Ramadan in Morocco
Ramadan in Morocco has been a very fascinating experience up till now. Suddenly the country comes more to life and becomes much busier. Walking home to the Medina everyday from class, I see men praying in Mohammed V street in front of the mosque because it does not fit enough people, and I am amazed by their dedication to God and to their religion that they pray on the streets. After Iftar, people begin to visit each other and families eat more often with each other in Ramadan than any other time of the year. Ramadan truly brings together the Moroccan people.
One interesting thing I witnessed during my time during Ramadan in Morocco is that when two people fight in the streets, others get involved to separate the fight and to calm both parties down. I learned from other Moroccans that fighting increases in the street during Ramadan. That is a downside because Ramadan is a holy month were people should be at their best behavior. Because people abstain from eating, drinking and smoking, it becomes much more easy for them to become frustrated and angry. I have witnessed many streets fights while walking in the Medina everyday. However, most often other Moroccan people would interfere to calm them down and stop them from fighting. This is the good thing about Moroccan people that is often not present in Westerners. When they see something wrong, they interfere to offer their help. I imagine that if a fight breaks out in a street in America, many would claim that it is none of their business and would go on their way and ignore what is going on. This is the beauty of Moroccan community; Moroccans feel like they are obliged to help one another and to lend you a hand.
Many Moroccans try to be at their best in Morocco. As a result, charity increases and more Moroccans give to those in need. More Moroccans donate to the poor and to mosques and many other organizations. The reason is that during Ramadan the reward from God is even higher and so many more people are willing to do good. Some Moroccans spend their time volunteering for other organizations. When we visited Marrakech, we learned that several organizations that rely only on volunteers feed hundreds of Moroccans for Iftar.
My host sister and I were talking about the fact that many Moroccans try to be at their best during Ramadan. However, one thing she criticized about Moroccans to me is that as soon as Ramadan ends they all go back to their bad habits. Some people do not understand the true spirit of Ramadan. In fact, many wait only for after Iftar to continue their bad habits. A common phenomenon she told me about is sexual harassment, for example. During the day when fasting occurs, Moroccan men often lower their gaze and refrain from commenting or harassing women. However, as soon as Iftar ends men become much more aggressive and revert to their old habits of harassing women on the streets. But she told me that these people are only a minority, most Moroccans appreciate the holy month of Ramadan.
Ramadan in Morocco has been a great experience so far and I am glad to have experienced it in Morocco. Honestly, I feel it enriched my time in Morocco. It was fantastic to be submerged so deeply into another country’s traditions. We learned a ton about the Moroccan people, and how Ramadan affects their day-to-day lives by talking to the people we stayed with and met on the streets. Often, the days can be challenging, but once we break our fast at night, Morocco comes alive and carries on like normal.
A Talk with Michael McMillan
Michael McMillan, the director of the American Language center in Rabat, recently came to talk to us in class. Michael first started out by asking us if any of us planned on working in the Arab World after graduation and what are our plans to do so. Before listening to his story I had imagined that a man like him who left the U.S to come live in Morocco probably had it all planned out from the beginning. However, as it turns out, it all just worked out coincidently for him to be in Morocco.
Michael told us he had been doing urban planning for his whole life until he decided he will follow the career path he has always wanted since he was a kid, to be an English teacher. And it made me wonder that someone has to be incredibly passionate about something if they would change their life’s path mid career. What was even more interesting is that Michael actually has no knowledge of Arabic or French in Morocco despite the fact that he has been there for over a decade. He just simply decided he will not put the effort although he wished that he would. That to me was very surprising because despite the fact that I stayed in Morocco for six weeks as opposed to the years he stayed, I found it very hard to get by in the country and it was thanks to our Moroccan Darija class that I was able to get by.
Arabic is the official language in Morocco. The ministry of education in Morocco has given primary important to teaching Arabic, the official language and mother tongue of most Moroccans. French comes second because France is the first economic partner and the previous colonizer of Morocco, this fact makes the political and economic Moroccan elite influenced by the French culture along generations.
