“I think it’s the emergency shower button.”
This was one of the wittier conversations on our first bus ride of many in Morocco. Two girls were trying to figure out what one of the pictograms on the ceiling was supposed to indicate with the mixture of curiosity and confusion that would characterize the trip.
After our five days that included everything from riding a camel to visiting Roman ruins to trekking into a mountain village to meet a rural family, Morocco strikes me as a country that exists at a crossroads between deeply ingrained tradition and rapid change.
I wanted to love Moroccan food, with its flaky, nutty pastries, fantastic sweet tea, and flavorful couscous that takes two hours to make, but it sure didn’t like me. Javier told us that Moroccans are some of the most hospitable people in the world; after my host family was painfully kind despite my unfortunate first impression of throwing up all over their bathroom, I’d have to agree.
One day we walked around and talked with Moroccan students. About Americans, one remarked, “They’re always stressed about exams. And they’re afraid of traveling.”
“Are you Christian?” he asked me later in the afternoon. I hesitated, remembering Javier’s advice to avoid talking about not believing in God. “More or less,” I shrugged. “I’ve studied all different religions!” he continued brightly, “Christianity, Judaism, Islam… but in the end Islam was the one for me.” Unable to resist, I asked, “Have you ever read anything about Buddhism or Atheism?” “Nope!” he said contentedly.
From what we saw, life in Morocco seemed more sacred, like people respected its substance. But it also felt confined and maybe even blinded, like that student’s comfortable dismissal of two prominent ways of construing God. I know that the pride attached to the American version of freedom can get in the way of open thinking. But I remain struck by how strongly I felt that as beautiful and diverse as Morocco is, I would not want to live there. Americans may not be known for being classy, but I am now so grateful that I can choose how much skin to show instead of being required to cover everything between my collar bone and my knees. Yes, American women are judged for what they wear. But I prefer our mess of messages about being sexy but not “slutty” to not being able to wear shorts at all, whether they’re grandma bermudas or hotpants.
In the copy of Federico Garcia Lorca’s La casa de Bernarda Alba that I read a few weeks ago, a previous student summarized the play perfectly with a scribble inside the front cover: “In Spain 1936 women can’t do what men can”. It’s striking how pertinent that scrawled note remains. By 2011 estimates, 76% of Moroccan men are literate but only 57.6% of Moroccan women are. But before I could pigeonhole Morocco as totally lacking in women’s rights, we learned at women’s center in Tangier that contraception is generally accessible and that employers are more apt to hire women.
I’ve never been in a place where so much of how I am was abnormal. In the cities accustomed to tourists, our presence was less remarkable, but when we stopped at a café filled with men in the small town of Ouezzane, my skin, gender, language, and choice of companions were all out of place (especially in more traditional communities, it is uncommon if not unacceptable for unmarried or unrelated men and women to spend time together in public). If stares made noise, we would have caused utter pandemonium.
IES designed this excursion to be educational, not touristy, and to break down stereotypes about Muslims.
Despite the fog of my food poisoning, I came away with a newfound respect for this culture I still know so little about. On the walk with the Moroccan student, I also asked if there is anything like the Andalucían phrase no pasa nada or the Costa Rican pura vida in Darijan Arabic. He thought for a bit and then brightened. “Yes!” he said, “It means something like ‘push it, and then follow. Don’t chase it or stick to it, just follow. Let it go.’”