Most evenings I take a taxi home from school and most evenings I repeat the same few phrases about what I am studying and where and why. I have overcome any initial inhibitions I had about sounding silly when speaking Arabic, and I make sure to greet taxi drivers enthusiastically whenever I’m getting into a cab. One distinct difference I have noticed between the interactions with strangers that I have had in Morocco and America is how much more outwardly friendly, or at least willing to engage with others, Moroccans tend to be. Not only in taxis do people chat amiably; people entering train compartments always greet everyone else and anytime I meet host family members or friends we always kiss once on each cheek, or sometimes twice on the second cheek. These small pleasantries might occasionally seem tedious, but I have found that they generally put me in a very good mood.
Having to explain my existence at least once a day is a good way to practice Darija (Moroccan Colloquial Arabic), or Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) depending on the taxi driver, and it also forces me to reflect on who I am and why I really am here. Because it’s a good question. The woman I spoke to in a taxi the other day was thrilled I could understand her, but also explained that we American college students are doing the opposite of what many Moroccans do. Her sister is learning English in the hopes of studying in America, whereas I am here in Rabat learning Arabic. Beyond the simple fact that I wanted to study Arabic in a country where the language is actually used, my reasons for coming to Rabat include wanting to experience a new place and to push myself to learn about a different culture, one that on the surface appeared vastly different than my life at home.
Before coming to Morocco, I read about the country and learned what I could about Moroccan life, but there is no way to really understand a place without being there in person. One of the most important aspects of study abroad for me has been being able to experience firsthand many of the complex aspects of Moroccan culture, at the same time as I am taking classes about this culture and language. For example, though I knew about basic ideas such as bargaining and drinking sweet mint tea before living here, I knew nothing about the complex history of Amazigh identity in Morocco until talking to my host family and visiting Zawiyat Ahnsal, a rural Amazigh village in the Atlas mountains. Or I knew only the basics about the political system until visiting Parliament and learning firsthand how representatives from all different areas of the country are elected.
So when taxi drivers, or other passengers, want to understand why I am here, I usually just tell them I am studying Arabic. But what I really what to say is more complicated. I want to explain to them that I believe now is an extremely important time to be here, that by studying a language and discovering a culture that is at first glance so different from my own, we are furthering our own college educations but we are more importantly finding connections between people and reinforcing our empathy and humanity. There is still, and will always be, much about Moroccan culture that I don’t understand, but after nearly four months of living in Rabat the rhythms of life here have become more natural to me. I have gone from worrying about how to ask my host mom to pass the milk to having a deep conversation with my Fusha professor about the role of women in different societies. Morocco will never be as familiar to me as the small Massachusetts town I grew up in, but after having lived and studied here I can confirm that there are more similarities than I realized.