So it was interesting to listen to Michael tell us about the Increase in ALC enrollment across Morocco and across the years. This made me wonder about the Increasing role of English in the world and what role should it play in Morocco. Throughout my stay in Morocco, I have noticed that Moroccans rarely ever do they speak English. It is either Arabic or French. Could English become Morocco’s first foreign language? And will Morocco dispose the most visible sign of a colonial legacy?
Michael told us about his efforts to make ALC a safe place for Moroccans. He tries his best to make the center respect Moroccan culture to protect the students and also to prevent being accused of imposing American values and encouraging imperialism. He explained that he views himself as a guest. If he wants to make big changes he will go back to his country and make changes. One story he narrated is about two teachers who ordered a coffee in Ramadan and drank it in the teacher’s lounge. Many Moroccans in the center were displeased and complained because they felt their values were being disrespected very publicly. These are the type of things Michael tries to avoid. He’d rather be safe and sorry. It was all about the safety of the students.
From Duke to Sidi Muhammad Bin Abdullah University
In Fez, our group of students from Duke visited Sidi Muhammad Bin Abdullah University. We met up with the director of the English department and other Moroccan students studying in that department to start a cross-cultural dialogue between life in America and life in Morocco.
The discussion started with the Moroccan students introducing themselves, listing their name and their majors. I was struck by how most of these students knew what they wanted to study and have even decided on the track they will focus on despite many of them being in the beginning of their studies. When it was time to introduce myself, I introduced myself as an undeclared major which was weird considering how all the students knew what they wanted to do already. When they inquired into what that meant, we explained that in the U.S students do not officially declare their major until the second year. This is a major difference between American educational systems and Moroccan ones. In Morocco, students apply to college and decide on the major before starting. As someone who still has no idea what they are doing, I certainly felt more appreciative of the freedom students enjoy in America.
After that the students began asking us about what did we think about Morocco before arriving and what stereotypes do Americans usually have about Morocco. We told them that Americans don’t have stereotypes about Moroccans in particular but there are stereotypes about the Arab World in general. Some of them include the Arab World being very unsafe and dangerous. Some of our parents and family were worried about the prospect of visiting an Arab country because of the way media portrays Arab countries. We discussed with the students the issues of a biased media in the U.S and how attacks carried out by white men are considered lone attacks while attacks by Muslims are considered terrorism. Such biases add to the skepticism the American public has towards Arabs and Muslims.
We also decided to ask students what they though about America, and many of them have spoken that they do like America but are skeptical of the American government and particularly its policies towards the Middle East. This sparked a political dialogue which made me surprised about how well-informed the Moroccan students were about the U.S political system. American students do not have that knowledge about Morocco and so I was very impressed that they seemed to be following the American elections and keeping up with the most recent developments. One of the Moroccan students began critiquing the two-party system in the U.S and how it wasn’t fair that many independent voters were unable to vote because they didn’t register in time.
Another student asked us what we thought about Donald Trump and asked us what are the reasons he was growing popular. We explained that many Americans have irrational fears about immigration and that the media definitely plays a huge role in magnifying these problems and in making Donald Trump more popular.
The talk we had with the students was very eye-opening. I was impressed with how Moroccan students are very well informed about Morocco, America, and the world, and it made me wonder why many American students weren’t this informed about the Arab World. We all came from different places but we can all agree on one thing, that often education doesn’t just come from within the class, but from outside dialogues as well.
Between Sips of Coffee
Cafés dominate life in Morocco. Young men and old men, smoking shisha and taking tiny sips of coffee, all sit by the café and gaze around at passers by from day to night. They probably have been sitting there for hours already. During my time in Fez, it felt like it was impossible to walk more than a block without finding another café, almost always crowded by men who sit there facing the streets and gazing at passersby. I am intrigued by every café I pass.
Cafes are the key place to socialize. Men gather to drink sweet mint tea and watch people as they go about their affairs. It’s obvious that cafés are an integral part of Moroccan culture. I have noticed that Moroccans by nature are very relaxed and laid back people, who also really enjoy being engaged with their community and interacting with other Moroccans. This is why the café seems like a perfect place for them, it is both the perfect relaxing place and the place that brings Moroccans together. Cafés are almost like a second home for many Moroccans, and their popularity shows that there is a cultural need for the environment they provide, which is probably even more important than the tea itself.
