Hajj was 82, meaning that he would’ve been about my age when Morocco negotiated its independence from France in 1956. I was desperate to ask him about his memories of Morocco’s turbulent decolonization process. Unfortunately, I was unable to do so, as he spoke only Darija. Regardless of our inability to have substantive conversations, he was incredibly friendly to me and Juliana — he was always smiling, and often illustrated how smoothly he could read aloud from the Quran when he saw us struggling with our language homework. An old man, Hajj was never seen in clothes other than pajamas and his djellaba, a woolen Moroccan garment with a pointed hood intended for comfort and warmth.

One of our first acts of appreciation for our host parents was to present them with small presents from home. Over winter break in San Diego, I had gone to the mall to choose a gift and agonized at the checkout counter for over an hour before settling on a box of chocolates and some scented soaps.

Doha had suggested that we wait until the following day to give gifts to our new families, because it was considered more polite to get to know the hosts first. I was unsure about the logic of this but heeded her advice, wrapping up my gifts and placing them next to Juliana’s on the dinner table on the second day. Within minutes of sitting down, Hajj opened the box of chocolates and began chuckling with childlike glee as he popped the bubble wrap that had protected them during my long journey to Rabat. Soon, the popping of the plastic bubbles was punctuated by surprised laughter from me, Juliana and Hajja. In that moment, my anxieties dissolved with the realization that some jokes don’t require a shared language to understand.

Nightly dinners, which my own family had prioritized growing up, became the norm. Each night, Juliana and I would recount the events of the day to Hajj and Hajja in the best Darija we could manage. Hajja would delightedly encourage me every time I struggled to enunciate the simplest words: khobz (bread), afwan (please), spah (morning). Usually, she or Hajj would start to quiz us on our numbers in Darija, cheering us on when we correctly placed four after three.

Hajja prepared breakfast and dinner for us every day. Breakfast usually consisted of a boiled egg, cheese, fruit and bread or a malawi, a pancake-like pastry generously dusted with sugar. For dinner, Hajja would usually create some variation of a tagine, a traditional Moroccan stew made with meat, or couscous. The four of us used pieces of bread to scoop the food from a communal dish in the center of the table. Hajja was an incredible cook, and at our request, she gave me and Juliana a lesson in making malawis after class one day. Together, we kneaded and stretched the dough for nearly an hour, shaping them into perfect little spirals ready for the frying pan. She referred to us as her habibtis, an Arabic term of endearment that roughly translates to “my beloved.”

As is common in Morocco, the television in our apartment was nearly always on, blaring Bollywood soap operas or news programs in Arabic or French. When an image of President Trump filled the screen, she would look over at us and shake her head dramatically. When a voice on television slipped in a number between one and ten in Darija, she would look over at me and Juliana to see if we’d caught it, and we’d nod excitedly and hold up the corresponding amount of fingers. Occasionally, she flipped to the channel that played surahs of the Quran being sung over images of nature and closed her eyes.

On our first morning in the home, Juliana and I woke up later than we’d intended to, with a busy day of getting acquainted with Rabat ahead of us. We planned to buy data for our cell phones, exchange currency and figure out our walking route to school. Before heading out the door, we hastily pulled our blankets over our still-warm sheets and piled our pajamas on top.

When I returned home hours later, I noticed that Hajja had remade our beds while we’d been out. Such a gesture made me feel uncomfortable — were my housekeeping skills not up to par? After asking Doha about our perceived faux pas, I understood that this type of hospitality was simply expected of hosts in Morocco. No matter how diligently Juliana and I made our beds, no matter how tightly we tucked in the corners, Hajja would come into our room and remake them. She insisted on handwashing our laundry for us. She’d often switch up the furniture, adding a shoe rack here or rotating a bedside table there, or reorganize our clothes for us. After a few days, I learned to accept all of this as a gesture of goodwill.

Of course, other challenges accompanied living with strangers from whom you’re separated by six decades and a language barrier. Some mornings, Hajj lingered in the family’s only bathroom as Juliana and I nervously checked the time and wondered if we were going to be late for class. Once, I walked into the apartment and found Hajja kneeling on the ground in prayer, her arms extended toward Mecca. Luckily, Doha had prepared me for this exact scenario, so I knew to silently retreat to my room until she had finished.

In the middle of the program, I crossed an unexpected bridge in terms of language when Hajj and Hajja’s son, also named Muhammad, visited from London. Muhammad, a London cab driver, spoke in perfect English with the lilt of a British accent, but switched seamlessly to Darija when conversing with his parents. He graciously translated all of my burning historical questions for Hajj. Our conversation offered me a window into Morocco’s fight for independence, but also lent more color to Hajj and Hajja’s relationship: they had met on the beach in Rabat when she was just 18 and fallen in love immediately. They’d been married for over fifty years.

My friends and I planned adventures all over Morocco. We visited Fes, Tangier, Essaouira, Marrakech, and the Sahara Desert — but at the end of each weekend, as our train pulled up to the Rabat station, I felt a strong sense of homecoming.

I found study abroad transformative in so many ways. I pushed myself to take an active role in planning travel with my friends, gaining the confidence to travel alone to Egypt for eight days after the program ended. In class and in conversations with my peers, I was confronted with totally foreign ideas that helped inform me of my place in the world. During field trips, after-class surfing sessions and endless hours on trains and buses to unfamiliar cities, I built genuine friendships with my classmates, who inspired me daily with their inquisitiveness and love of learning.

I took all of these intangibles back to UChicago: my newfound confidence, my spark of intellectual curiosity and my friendships. I’ll treasure them as I pursue new paths after graduation. Though I left Hajj and Hajja behind in their cozy apartment in Rabat, I will be taking the lessons I learned from them, too. They instilled in me the meaning of hospitality. Around the world, people connect and communicate through humor, food and family. The details and customs may vary from region to region, but Hajj and Hajja defined my experience in Morocco by welcoming me into their home and exhibiting warmth and openness. I can only hope that I left as strong of an impression on my host parents as they did on me.