It was a typical day in Arabic class; our teacher Adil was helping us through some new vocabulary and grammar when one of us asked him to clarify the difference between a grammatical concept in Standard Arabic compared to Moroccan Arabic. Somehow, this turned into a long discussion about the varied and changing use of Moroccan Arabic not only from region to region but from generation to generation. To take an especially strange example, he was saying that there is a certain area of Morocco where the second person male and female pronouns (“nta” and “nti” respectively) completely switch places, which can cause quite a bit of confusion and embarrassment. Adil also said that new words are being created so frequently that even when talking to his younger brother, sometimes he doesn’t even recognize some of the words. Then the conversation turned to how complicated the linguistic situation is generally. Take any Moroccan off the street and chances are they know at least three languages, probably more. From any people I’ve met, Moroccans are perhaps the best at languages. If someone is bothering you on the street and you’re trying to get them to stop talking to you, don’t pretend to only speak Russian, because chances are that they’ll know it. After seeing the surprise on our faces after Adil told us that he knows a man who taught himself Icelandic, he took a marker and walked up to the white board. What he wrote was an Arabic phrase meaning “When in Morocco, don’t be surprised.”
This, I soon found out, was a famous Moroccan proverb, which I decided could be the perfect summary for my entire experience here. When I first decided that I would be going to Morocco, I really knew very little about the country or the culture, I didn’t really have any expectations about what I would soon encounter, and I wanted to keep it that way so I would not have any prejudged notions about what it “should” be like here. Luckily, thanks to an extensive orientation process both right before and after I arrived, I had a good idea of what I was to encounter. The only thing they left out was to tell us not to be surprised when anything out of the ordinary happens. Since the very beginning, I have found myself being constantly surprised by things I’ve learned and experienced here.
Aside from the complicated language situation, which is far more intricate than I could explain here, the thing that has pleasantly surprised me time after time is the hospitality. I have not encountered a culture more willing to share their time, stories, homes, and especially food with me. When my friend Ben and I were passing through a very small town during spring break, we visited the town’s history museum. We were the only people in the museum, so the owner showed us around, explaining the more interesting pieces to us in both Arabic and French, as Ben knew Arabic and not French and I knew French and only a handful of words in Arabic. The man not only did this, but long after we had left the museum and were wandering around in the city later that day, he spotted us and invited us over to his house for tea. After we spent several hours talking, eating dates, and drinking tea, he offered to give us back the meager sum we had paid to see his museum, even though we were clearly the only tourists that had been through in a while. Though we refused his offer, the thought that someone would give us so much after just a few minutes of knowing him was truly touching.
Another thing that surprised me about Morocco was the extreme diversity you’ll find in terms of religiousness, modernity, and opinions about social issues. Several weeks ago, one of our professors organized a discussion between the American students, and some of his other Moroccan students who go to Mohammed V University here in Rabat. We were asked to write down questions that would be asked anonymously by the professor. One of the questions that got an interesting array of responses was about if the current young generation is more or less religious than older generations. I immediately assumed that people were going to say that young people were less religious. This assumption was initially confirmed by one girl who proudly said that she was an atheist and another who said that a lot of people outwardly present themselves as being religious because it’s expected of them by a Muslim society. A third girl said that she does wear a hijab, but for her it’s mostly because it’s her personal style or sometimes she’s just having a bad hair day. Although, many of the other Moroccan students said that they felt the opposite way- that many decades ago, you would find hardly anyone covering their heads or dressing modestly, or even fasting during Ramadan. They said that nowadays, their generation is more present at the mosque and more observant because they have more access to information about Islam. There were similarly varied answers about questions about opinions of homosexuality, views of Americans, and how the Arab Spring has touched Morocco.
Somehow I knew that different people would have different individual takes on questions like these, but it never really hit how diverse Moroccans could be until that discussion. When trying to live in a different country with people of a very different culture, I guess it’s normal to try to get a general sense of “the Moroccan,” so you can try to learn about how the society works and what the people are like. Maybe if I were here for a vacation of just a few days, I would paint this general portrait of the typical Moroccan in my head. However, since I’ve been here for almost four months now, it’s become clear to me that like in any culture, you are going to find a wide spectrum of different types of people, and that you can’t lump any one culture together. I am actually glad that I came into this country knowing so little about it and having no expectations, because it has been so exciting discovering all the little “surprises” along the way. After all, what’s the fun of exploring a new country if I already know everything I’m going to encounter there? I think that the expression “When in Morocco, don’t be surprised” is extremely applicable to this country, but if I could tweak it a little bit, it would be “When in Morocco, embrace the surprise.”