The American habit of taking a quick cup of coffee on your way to work is not the way in Morocco. Here a single cup is consumed over hours. I honestly envy their life. Living in the United States for a year already, I have gotten used to the fast paced and rushed life. I have often found myself get engulfed by the busyness of my days that I barely have time to pause and reflect on my day. It often feels like I will fall behind and fail if I stop moving. In America, progress and success now means fast.
Through observing this practice, I have begun to wish I had the time in my day to reconnect with my place, to reflect on my day and have sometime for myself. However, the hectic lives of first-world countries make it an impossible feat to perform. There is often barely enough time to sit down and enjoy my day while relaxing and interacting with other people. Perhaps it has even reached to the point where people on campus barely have time to stop and greet to each other out of fear of being distracted and being late to where they have to be. That would never happen in Morocco. In Morocco, if two people see each other in the streets, they would go out of their way to greet each other and acknowledge each others presence, sometime taking as much as 15-30 minutes talking to each other in the streets.
Coffee in Morocco is more than just a drink. Coffee is when social interactions happen. The café is a place to talk, read, write, play chess, and pass the time. It is the place where Moroccans reflect about their day and discuss current issues. In Morocco time is paid little attention to. What matters most is the present moment, whether it lasts a few minutes or several hours. And that is found between sips of coffee.
Citizenship and Democracy
Throughout our stay in Morocco, part of our assignments has been to interview Moroccan people about what it means for them to be Moroccan citizens. When interviewing them, I asked them questions to evaluate their level of participation in Moroccan society, and I would evaluate them based on four criteria: Political Life, Community Dimension, Civil Society Dimension, and Values Dimension. Moroccan people are very well informed about their country and know what needs to be fixed and what needs to be improved. However, one thing that caught my attention about citizenship and really struck me is the lack of participation of many despite the knowledge they have. One thing they all had in common is disdain for the current Moroccan political system, and how it no longer serves the people but only serves the elites.
Based on my interviews, Moroccans no longer have any trust in the political system. Thus, most of them refuse to vote, run for office, participate in political organizations, or be involved with politics in any sort of way. They all agreed on one thing: politicians only serve themselves and do not meet the needs of the people. The state of the healthcare system in Morocco and the educational system is deteriorating and these are two of the sectors that really need to be fixed and really need the government to care about. But unfortunately, not many officials pay attention to the desires of the youth.
When asking them about what they thought is the ideal Moroccan citizen, they all agreed that a good citizen is one who helps others. I witnessed that when walking in the streets of Fez and Rabat and many other Moroccan cities, and was amazed at how blind people walk in the streets completely trusting other Moroccan citizens to guide them through the way and to help them on their path. All these Moroccan citizens were strangers to the man, and yet, they all cared enough about him to make sure he goes on his way and arrives safely. Through my interviews, I discovered that this is one thing all Moroccans agreed on. To be a good citizen, you have to be ready to help others and to give, whether it is your money or your time or even volunteering. A good Moroccan citizen helps other Moroccans in need.
Despite the lack of participation of Moroccans, they are all educated people who know enough about their country and the corruption that is present. They all know what is wrong and how it should be fixed. And this is contrary to what most Arab leaders who say that Arabs are not just ready for democracy. But after speaking with the youth, I can surely conclude that Arabs are most definitely ready for democracy. And especially the Moroccan youth, they are more ready than ever. They are not just ready for it, they also want and demand it. The Arab Spring was based on the dreams of the youth to fight corruption, to have freedom, and most importantly to obtain justice. Talking to the Moroccan youth, I have realized that what they want is not much different than the youth of the rest of the Arab World. Their demands are not much different than those who participated in the Arab Spring. I am interested and anticipating to see how the future of Morocco will turn out. The Moroccan people need politicians they can trust if the country is to go forward.
