Staying Open with Ella Feldman

Meet Ella Feldman, a Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality major from Baker College. Ella enrolled in the SIT Morocco: Field Studies in Journalism and New Media program. She shares the joys of cooking with her host family, her experience finding a queer community abroad, and what it means to participate in ethical journalism overseas.

Ella Feldman
Ella Feldman

Podcast Transcript

I like journalism because you just get to take your curiosities and see where they lead. I found it especially fulfilling to do it while I was studying abroad because it was a way for me to connect with the actual people living in Morocco.

My name is Ella Meena Feldsman. I graduated from Rice in 2021. I was at Baker College and I was a gender studies major. My study abroad program was called SIT Field Studies in Journalism and New Media in Morocco.

SIT stands for School for International Training. They're an organization that has plenty of study abroad programs and they really try to immerse you in the location that you're in. You can propose a project and execute a research project, but, in my case, it was actually a journalism project. Rice is a school that doesn't have a journalism program. We have a really wonderful school newspaper that I was very involved with, but I did wanna give myself the chance for one semester to actually enroll in journalism school.

It really was the curriculum that drew me there and I am so lucky that it did because it really was a corner of the world that I did not know much about that I hadn't traveled to and it was really an incredible time. It really opened my eyes to a lot of things. I got to know a culture that I had not been exposed to at all and really complement what I was doing as a gender studies major because a lot of the journalism that I've done, and what I focused on in Morocco, was stories about gender, about sexuality. I, through some friends that I had there, found out about this organization that does HIV prevention work and they had recently forged a youth group and they were actually working on a project at the time that I was there to create a phone app and computer app that would teach you about sex ed because in Moroccan schools, you're not really getting sex ed at all. You're getting bare bones and I found that I had a lot in common with these teenagers and these young people.

One thing that continues to surprise me in journalism anywhere I do it, and I'm so grateful for this as a journalist, is how willing people are to talk to you. It's amazing! I mean, I am a stranger to these people and I will go up and say, “I'm a journalist”, introduce myself, “I was wondering if I could talk to you about this.” And every single person that I talked to in Morocco was open to talking to me and that was really incredible.

I lived with a host family that consisted of a couple and their three kids. The parents spoke Darija and a little bit of French, but not really. And I speak a little bit of French, but not really. So that was kind of our way of communicating. I mean, right off the bat, I loved them. I came in and I was asking my host mom for a tailor because I had this dress that I had picked. right before going, that was too big on me and she was like, “I'm gonna take care of it for you.” She ended up sewing it for me and that was amazing and they loved to have their meals together so every night we were eating dinner together and I found that I really appreciated how many ways humans can communicate. We had a lot of nonverbal communication or verbal, but not speaking the same language. We laughed a lot. They are very joyful and hilarious. I had told them about pesto pasta, and they had no idea what it was and that's one of my favorite foods. So I made them pesto pasta, but we did it in the traditional Moroccan way where you just have one massive bowl in the middle of the table that everyone eats from and you eat a lot of things with bread so it was this kind of fusion of Italian food and Moroccan food.We just had a lot of fun together.

It's tiring being in another country, especially a country that has a culture that's pretty different from yours. Your senses are very stimulated all the time. Most nights I would just go right to bed. Sometimes Thursday’s or Friday nights, we would go out. We had a bar that we were obsessed with that is actually on a boat - very, very cool. We loved to get beers there. In Tangier, you have these really artsy, cool coffee shops and bars. Tangier is a city that's been known for hosting a lot of writers, both Moroccan and foreign. A lot of European writers have spent time there, European artists, some beat poets and beat writers have been there.

So my favorite institution there is this place called Cinema Reef and it's a movie theater, but they also have a coffee shop bar. People are smoking cigarettes inside. having their espresso, having their house red. It's one of those places where you have a crush on everybody who's in there and we ended up becoming friends with the staff. They were really sweet so my friends and I would go with our laptops. We would start writing. In the morning, we'd have our coffee and then 4:00 PM would come and be like, okay, it's time to get our wine and we just lived in this place. It was amazing.

To me in the US, compared to a lot of other countries, there doesn't seem to be as much appreciation for things that have texture and color and food that's really, really good, music that's amazing, being outside and appreciating things for the sake of the thing itself. Morocco is definitely a country that has that aspect. Every single day at sunset, there would be so many people just lining the horizon, the coast and staring at the sunset.

Sometimes they'd be with friends and they'd be talking, sometimes they'd just have their headphones in, but it warmed my heart so much, and this was usually when I was running, to just see people sit down for a sec, take 10 minutes to breathe and look at the sky and then get up and go on with their day.

Call to prayer is very serious and happens there five times a day and call to prayer is a moment where everyone leaves their house and, you'll see it everywhere, no matter where people are, they'll do it outside, they'll do it inside mosques, outside mosques. You hear the sound of a call to prayer over a speaker system that's set up in Rabat and people will come together and pray.

