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My Moroccan Most Family

Isabel Smiling With Host Sister And Host Mom At Concert

By Isabel R., YES Abroad 2022-2023, Morocco

It ends like this— shoulder to shoulder shoving as I bounce on my feet to the beat. I would dance, but I have no room to go but up, and so I lift my hands and wiggle my shoulders with everyone else around me. There is a constant roar of humanity in my ear, of music and drums and singing, of laughter and life and joy. My sister grabs my arm and I turn to see her brilliant smile as she surges forward to greet him. I feel suddenly nervous, and the music’s too loud, the overwhelming beat is my heart as it thuds in my chest, in my lungs, in all the world around me. 

       I reach forward and smile, too. 

       “Hello,” I say in Darija. “I’m Isabel. Nice to meet you.”

It starts like this— with my bags over my shoulders as I follow the coordinator down, down, down, spiraling as I suddenly feel sick with nerves. I don’t want to be alone, I don’t want to leave the comfort of what I know. All the adventure had gone out of me, and I felt slapped in the face with the reality of living with complete strangers, alone, for ten months! My courage had vanished somewhere, fallen between the cracks of my reeling mind and my suddenly sick stomach. We stop in the hall on the ground floor, and she gestures around the corner. 

       “Do you want to go to her, or have her come to you?”

Her being my host mom, my new family, my support system and guidance through all of the crazy that was about to happen to me. I wanted her to like me, I wanted to leave, I wanted to meet her, and I wanted to run away screaming. Ten months, ten months, ten months—

       “I’ll go to her,” I say hesitantly. That’s a good first impression, right?

       “Okay,” says the coordinator. 

And we’re going, much too fast in my opinion, because the door is right there and it’s open, and I see a woman stand, smiling at me. I don’t know what to say, and all of my French and Darija flies straight out of my head, so I laugh nervously. The coordinator introduces us, then faster than I can blink we’re grabbing my suitcases and hurried out the door. We manage to shove my bags in the back of the car, and I’m too flustered to notice that I’ve forgotten one at Amideast (don’t worry, I remember later). She motions me into the passenger seat and I sit, reaching for the buckle and clipping in. She smiles at me, expectantly, and I feel a flood of nerves wash over me, prickly and uncomfortable. 

       “Le fenêtre?” She asks, again, and I blink. 

       “Oh,” I say, and I roll the window down. 

My room is adorable, the house is gorgeous, I’ve successfully met my host sister and grandmother, and so all that’s left is to… unpack. And then I have nothing for four hours until we go to bed. 

To delay unpacking, and the inevitable emergence from my room once that is complete, I message my parents instead. After pleasantries, they immediately shame me for that decision. 

       “Go out,” they say. “Talk to them! Don’t hide away.”

I agree, but I unpack before I go, feeling anxious the whole time and trying to make it last longer than it should. Too quickly, I run out of things to do, and I’m alone with myself, my thoughts, and a weird bubbling sense of homesickness. That won’t do, I think, remembering all the horror stories from orientation of students who hid away all year. So I gather myself up, put on my big-girl pants, and go to talk to the scary, nice people who have agreed to take me in. Willingly and generously. Of their own volition. 

       Why was I so scared? 

       Ten months, ten months—


I emerge from my room, where it was too quiet and my thoughts were too loud, and find myself suddenly enveloped in an outpouring of sheer friendliness. I understand! I cheer to myself as we chat on the couch (only about one word in ten, but enough to get some of the meaning). They’re so nice! I think as my host siblings chatter my ears off (my new little brothers came home in the midst of my hiding-in-my-room phase). And best of all; I don’t feel alone. 

At dinner (which is delicious), my host mother explains; “My husband works in the medina, and will not be home until after midnight.”

I nod, as I find myself doing increasingly with a language barrier, and we move on to other topics. I’m sure I’ll meet him soon (and I don’t mind having a break from meeting new people). And so the day passed away. 

The next day passed, and the day after, on into a week as I grew comfortable in my host family’s home. I slowly wore down my shiny “new guest” status into a cozier “member of the house” role, and I fitted myself into their routine and chores. A few days more pass before we have a meeting with our coordinator, we’re all asked how it’s going at home— and I realize that I still haven’t met my host father. I sleep early, he comes in late. I leave early, he sleeps in. Every day we pass like ships in the night, never crossing paths, but running on parallel lines. I wonder what he’s like, and I can see him in his reflection against my new siblings and mother— but I have never met him. Could I be a part of their lives without knowing such a big piece? Would I go the entire ten months without ever seeing him? I didn’t know, and so I put it on the shelf of things I couldn’t control, and moved along in my quiet existence. 