The Year of the Elephant
Last week, our class hosted a guest speaker, Leila Abouzeid, who is a Moroccan author who writes in Arabic and is also known as the first female Moroccan author whose works are translated to English. Leila has published many books including a novel called Year of the Elephant, an autobiography called Return to Childhood: The Memoir of a Modern Moroccan Woman and the The Last Chapter, a semi-autobiography about identity, gender, and male-female relations. Abouzeid has deliberately chosen to write in Arabic, and many of her works have been translated into foreign languages. She has also recently published a book called Life of the Prophet – A Biography of Prophet Mohammed. This book is the first to be written by a Muslim Woman and a creative writer. The author wrote it in English without adding personal interpretations because she wants the audience to do their own interpretations.
Leila talked to us about her famous novel “The Year of the Elephant.” She said the title comes from an important battle in early Islam when foreign tribes riding elephants marched to destroy the Kaaba in Mecca. This battle was very important in Islamic history and in her novel, Leila also focuses on a pivotal historical moment, but this time in Moroccan social memory: the transition from colonial rule to national independence. This book is meant to serve a representation of life during Morocco’s struggle for independence from French occupation. First published in Arabic in Morocco in 1983, this novel almost immediately sold out. It is one of the first Moroccan novels written in Arabic to be translated into English. Leila’s “Year of the Elephant”, discussed major themes common in Moroccan literature such as family and divorce, however, her approach is unique and different because she approached these themes through the eyes of a woman to explore the conflict in Moroccan society that happens between culture and modernity. She is a unique writer because many Arab women writers often write books that reflect Western values. However, The Year of the Elephant discusses these issues from a Moroccan perspective without any Western influence.
I found Leila’s opposition to writing in French very interesting considering that many Moroccans often take pride in speaking French. From the way Leila was speaking, it was evident that she strongly opposed the French and, as a result, she has never spoken in the language despite being fluent in it. Her rejection of French is a statement that she resists the legacy of colonialism and especially the torture her father was subjected to. I really admire the fact that she is a woman who seeks to challenge the norms and what is prevalent, and that is seen from her choice to write in Arabic, to her focus on writing about strong Arab women who are seen overcoming many obstacles.
This is important because Arab women through various events in the history tend to be ignored or overlooked throughout the Arab World. Oftentimes, women fought in the struggle as much as the men but after a victory or independence, the men stepped into the power vacuum and pushed the women to the side. The women either didn’t benefit at all or were in a worse position than they were before. The most recent example can be seen in the Arab Spring, where despite the participation of women in the uprising and in the protest, the region has never seen rates of violence against women this high. Leila’s effort to focus on women’s perspective and to illuminate their participation in the struggle is important so that the voices of these women do not disappear. Women are often lost from history books and from historical narratives and it is writings like these that prove women have played a vital role in throughout history.
Overall, I really enjoyed having Leila talk to us and I definitely look forward to reading many of her writings to understand another perspective of Moroccan culture and history. Not only does her work add a different perspective to main historical events, but it also dispels many stereotypes about Moroccan people, particularly about the Muslim woman being passive and inactive.
Citizenship and the State
I interviewed my host sister, Fatma Zohra, a 23-year-old woman currently studying Midwifery at a private institute in Rabat. I sat down with her one day after Iftar to discuss the issue of citizenship in Morocco and about her participation in the public sphere.
Like many Moroccan citizens, she was very critical about the state of politics in Morocco. As a result, she refuses to participate in political life, whether it is through political parties, running for office, or even voting. “Those who run for office never care about the people,” she said. She believes that politics are very important in Moroccan society and has a huge influence but she doesn’t want to be involved because of those who are corrupt and who often only care about their personal interests.
Despite her inactiveness in political life, she is very active in the community dimension. Fatma believes that religion plays a very important role in the community and is a very important factor in citizenship. She used to volunteer at orphanages and with senior citizens for several years. She believes that when it comes to volunteering, people should help others because they are able to contribute, and also because it is encouraged by religion and is rewarded by God. According to her, the mosque is very important in a community and in encouraging Moroccans to be better people and better citizens. Mosques offer lessons for children to go and learn the Qur’an. Mosques also have Khutbahs delivered by the Khatib. These sermons encourage Muslims to help others and to improve their community.
