Blog 4: A Tale of 2 Citiez – Kayla Smith

This past Thursday, I packed all my things, said my goodbyes to my wonderful host-family in Fes, and moved into my new home-stay Rabat, where I’ll live for the remainder of my time in Morocco.  My eyes nearly bugged out of my head when we passed by not one, but two McDonald’s on our drive into the city.  But that wasn’t the only difference I perceived.  Morocco’s French-colonial heritage is much more apparent in Rabat than in Fes.  The city, sitting just off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean and along the shores of the Bouregreg River, served as a port city and has been the capital of Morocco since 1912.  Under the orders of French General Hubert Lyautey, the capital was relocated to Rabat from Fes.  He thought of Rabat as the “Washington D.C. of Morocco,” so it’s no surprise the city is fairly metropolitan.  

By designs rendered by the French protectorate, space ten times larger than the original Medina was allotted for urban planning; this developed into the urban hub Rabat is today.  The majority of the city is comprised of the Ville Nouvelle (“new village”).  Parks and gardens, avenues, and dedicated city sectors reveal the firm French influence on the city’s organization.  While the originally planned ‘urban apartheid’ didn’t work out as the French had hoped, their plans for a grand metropolitan center did.  

Although Fes has its fair share of stores (and even a few shopping malls), urbanites may find it wanting compared to Rabat’s city streets, filled with high-rise buildings, shops on every corner, and streets bustling with people.  Whereas in Fes, cafes, clothing stores, and grocery markets were likely family-owned and the only one of its kind, Rabat is full of chain stores and name brands in America and the like.  Although loathe to admit it, the first place I went in my free time was Starbucks.  Paying $4 for a cup of coffee anywhere in the world is unconscionable, but Starbucks charges that amount (and more) shamelessly — even in Morocco, where a good cup of coffee normally costs no more than fifteen dirhams.  Plenty of Moroccans frequent the Starbucks, too— it’s not just full of ex-pats and study abroad students craving a taste of capitalism.  Needless to say, I quite enjoyed my overpriced cup of sugary, ice-cold goodness. 

cringey selfie at Starbucks


Our Starbucks cups with our names in English and Arabic

Consumerism aside, Rabat is also home to the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO).  Founded in Fes in 1979, the organization was launched to promote unity among the countries of the Islamic world — there are now over fifty members. Rabat is home to ISESCO’s headquarters, with more ISESCO summits held in Rabat than in any other city in the Islamic world.  In my opinion, that speaks volumes.  Rabat is not exactly central to the Arab World, yet it commands enough power that it serves as ISESCO’s main meeting point.  Overall, Rabat seems to be a much more influential city than Fes — socially, economically, and politically.

ISESCO headquarters

Chambers of ISESCO


I don’t say all this to reduce Fes, however.  What Fes lacks in modernity, it makes up for in its incredibly rich culture.  Fes has many charms that Rabat likely hasn’t had since its beginnings, not to mention that, throughout Morocco’s history, Fes has held over twice the population as Rabat.  Plus, there’s something about the familiarity of Fes that made me fall in love.  It’s warm and it’s alive and filled with mothers, fathers, and children — quite unlike the cold glass storefronts and shiny metal buildings that reside in my home city.  I suppose, in that way, Rabat reminds me a little of both.

7 comments to Blog 4: A Tale of 2 Citiez – Kayla Smith

  • Judy Crissman

    It is great that you have had an opportunity that comes along once in a lifetime. Educational and the experience should give you a better understanding of the challenges that life presents to those less fortunate. I’m sure that most of the famlies that hosted each of these students had limited incomes but yet they made the choice to share their homes and their resources. Letters of thanks should be sent to each of these families. You just received an education that normally you would not have under different circumstances.

  • Judy Thomas

    Well just a short time ago you were very hungry because your house family could not provide food that you could eat due to food disorders. I am sure that you are much happier to be in an area that has more choices available to you. The impact that the past several weeks has had on you and your fellow students hopefully will stay with you and hopefully has opened your eyes to the ups and downs in the different life styles of these cities in this portion of the country. Most of the countries influence was definitely from France and it showed. Influence means a lot in any country some good and some bad. You just have to be able to make the right choices. And yes life is all about choices.

  • Stacy W. Barbour

    Excellent post, Kayla! I enjoyed reading the contrast you drew between the two cities, Fes and Barat. The most obvious, of course, is the modern versus the old; and, the recurring theme of the French influence over the years–less in one city, more in another. The less obvious but nonetheless interesting to this reader: as much as large numbers of Westerners love to visit and learn of other cultures, the sight of a Starbucks and a cup of coffee or a McDonalds and a burger snaps up back to our love of Western reality–a truly personal contrast.

  • Collene

    I can just see your face when you saw the first McDonalds when entering Rabat. Then the second. Thoughts of french fries, and perhaps iced coffee. Thoughts of home. A place so different.

    It’s interesting the differences between Fes and Rabat.

    The change in the climate. It must be nice to feel the coolness instead of intense heat.

    Ah…the French! They definitely know how to build a city. High-rise buildings, chain stores, people everywhere, parks, gardens and more. It sounds so much like our home.

    It’s interesting the differences between Rabat and Fes. Fes seems to have maintained so much of its original heritage and charm, not so concerned with wealth and change, while Rabat has moved forward socially, economically, politically, and has become a major hub, home to ISESCO,

    I’m sure Starbucks has missed you, and vice versa. You’ll always remember an overpriced cup of sugary, ice-cold Starbucks’ coffee with friends in Rabat.

    Enjoy your adventure. Take it all in. Always be greatful for the opportunity!

    Great report!

  • Mayra

    I definitely did not know about how much French influence still exists in Morocco. Also, I am glad that you’re experiencing both types of city living, as you can tell a lot about a country based on its range of cultural and historical expression in its cities

  • Vera Jones

    You are drawing great contrasts between the two cities. This will make it easier for you to remember unique things about each. You might look for other influences of France in the life and history of Morocco. During WW II, the Vichy government of France operated out of Morocco.
    You might wish to learn other ways in which Morocco was impacted by W II – the most cataclysmic event of the 20th century. “Colonialism” by the European nations was rampant in North Africa during the pre-war period – followed, in time, by revolutions against them. Some were relatively peaceful. Others were hard fought. You may learn more about this process.

    Does Morocco show any influences of the Mediterranean in its economy, architecture, etc.?

  • Staci Ross

    Nicely put … What a contrast! Both of the cities appear to have vastly different and unique history, personality, and charm.

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