       “Do you want to go to a concert with me?” Asks my sister. 

Concert Venue With Many In Attendance

I know immediately which one she speaks of— my cohort had been talking about it earlier in the day, bemoaning curfew and plotting how to find chaperones. My heart swells, and then sinks. 

       “I’m so sorry,” I say. “But I can’t go out past curfew with anyone under twenty-six.” (Or six-and-twenty, as we would say in Darija.)

       “No!” She cries. “As a family!”

I smile immediately, clapping my hands together and nodding enthusiastically. “Yes, yes! I can!”

       (As a family! I think.)

       “Yes, good! My husband will meet us there,” adds my mother through our laughter. 

Just like that, the already exciting outing has an added layer of anticipation. It felt a little like meeting my host family— now more like an almost family— all over again. 

Squeezing in front of the mirror, we played with our hair and clothes, giggling and getting ready to go. We all piled into the car, sitting on top of each other and drove off into the crowded streets— everyone else in the city was going to the concert, too. As we walked from where we had parked a few blocks away, the roar of the crowds and the thrum of the music grew steadily louder. We reached the top of the hill, and were greeted by thousands. 

The thumping of the bass felt like a heartbeat in my chest as we pushed our way through the crowd, our hands in each other’s like a safety rope in the surging sea of humanity. Weaving through gradually thickening groups of people, we traded slightly manic grins, the enthusiasm that charged the air like lightning already surging through our veins. (Did you know smiling is multilingual?) A cheer went through the crowd as we shouldered  toward the front, and we all went on tip-toe to try and peer around heads. A new song began, and five hundred phones went up into the air, waving around like tiny beacons. I can’t help but laugh. 

       “Hnaya,” my mother says right into our ears, satisfied. The chairs that we’d carried from the car were unfolded, and the boys took seats while my sister and I manoeuvred around, arm-in-arm, trying to find the best visual. She was already bouncing up and down on her toes, ecstatic, and when a new song began she joins in the excited screaming. 

       “Very famous,” she explains, barely contained delight in her face. I grin back just as wide. She knew every word— everyone did. (I just sang along anyway.)

Isabel And Host Sister Selfie At Concert

With the music so loud in my ears, alive in my chest with every breath I took like it was air, it was like I could taste the sheer unbridled jubilation. Everywhere I looked was a smile, someone having the best day of their life as they danced and laughed and sang. I couldn’t help but feel it too, all of my worries and nerves drowned in the rhythm of the guitar, the swing as I spun around with my sister and mother under the open night sky, lit by flashing lights and iridescent joy. I hadn’t felt so comfortable in my own skin since I had stepped onto a plane— there was no room for doubt in a place where everyone, foreigner and Moroccan, stranger and family and almost family stood so close, breathing and laughing and singing the same song. 

       “Baba!” someone cries, and my brother rushes past me. My sister grabs my arm, her face so bright, then pushes her way toward the man who had emerged into our little bubble. It takes me a second to realise what’s going on, still caught up in the sweeping upward motion of the music, and it’s like the swing snapped under me. All the worries, the doubts, the nerves, come rushing back— I wanted him to like me, I wanted to leave, I wanted to meet him, and I wanted to run away screaming. 

There’s a hand on my shoulder, and I turn slightly to see my mother’s brilliant smile. 

       “My husband,” she explains, then reaches forward to greet him herself. 

I take a breath, the world still for a moment as I gather myself. 

       “Salam,” I say, reaching forward. “It’s nice to meet you.”

       “Ilyass,” he introduces himself, matching my grin with his own as he shakes my hand. “Mtsharfin.”

(Did you know smiles are multilingual?)

Just like that, I clicked. It all fit, suddenly, and a rush of sheer elation swept through me (he was nice! Not that I was worried before). My host family, my almost family— my Moroccan Most Family. It felt a little like home. 

       (“So, Elizabeth,” he’d say later, handing me a little cake—

       “Isabel!” my siblings cried, indignant, and I laughed. It really was like home.)