Fatma told me that Mosques in Morocco are important for the development of the community. Just like it is the place for prayer, the mosque also functions as an office for welfare management where the old, the widowed, and the poor receive assistance from the donations made by Muslims. Muslims who do donate do so because zakat, or almsgiving, is one of the five pillars of Islam and is a religious obligation. Most mosques are open 24/7 and they are often the place the poor and homeless go to for help.
One of the most important question I asked Fatma was what is the ideal Moroccan citizen. She stated that a good citizen must be a good person and must be educated. When I asked her to elaborate on what she meant by a good person, she explained that they should not do drugs or steal or harm others. Anyone who does anything to make Morocco a worse place is a bad citizen. A good citizen should also be educated because being educated means you can contribute to making the country a better place for everyone.
For Fatma, just like a citizen has a responsibility towards their country, the government has a responsibility towards its citizens. The Moroccan government according to her has neglected the education and health sectors in Morocco. These two factors are important precedents in order for an individual to become active in society and be able to contribute. However, it is these two sectors that the Moroccan government has neglected and she blames the lack of engagement of many people with their society on the state. In her opinion, the state has a huge role towards the Moroccan citizen that is yet to be fulfilled. The state must meet the demands of the people first if someone is to become an active citizen.
What Caught My Eye
To talk simply on what has caught my eye since arriving in Morocco would require far too much time and space on the page to be remotely useful to anyone interested in the larger theme distinctions that permeate life in Fez. As such, I will refrain from examining all the little gems that are so bountiful and easy to point out. Those are for everyone to discover on their own. Furthermore, I am in no position to comment on the most significant of them, as the time I have been has only allotted for my discovery of what I’m sure is a practically negligible percentage. Instead, I will try to articulate the experience I have had in being witness to the dramatic yet almost subliminal distinction that exists in the overall interaction of society, one that manifests itself in a variety of ways and one which I have come closest to describing as a sort of beehive.
The first manner in which I found this beehive-esque society to manifest itself was in traffic, both automotive and pedestrian. The consistent disregard for rules and distinctions adhered to in a far more significant manner in the United States caught me off guard upon my arrival, despite having read about it previously. Something I said to a friend while walking across the street was that the cars and their drivers act as if under the delusion that they are pedestrians and not the drivers of very dangerous vehicles. However, such a system appears to be working. For although such a dynamic between cars and pedestrians seems inherently more dangerous than that which is found somewhere like the United States, a higher degree of engagement comes along with it. For example, in the time I have spent here I have not seen a single pedestrian or driver on his or her cell phone. Now, while I’m not saying that this system is by any means one that should replace ours, for the apparent cavalierness with which pedestrians conduct themselves, which in fact is an innate comfort in this style of life, is not one that Americans could adopt easily. However, it might go to show that having a bit more chaos in our lives, while inherently more dangerous, may force us to be more engaged and aware when conducting ourselves, as chaos always does.
On Being a Woman in Morocco
Encountering unwanted attention from men is, unfortunately, a reality for female travelers. We have spent four weeks in Morocco up till now and moved from Fez to Rabat last week. It has been interesting for me to observe the different ways women were treated in public spaces in different places in Morocco.
While we were in Fez, I walked for five minutes from my homestay to ALIF when going to class. I’ve noticed that public spaces were usually male-only. I passed by the same café every day and every single time it was only men sitting there regardless if it was daytime or nighttime. Female drivers weren’t a common occurrence in Fes and during the three weeks we have stayed there I may have spotted only two female drivers in the city. Perhaps this explains why women walking in the streets seemed to garner lots of attention. From the first day walking to class with Amani, we were catcalled by men who were driving by in their cars or by the men sitting around in the cafes. During the three weeks we stayed in Fez, Amani and I have been followed twice by men, and catcalled at least once every day. It was even worse when we would go to the Medina. With comments ranging from “Bonjour” and “I love you” to vulgar sexual comments, it was evident that women were not made welcome there.
