Lessons Learned: Six Months in North Africa

Yesterday evening, I was driving back from the desert with a group of friends. We’d only been gone for three days, but it felt like longer. As we drove northeast, the landscape got green and the temperature began to drop. “I feel like I’m coming home,” I told Shireen as we caught a glimpse of our city up ahead. It hasn’t been easy, but over the last six months I have made a home for myself here in a little city on the coast of North Africa.

Now, I’m down to my final six weeks and I’m thinking about all of it—reflecting on what made this place so special and what I’ll be taking back with me. Here’s my list of eight important things I’ve learned so far:

1. How to jaywalk confidently in heavy traffic

This is a skill you must learn if you want to walk anywhere here. There are no traffic lights in my city, only roundabouts. Drivers treat stop signs like an optional yield, so traffic is a continuous stream.

In case you come for a visit, here’s a tip. You’ve got to have chemistry with drivers. Look them in the eyes and then go for it. You have to commit to your decision, because if you change your mind, you’ll just confuse people and that’s when things get dangerous.

2. How to speak some Arabic

This one is kind of obvious, but I am super proud of my progress and grateful to my amazing language tutors. I love the way people light up when they were expecting you to speak in French, but instead you’re speaking in dialect. 

3. Where to buy things

Superstores are not a thing here, and even grocery chains carry a limited inventory. If you want to get anything fresh or unusual you need to know local vendors. I know the best places to go for random but important things like real imported parmesan, grilled chicken, English books, balloons, and Lebanese food.

4. How to make hummus, tea bn3na3, and brik

Hummus is not a North African dish, but I learned to make it anyway because I got a super cheap blender. Tea bn3na3 is a very popular green tea with mint. It is served everywhere, so Ashley and I learned how to make it before she left. Brik is fried heaven. It has got egg, potato, onion, tuna, and parsley in a flaky wrapper. After you fry it, you squeeze a lemon on top. One of my language tutors showed me how to make it.

5. I am a hardcore introvert

I’ve always known that I’m an introvert, but living overseas in a non-western, Arabic-speaking context takes introvert to a whole new level. When I sabbath, I lock myself in my apartment and I don’t leave. I have to give myself the space to breathe, because if I don’t, I will get physically sick.

6. How to say “no”

This is me in the Sahara Desert saying no—“la y3ayshik”—to a guy trying to sell me a coke. Saying “no” to vendors is pretty easy. Saying “no” when people want your time and skills is hard. But oh friends, there is a lot of power, freedom, and health in saying “no” and owning your finite reality. There will always be more things you could do. Know your limits.

7. I love my country

While I am often very critical of American government and politics, I learned that I really do love my country. Living in midwestern America is like breathing air. It’s familiar. It’s automatic. It’s home. You know that song, “You only know you love her when you let her go“? That is how I feel about America. It is totally cool and awesome to go on camel treks in the Sahara, but home is still home, and I had no idea that it meant so much to me.

8. Muslims are not scary

You know how you can know something without really knowing it? This is one of those things that I didn’t really know until I came here. I love my Muslim friends in the states—they are amazing people—but I was still pretty nervous about coming to North Africa. In American media, the Arab world is usually portrayed as a dangerous place. But right here, right now, it’s not dangerous. There might be a few creepy dudes who want to marry me because of my passport, but that’s really it.

Here’s the thing that really changed my perspective. There is an interesting power shift that happens when you become the outsider. Here, I’m dependent on my Muslim friends. I need help to speak, to shop, to get my water heater fixed, and to see the countryside. I cannot imagine life here without my language tutors. It’s because of them that I know Muslims are not only not-scary—they’re kind, hospitable, generous, thoughtful, and they’re my lifeline.

So that’s what I’ve got so far. I feel like I’ve learned just as much about myself as I have about culture, language, and religion. I’m sure there will be more posts to come as I reflect on all three. Peace out for today.

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