On my first day of our Arabic Fusha class, my wonderful Usteza (teacher) Khadija began the class with a question: What expectations had we brought about Morocco? Apart from the linguistic difficulty of answering this in Arabic, my classmates and I struggled to list our own concrete expectations. I could easily think of stereotypes I heard from those around me leading up to my departure; I spent most of my time reacting to others’ expectations of the Maghreb, and neglected to reflect on my own internalized biases. Despite my previous studies of the MENA region within my minor of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies, and my carefully developed stock answers for all curious or worried about my choice of study abroad location, I had trouble answering more complex questions on what Morocco would be like. After only two weeks here, I am learning every day why they are so difficult to answer. The more time I spend in Morocco, I witness and experience more complications to any generalized answers.
For instance, many asked for a categorical definition of Morocco, geographically or economically. Is it an African country, a Middle Eastern country, or “Western”? Is it a “developing” country, or “1st World”? I use quotations for particularly loaded terms here, but won’t be dissecting them in the short space of a blog post. Instead, I’ll just try to illustrate a few of many moments of observation into how Morocco resists this kind of reduction.
Regarding the first question of regional affiliation, by language Morocco demonstrates its rich history as a crossroads of the African continent, the Middle East, and Europe. When asked what languages people speak here, before arriving here I would say that most speak French and Arabic. This expectation was misleading. Most people that I have met have diverse degrees of proficiency in many languages. First, almost everyone speaks Darija, the Moroccan Arabic—except many in or from the rural countryside (a significant portion of the overall population), who often only speak an Amazigh language (of which there are three main ones) local to their region. Then, proficiency in a second and third language depends on schooling and family origins. Many speak some Amazigh by function of family roots in a particular region. Some go to private schools that teach only in French, others to schools that teach in Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic), or even others to more expensive schools that offer English. In my own host household, everyone speaks Darija. My mother knows Amazigh and a large amount of French, and both parents know Fusha. My host siblings do not speak Fusha, but are fluent in French and speak English very well. My host sister Zubida raps along to Maghrebi hiphop all day long, while Baba Muhamed plays the crooning Arabic melodies of Fairuz when cleaning, and Mama Karima often lounges to classic French music like Charles Aznavour and Joe Dassin.
One of my favorite places to walk near my home is along the Rabat Marina. It is always bustling with Moroccans enjoying the same beautiful walk with friends and family. The marina strip follows the Bou Regreg river that opens into the Atlantic Ocean. The fortified walls of the historic Kasbah (built in the 12th century and once home to the infamous Barbary pirate republic) rise above the river’s mouth, and it faces the sister city of Sale, which is the fastest growing city in Morocco and whose shoreline is full of construction of brand new buildings. Right at the end of the marina, at the foot of the Kasbah’s hill, merry-go-rounds and bumper cars and assorted carnival rides run all afternoon. I like to sit on the edge of the marina and watch the fishermen and ferries work on the old little blue rowboats of Morocco, while an occasional jetski zooms through the otherwise still waters. These images illustrate common associations of “modernity” and “development,” rich history and constant change, which exist here not as contrasts in tension, but as natural parts of the daily life.
These observations reveal only a fraction of what makes Moroccan society so rich, complex, and difficult to define. The list of the common “expectation questions” I heard pre-arrival could go on: What do Moroccans wear? What are the roles of women in Morocco? How do Moroccans practice religion? Already, I could reflect for many more pages on the many diverse experiences of daily life, identity, gender, clothing/dress, race, and religion which I have so far encountered. It is widely accepted that the “American experience” depends so greatly on factors of identity, income, family, and location, and I am beginning to discover that the only universal factor to the “Moroccan experience” is layers of complexity.