However, Rabat is very different. Unlike my experience in Fez, Rabat seemed much more welcoming for women than many other places we have visited in Morocco. I have spent about a week in Rabat up till now, but I have yet to experience any unwanted leering or catcalls. It has been a common occurrence for me to see women wearing skinny jeans or short skirts, a sight I haven’t seen in Fez. After speaking to some Moroccan women about this, they all seemed to agree that Fez isn’t the best place for women to be in. In Rabat, women have more mobility and aren’t treated as strangers to the street. And according to my host mother, people in Rabat are more open-minded than people in Fez and more respectful to women. I have really appreciated the fact that I can walk in the Medina and be able to feel safe and not worry about unwanted attention.
Morocco has been one of my favorite countries to travel in, but it is also hard to navigate as a woman. However, this is not surprising because it seems like this is the reality for women everywhere and not exclusive to Morocco only. As a woman living in Saudi Arabia, I have dressed conservatively and abided by the dress code but was still met with unwanted attention. During the one year I have stayed in the U.S, I was not exempt from sexual harassment and neither were any of my female friends. Egypt, my home country, is not much different than Morocco. The month spent in Morocco has taught me how to deal with harassment here and how to avoid it. During this time, I have learned to admire Moroccan women for tolerating and enduring these experiences every day. Harassment in the street is one way of telling women that they don’t belong here, and from my experience, it exists everywhere. Regardless of what women wear in public, there will always be those who oppose their presence and who will treat them as transgressors.
Outsider or Neighbor
We’ve been in Morocco for about a month now, and we’ve visited several places throughout the country. I’ve loved every minute of it. We are staying in Rabat now after the three weeks we spent in Fez, and both cities are beautiful and rich with culture and history. The weather in Fez was definitely hotter than the breezy summer days of Rabat. The taxis in Fez are red while the taxis in Rabat are blue or white. In Fez, I had a five minute walk to the American Language Center from my home-stay family’s apartment. In Rabat, I take a ten minute taxi ride to the American Language Center from my home-stay. Rabat is a bit more expensive a city and is the capital of the country. I don’t know if my time in Fez just gave me enough experience to make the transition in Rabat more fluid, but I’ve enjoyed my time in Rabat immensely. I wouldn’t say one city is better than the other, because both are wonderful, but I think my time in Rabat has been more fulfilling for me.
In Rabat, I’ve found myself able to be more independent, and feeling more like a part of the community here. That is not to say that I felt awkward and uncomfortable throughout my time in Fez, because I had meaningful interactions with the locals there, but that I’ve had more such meaningful encounters here in Rabat. I think a big factor in my ability to feel more comfortable and independent in Rabat is that I feel safer. My understanding is that Rabat is a generally safer city by almost all accounts, which has made me feel more at ease here. Further, in just this week, I’ve gotten much closer to my home-stay family than I did in Fez, which again is not to say my family in Fez was not great, because they were. However, my family in Rabat has really welcomed me into their home and has made me feel like one of their own. I’m always out with them doing errands or seeing friends. Their house is always open to extended family and neighbors, and it’s wonderful to be part of such a lively home. I’ve happened to experience some distinctly kind and generous instances of hospitality here, and I’m so grateful to have met so many fabulous people while studying on this trip.
The area I live in is so different from where I stayed in Fez. The homes are closer together, which is conducive to the close, neighborly feel to my experience here. The main street is basically a 24/7 market and I’ve started to recognize certain vendors already in just a week. Because my family has emphasized this sense of community, I also encounter neighbors and family friends on the street all the time, and I make an effort to greet them the Moroccan way- with a kiss on each cheek and genuine inquiry about how they’re doing. I’ve begun to feel less like a strange outsider, and more like part of the community.
It is worth noting that my experience in Fez was all new, and perhaps the initial rough start was solid preparation, allowing me to have a fluid transition to Rabat and enjoy the experience more. I don’t know, but I do know I’m so glad to be in Takdoum, the part of Rabat I live in. It’s an energetic neighborhood filled with hospitable, kind-hearted people who have made me feel not like an outsider, but like their neighbor, and that has totally elevated my experience in Rabat. And I’m thankful. I only hope I can contribute some sort of goodness back to this community that has welcomed me so warmly.
By Amani Ahmed