Mumtez Times in Morocco
The Muslim world has always been a mystery to me. The fact that the events of September 11th, 2001 changed our country’s view on Muslims for the worse triggered my interest even more.
I felt like it was important, being an American citizen, to explore the culture of Islam and I found the perfect program through the Academic Exchange and Study Abroad Office’s AHA -International. Six weeks in Fes, Morocco learning Arabic? Sign me up! I decided to take advantage of Morocco’s excellent location for some extracurricular travel.
Morocco is in Northwest Africa, just across the Mediterranean Sea from Europe and bordered by Algeria and Western Sahara. I had previously been to Europe but never to the Southwest, so I took my opportunity to visit Portugal and Spain. Both were amazing countries and relatively cheap compared to the rest of Europe. While in Spain, I went on a tour where I learned about the history between Morocco and Spain. It was really interesting to see the Muslim influence in the city of Madrid and the tour guide provided a nice introduction to Morocco.
My first glimpse of Morocco was from the airplane window. The south of Spain and the north of Morocco are really very close. My daily schedule in Morocco was completely full of school. I had four hours of Arabic every day and two and a half hours of history three times a week.
I have attempted a few languages in the past and Arabic is by far the hardest. I first had to learn the alphabet and make myself learn how to read from right to left. My Arabic professor made class fun and taught us my favorite Arabic word: “mumtez” which means “excellent!”
After my orientation into the Arabic language, I tried to focus on learning as much about the culture as possible. My history class gave a nice background on Morocco’s recent history during the French Protectorate period. While academics were important and took up most of my time, I learned the most from observing my host family and other Moroccans.
I lived in the city of Fes, one of the oldest and most conservative cities in Morocco. During the French Protectorate period, the old city was completely separated from the new city which the French built with their “new” architectural style. I lived in the old city, called the medina, with a host family. My house was 5 stories but not fancy. I had two toddler brothers who kept me very entertained. Living in the medina was probably the most interesting part of my study abroad. It’s the largest carless area on earth because the streets are too narrow for anything wider than a moped. Because of this, every morning a man with a donkey come through the streets with garbage bags tied on each side. They pick up the trash the locals leave outside their doors and the poor donkey has full garbage bags by the end of its route. Discovering cultural differences like the garbage-donkeys were really fun and made me appreciate living in a place so different from home.
Moroccans are not the most conservative people when it comes to their religion. For example, not every woman covers her head when in public and it is common for some people to stay at work during the call to prayer. In Islam, prayer is very important. Five times per day a man sings the call to prayer from the mosque tower and people are expected to stop what they’re doing to head to the closest mosque and pray. I loved hearing the call to prayer, “Allah akbar” meaning “God is great,” even at 4:30 in the morning. My impression of Islam was that the people are very devoted to their god and their religion really is the most important part of their lives. It was really amazing to me to see that an entire country believes in the same things and, coming from a country that is very diverse in ethnicity, culture, and religion, I was a bit shocked at how much I stood out in this new country.
I experienced something very new to me in Morocco: I was a minority. Not only was I Caucasian in an Arab country, but I was a woman walking around without a man. In all my travels, I had always been able to blend in, but in Morocco I was stared at by everybody. I tried to respect the conservative nature of their clothing style by always covering my shoulders and knees. Unfortunately respect didn’t make me stick out any less. After a couple weeks of being called “Flower” by random men and learning to ignore anything the men in the tea cafes said to me, I could almost block it out. By the end of my stay my girlfriends and I joked about how we would have a shock to our egos when we return home and aren’t that interesting to the people around us. Feeling out of place was strange for me, but I think I learned a lot from it.
Throughout my travels Morocco was the most interesting place I have visited. I learned a lot about what it means to live in a 3rd-world country and just how different people are. I had new experiences, both positive and negative, and I even learned a little Arabic. I made some good friends and I plan on going back to Morocco some day. I earned 13 UAS credits this summer and had an amazing experience. I wonder where the Academic Exchange and Study Abroad Office will take me next time…