Fitting in Where You Clearly Stand Out by Isabel Spence

Coming to a different country from America, in particular from a city in America, it is easy to think that you have come from a place of great diversity to a place of little diversity. This provides an interesting question; especially in Morocco’s case. In American cities and in Boston where I hail from, it is easy to see people of all kinds of heritages every day out on the street. The question of diversity in Morocco is an interesting one and it is also of individual interest to just how I fit in when it comes to living in Morocco.

A Moroccan Shepherd in the North of Morocco

A Moroccan Shepherd in the North of Morocco

There might not appear to be a lot of variety in Morocco at first glance. This would be a totally inaccurate assessment however as Morocco’s history and location is prime for a mixing of many different peoples from different countries. Morocco sits in a special location, between Europe and Africa as well as having strong connections with the Middle East. My Moroccan friend and I were recently discussing how Morocco’s location influences its peoples and he told me this saying that the last king, Hassan II, used to summarize Morocco’s position: “Morocco is a tree with its branches in Europe and its roots in Africa.”

A Moroccan guard at the tomb of King Hassan II

A Moroccan guard at the tomb of King Hassan II

Historically, Morocco has a diverse native people. The Europeans called these people Berbers or “Barbarians” but they prefer the name Amazigh for a singular person or Imazighen for the whole group.  The Imazighen originally came down from Andalucía in Spain to live in Morocco and from there separated into three different subcategories in Morocco based on the dialect of their own unique language. With the spreading of Islam, Arabs came to Morocco and so the blending or Imazighen and Arabs began. Many Moroccans now a days sport mixed heritage. To further diversify the country, many peoples from Sub-Saharan Africa find homes in Morocco if they are hoping to immigrate to countries in Europe as they search for jobs.

My host sister Malak. She is being raised in a house that speaks Arabic, French and Tamazigh, the Amazigh language. She also isn’t the neatest eater!

My host sister Malak. She is being raised in a house that speaks Arabic, French and Tamazigh, the Amazigh language. She also isn’t the neatest eater!

As to how a short, fair skinned, green-eyed, and blonde haired girl finds living in Morocco; it is a fascinating experience and I find that I’ve drawn a fair amount of attention. I had heard that it is common for Moroccans to make a big deal out of foreigners on the street and this was something I was slightly worried about. It is very common for Moroccan men to talk to women who are out by themselves on the street. There are a lot of reasons this phenomenon developed but a big factor is that women have been shifting from remaining primarily in the private sphere (the home) to being in the public sphere (working, shopping by themselves, etc.) After the first week or so of the program when all of us at AMIDEAST had basically gone everywhere in large groups, I started walking around Rabat in smaller packs of two and three and now walk comfortably by myself in Rabat.

As a person who is clearly not Moroccan I get a lot of casual comments on the street. Most Moroccans say something to me such as “Hello, Bonjour, Hola!” in an attempt to find a language I understand. Because Morocco was colonized by the French, most people think I am French and will talk to me in French. It is at this point I have to politely tell them I speak no French and ask them to talk to me in Arabic! You can imagine the surprise many of them feel.  Another thing is that in America, I am no great beauty but here my features are rare and therefore desirable. I definitely get a fair share of men saying to me “beautiful” on the street and I’ve even been called “gazelle.” Yes, this is in reference to the animal which I have come to understand is thought of as a particularly lovely creature here!

Blonde haired me, by the king’s gate in Fes

Blonde haired me, by the king’s gate in Fes

Particularly living in Rabat where there aren’t too many tourists, it is easy to walk around the city for a couple hours without seeing one other blonde person. I suppose in a way I bring my own diversity to Morocco by being here. But with all this in mind, I am finding myself becoming profoundly comfortable here and indeed, loving living here. A large boon in this comfort is the language. Between my previous knowledge of Arabic, three Arabic language courses a week and talking to my host family, shopkeepers and taxi drivers, my Arabic has improved greatly and it is a huge help in connecting with Moroccans right away.  Therefore, I am finding myself as another shade on the currently diverse and forever diversifying Moroccan heritage spectrum.

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Isabel Spence, Morocco, Rabat

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