That happens five times a day and that's very much, in its own way, taking a moment out of your workday to do something that's meditative.

There's something really special about choosing a program that lets you breathe and have more time and really poses a contrast to the Rice experience, which is so busy, busy for so many people that might be a piece of advice.

If people are kind of choosing between study abroad programs. I think it can be really valuable to look at some that have a different approach to work in the space that work takes up. I would have a little bit of homework at the end of the day and most of my learning, by far, came from the experiences that I had meeting people, talking to people, the things that you can't teach in a classroom, or quantify by a grade.

I think it is very complicated to do journalism in a location, in a culture that you are a newcomer to and that you do not belong to. It's actually something that happens, unfortunately, a lot in journalism, a lot of Western outlets will - it's called parachute journalism - send their reporters to places that they're not from.

They don't really understand the historical context or cultural context. They were very sensitive and careful about the fact that we are not the best people who could be telling the stories of Morocco, because we are not Moroccans. The situation with journalism in Morocco is getting so dangerous that there are other SIT programs that are happening in Morocco, which is why I hope this can be valuable to someone, but the journalism program was put on hold.

A lot of the people who we met and we learned from who were Moroccan journalists, that was something I loved about my program was we were having guest speakers all the time who were actually doing the work out in Morocco who were Moroccans themselves. I know I met like four people who are now in jail.

It was a really fascinating place to learn about journalism and a very difficult place to learn about journalism because, of course, as a journalist, it devastates me. I just am so grateful to the people who we were able to learn from and so in awe of these people who are so dedicated to their country and their people, that they're willing to have a career that is putting themselves in danger.

I think that growing up in America, you can be very sheltered and think that America is the center of the world and think that the rest of the world is aspiring to be the United States, has the same approach to things as we do and I think that any experience that you have that challenges those assumptions and that upbringing that you get growing up in the states is a really positive and enhancing one.

I think specifically because I was going to a Muslim country, and because I'm a woman, I received a lot of fear from other people. What's it gonna be like to be a young woman there? What's it gonna be like to be an American there? Is it gonna be safe? What is the culture like? So, I, for sure internalized some of those, but also I think just my attitude was like, “I don’t want to go in being super fearful. I don't wanna assume that I'm gonna have a certain kind of experience or make assumptions about a certain religion of people” but I was nervous and the hardest moment was, I'm queer and I started dating someone who was on my program, a girl as well, and we thought that we were somewhere private, kind of near a beach, and we were kissing and suddenly there was a cliff that was above us and there were these men who were up there and we saw that they were watching us. They started throwing sand on us and they, honestly, didn't look that threatening. They really were just trying to mess with us. It seemed, like they were on a night out themselves and it really made apparent how difficult it can be to be a queer person there.

I mean, it is funny. I think the last thing I expected going to Morocco of all places was to get a girlfriend, but, even though there were moments that were really hard, by spending more time there, I got comfortable choosing who I would be open about that with. We met a lot of young queer people, like I said, and it was really cool. I would talk about how I was seeing someone and then someone would feel comfortable sharing with me that they were gay and that wasn't something they shared with a lot of people and queer people are everywhere. That's something that I, would say to anyone who's queer, who is thinking about studying abroad, but is nervous about what the queer experience is in certain countries where it's more stigmatized.

I don't think there's anywhere in the world that you could go where you can't find at least some communities in some spaces where you can be yourself. I was on the train by myself, coming back from Tangier to Rabat and I was sitting next to this guy. He heard me talking on the phone in English. We struck up a conversation and at one point he asked me what music I was listening to. I was listening to King Princess, who had just come out with an album, queen of being gay, of course, and he was asking me about her and I said, “oh, she's actually known for being gay, being a proud lesbian pop star” and he just started to ask me about queerness in the US and I decided to be upfront about the fact that I was queer, that I was bisexual, and we had the most interesting conversation about it. He had never met a bisexual person and he had so many questions about bisexuality and I was pretty happy to answer them because I get that some people would be uncomfortable with that kind of conversation - that's totally fair - and you don't have to explain yourself or your queerness to anyone, but, at the same time, I was literally doing work on sex education in Morocco. I knew that they weren't getting lessons on this kind of stuff so I was happy to talk about that.

This should be taken with a grain of salt. I'm not saying that everyone should, or that that's always the safest idea, but, I guess I share that story to say that, sometimes giving people the benefit of the doubt and remembering that at the end of the day, a lot of people are just curious and interested and interested in the same things that you are, can get you really far and if you're vulnerable, sometimes that can lead to connecting with more people in that way.

So much of it, you're not even going to know until you get there. You can't even begin to learn the lessons that you learn until you're actually there so take a deep breath and go easy on yourself.