Tales from abroad: Morocco
Bargaining in Rabat, touring Marrakesh, and crafting wood in Essaouira
Last summer, I traveled to Rabat, Morocco to take part in the SIT Morocco Intensive Language and Culture Program. The program consisted of several parts: cultural experiences, excursions, lectures, Arabic class, and home stay. The goal of the study abroad program was to provide an eight-week introduction to Moroccan culture and standard Arabic, and this was achieved through cultural immersion and weekend trips intended to explore Morocco’s vibrant culture. The language component of the program was rigorous and consisted of an introductory language class. The cultural component also had an introductory cultural class, and all these classes had a course load of nine to 13 units. Both classes included participatory roles and field trips to help enhance the learning experience. In addition to learning Arabic in the classrooms, the program also offered eight weeks of language and cultural practice in the city of Rabat.
Classes were held every day (including Saturday during the first two weeks) for three hours. I learned the alphabet in one day and spent more time practicing it and learning how to write the script and the exceptions in connecting Arabic letters. The instructor of the course did not speak English, so body language and the translations from the two French speakers in the class were my only form of communication. But as the class progressed, she began to communicate with me using simple grammar and vocabulary words with which I was familiar.
The streets of Rabat proved to be my biggest learning ground during my time there, and I saw, heard, and learned how life in Morocco operated. For instance, crossing the streets is a gradual process, and one does not typically wait for the lights to change. Shortly after arrival, I had difficulty crossing the streets and walking in the streets due to my fear of bumping into people. As my stay progressed, I noticed that the natives stopped in the middle of the street and even bumped into each other, and this made me begin to feel more and more comfortable walking.
The program included an introduction to bargaining in which I was given 10 dirhams and asked to shop in the market. In an effort to make up for my lack of language ability, I motioned to the shopkeepers to write the price. As I became more conversational in Arabic, I would greet the shopkeepers in Arabic and have conversations with them. I learned the games that they play as well: The first price is always a teaser price, which they do not expect to be paid. I remember an instance when I went with a friend to buy a soccer jersey. The shopkeeper said the price was 100 dirhams, but before I began serious negotiations, he lowered the price to 90 dirhams. Not all shopkeepers bargain, however: Shopkeepers that sell toiletries are very friendly but have fixed prices.
The objective of the excursions during the program was to show different parts of Morocco to the participants in order to allow them to develop a better understanding of the culture. There were two excursions: the first was to Marrakesh and Essaouira in the south, and the second was to Fez and a village called Briksha in the north.
At Marrakesh, I visited the mansion of a former slave built by his previous master. The temperature during my stay was quite high at around 103 degrees Fahrenheit. Overall, Marrakesh was not a very welcoming city, and having lived in Rabat, the amount of tourism and the way locals were primed to sell to foreigners was not appealing to me. When I arrived at Essaouira, the annual Gunawa music festival was in session. The music festival included various genres of music and gave me a view into the music of southern Morocco, which is similar to sub-Saharan African music. At Essaouira, I got a chance to see how woodworks are crafted and was even able to try and make part of a piece.
The northern excursion to Fez included a visit to the medina, which is Arabic for city, specifically the walled parts of the city. Being in the medina was like being transported in time. There were no bikes or cars, and only donkeys and horses were used to transport goods. As part of the tour, I visited a tannery that used traditional methods of dying leather.
During my time in Morocco, I had the opportunity to live with a family in the medina of Rabat. The houses are built in an Andalusian style — a square design with a large open hole in the center. My family was made up of six members: a father, mother, two sisters, and two brothers. Dinners were eaten late — around 11 p.m. or midnight — and the family always ate together. The family ate from a single large plate and bread was used as a spoon. On Friday, we always ate couscous for lunch, and in an attempt to make me eat more, food would always be pushed to my side of the plate and I would be told to “*kull*” — meaning “eat” in Darija, Morrocco’s dialect of Arabic.
Unfortunately, my home stay mother was very sick, and I believed it would be best if the family focused on her rather than on me. After much contemplation, I went through with a switch and moved into a new family’s house. The first night with my new family was rough, as I kept thinking about the decision and its possible impacts. After the change, I visited my first home stay mother often to see how she was doing, and I would typically meet members of her family on the streets.
My new family was made up of a father, a mother, and three sons. The new family gave me an opportunity to validate some of my cultural observations. I noticed that shay — Moroccan tea, which is mint tea with a lot of sugar — is a staple and is served in all homes. Based on the activities of my previous family, I had assumed that most Moroccans did not pray frequently, but my new family prayed a lot and were a lot more religious in general. This realization gave me a better understanding of Islam and its various levels of participation.
The power of language became apparent to me during my time in Morocco. Though I entered the country with practically no French or Arabic experience, I was able to communicate within the first three weeks of my stay. Using body language and the words I had learned, I was able to confidently order coffee from a coffee shop and communicate where I was going to my host family.
Apart from the language skills, cultural awareness, and understanding, I also learned that other ways of life are possible and do exist. After living in the same British-dominated systems for such a long time, it becomes easy for one to forget that other ways of living are viable. This reawakening enabled me to expand and challenge myself to think in new and different ways.