Morocco as the Best of Both Worlds

After I had decided to go abroad for semester, the most popular question was “Why Morocco?” Having been to Morocco twice before, I still did not have a way to adequately explain the magnetic draw of the country. After spending an additional two months here, I have settled on the Hannah Montana lyrics, “You get the best of both worlds!” Morocco is the perfect mix of familiar Western culture and new and challenging experiences.
One major facet of studying abroad for a semester is the ability to travel to places outside of your host city. Though I live in the small community of Meknes, I’m just a three dollar train ticket from the bustling city of Fes, a couple hours from the industrial city of Casablanca, and a solid-nap’s length away from the capital, Rabat. The diversity within the country is amazing. You can see heavily European influenced cities, like Tangier with its Spanish architecture, and smaller more traditional towns, like Chefchaouen the blue city. But not only is it easy to travel around the country, there are a few major airports that run cheap and short flights to Europe. This past weekend, I was able to hop up to Italy to spend a couple days eating and touring Rome. The proximity to Europe means I can briefly experience those cultures as well as immersing myself into the Moroccan one.

Even though Europe is just a ferry or plane ride away, Morocco maintains a unique and fascinating culture. As a student of both Middle Eastern Politics and Arabic language, this is one of the best places for me to be right now. I am using my language skills, both standard and dialect, daily through 12 hours of Arabic classes each week and interacting with my community. Moroccans are much more community focused that the US or even Europe; when greeting someone, they always ask if “everything is good?” and “how is your family doing?” The influence of Islam runs deep in their culture, extending the love of peace and fellow humans to daily interactions. Saying hello and catching up quickly with the door attendants and shop owners has become a daily routine here. The hospitality and compassion extends past just short interactions; my Moroccan professors go out of their way to help and welcome us. One of my professors drove some of my peers to the train station after class one Friday to ensure they made it to the beach on time. My art professor made our class an enormous pot of couscous one Saturday and invited us to come and bond as a class. We sat around a large table and ate the Moroccan style – straight out of the pot with our hands. It was delicious and messy!

I am so grateful that I chose this beautiful and welcoming country in which to spend my semester. I have the creature comforts I need (like the occasional trip to KFC or McDonald’s) but I most importantly have the opportunity to immerse myself into a culture that pushed me to be a kinder and more generous person while practicing my Arabic and making lifelong friends.

Morocking into the Fall

My name is Claire Gothard and I’m a junior Economics and Political Science major at UofL. I’m spending this fall semester in Morocco to work on my Arabic language skills and immerse myself into new experience. A little background on me, I’ve traveled to Morocco twice before to learn Arabic. Both of those visits were for about a month and I was living in Rabat, the capital city. Rabat is an international city, full of diplomats and other foreign workers. This semester, I am spending three months in the smaller, more traditional city of Meknes. In this entry, I’ll tell y’all a little about a couple of the many cities in Morocco.

This time, I am exploring the country with a group of amazing students from all across the States. My program through ISA has set up so many amazing opportunities for me to bond with both my fellow students, but also some local students. We all have varying levels of the languages spoken here: French, Modern Standard Arabic, and Darija (the Moroccan dialect). Navigating in each city is a trial of its own!

We started the journey in Casablanca, the New York City of Morocco. It’s big, loud, and industrial. It’s home to not only the largest mosque in Africa, but also the largest shopping mall (2 million square feet). The hallmark event of our short visit was a tour of the Hassan II Mosque. Typically, non-Muslims are not  allowed inside of mosques, especially during prayer time. We were lucky to be able to walk around the inside of the monumental building. Our group had time to explore the magnificent mosaics then hear a presentation on the internal décor and structure.

Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca

In front of an outdoor fountain at Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca

After being impressed by the enormity of Casablanca, we took a long bus ride to the red city, Marrakech. As the largest tourist destination in the country, Marrakech is full of both Western amenities (Starbucks and McDonalds) and traditional vibes. The red city, called such due to the red clay buildings, is most famous for the large square Jemaa el-Fna that is the entrance to the souq, the outdoor maze-like market. A group of us spent our first evening getting lost (purposefully and not-so-purposefully) in the never-ending alleys and corridors of the Marrakechi souq. We eventually ended up at a rooftop café with a gorgeous view of the souq. We ate traditional Moroccan tagine (stew) and mint tea. After those amazing, but all too short, adventures, we started the long journey to Meknes. I’ll save the wonderful descriptions of my home city for another time.

Jemaa al-Fna, Marrakechi square full of juice stands, snake charmers, and other vendors.

Governor’s Palace in Marrakech

Morocco is constantly surprising me – it’s an entirely new experience each time. Yesterday, I completed my first full month here. Time has honestly flown by! And while I can’t wait for all of the adventures to come, I don’t want them to go by too quickly. Until next time!