As Fez was my first exposure to any form of Moroccan city, it was certainly a lot to take in. A culture and way of living very different from any I had experienced while in the States, Fez was an intimidating place, especially in the first week. It’s population was largely a poor one, one that felt looked down upon by most Americans and thus returned the gesture. As such, it took a while for me to feel welcome in the place I called home yet felt so unwelcome. However, such a situation was not one I planned on remaining in. So, I made a very conscious effort to interact with as many people as I could, forming positive relationships by demonstrating how much I value their city and way of life. This effort culminated one night while outside Batha in front of the taxi station. What my friends and I witnessed appeared to be a congregation of every kid in the neighborhood under eight years old, playing in the piazza. Within a half and hour, we joined in the games they were playing, and eventually became the fascination and source of delight of every kid there. It was in that moment that the harsh city that had publicly seemed so unwelcoming appeared to officially welcome us into the community, with both children and their parents feeling completely safe and open to us. In the days that followed, I had the beautiful experience of feeling completely at home in a place that had been a strange, impoverished, and subliminally hostile environment only three weeks before. Just as I would run into acquaintances and friends around town, so too did I run into these kids and their parents in and around the alleys and streets of the Madina. Such an experience was absolutely worth the time and effort necessary to get to that point, and is not an experience I feel I will have in Rabat.
A much more conducive city in terms of the lifestyle Westerners are used to, Rabat is without doubt a more feasible option in terms of assimilation. With it’s much more developed new city, tram system and greater fluency in Western culture, Rabat would without doubt have been an easier start to my time in Morocco. However, an easier experience is neither something I wish I had or I think I should have. For while Rabat is without doubt a more accessible city, it does not have the same feeling of community, extremes in all aspects of life, and beautiful chaos I felt while in Fez. That being said, I have only spent a single week here, and I am sure that this city will open just as Fez did. My only fear is that it will be both easier and less rewarding, for while it is nice to not have to fight to feel at home, it is also not nearly as satisfying an accomplishment.
Yesterday, the craziest thing happened to me: my taxi had no idea where to take me and my housemate when we told him the Darija for “American Language Center,” in addition to a number of notable landmarks (like the Rabat train station). We went on an unwanted tour of the city center, travelling past many commercial roads and landmarks, including the Hassan Tower. You might think that a taxi driver would notice, considering the frequency of travel in this area, if there was an important center for thousands of students, even if he couldn’t remember the exact name of the center. At the same time, however, one can perhaps be forgiven for not realizing that we were travelling in the exact opposite direction we need to–after all, it took me two minutes of staring at Google Maps to correct our directions and finally arrive at the proper location.
I bring up this point not for the sake of complaining about the “horrible, stupid taxi drivers” here: on the contrary, they’ve always been helpful, stopping to help us when we’re panicking at being late to class; they’re also honorable, like our particularly unfortunate driver yesterday who graciously accepted only half the metered fare (made higher on account of his own mistake). It instead belied a truth about Rabat that separates it from the much more populous Fez: there is no “there” there. Not even the taxi drivers, in a sense paid to know their city and understand its directions, get lost without any trace. Contrast the experience in a Rabat taxi with that from Fez. The drive from the medina to ALIF in Fez was simple, but so were the drives to all other places we visited, whether Bathah, R’Cif, or even the house of a local friend that was vaguely in the vicinity of the Fez train station. Places seemed real and valuable to the drivers, which mirrored a general sense I got in Fez that has been missing in Rabat. In Fez, everyone made it their business to understand the dynamics of other neighborhoods; girls from the Ville Nouvelle seemed to brave the conservative old city infrequently enough, but nonetheless sympathized for the problems of that conceptually distant neighborhood, and it was their pride in its landmarks and the good people there that ensured they returned. Fassis recognized their cities’ problems–no one reads, Ville Nouvelle residents’ arrogance, medina denizens’ sometimes disrespectful, sometimes “suffocatingly old-fashioned” ways–but most people understood the situation, they talked about it, they recognized it, and at least dreamed of ways they could deal with it. In the meantime, they tangibly lived with it. It was their job to know. It was their pleasure to know.
Wherever I go in Rabat, I get the nagging feeling that I’m stuck in a limbo between a faceless New York City and a hundred small, generic, “developing country”-neighborhoods. Instead of pick-up basketball in the park, there are games of wall-ball and football taking place next to the all-too-common poor families, begging in the midst of one of many upscale concrete jungle-gyms. Stores advertise bikinis even as their customers shun women from wearing them during the holy month of Ramadan. What’s more, these contradictions go on for miles. The city has little sense of self, and its residents don’t seem to mind. The majority of the pleasant people I’ve met in this city are too caught up in the minutia of their daily lives to live in their city. I know of few people outside the medina who know much about their old city, and in general there seems an attitude of obliviousness. The cab rides were only the beginning of these ruminations about how two cities, so geographically nearby and similar, on face value, in terms of class structure, could be so different. It isn’t size, because if that were the case, one might expect the larger Fez to be the city of facelessness. Alternatively, one might think that the capital of Morocco would be more interesting, seeing as it has more money and enterprising people, but that doesn’t appear to be the case either. Instead, I fear it has everything to do with the political dynamic of the two cities, an inversion of the latter supposition–the weight of a non-participatory government may have crushed its host city’s residents’ spontaneity and desire for civic participation. I’m sure this is the theory of a whole paper somewhere, but all I know is the experienced version of the problem–and it would be tragic for all the cultural, communal potential in a modernizing, trailblazing city like Rabat to be lost.
By Josh Curtis
The DAW Program arrived in Rabat today, and after my family broke Iftar, we went out for a walk around the neighborhood. As we walked through the busy streets, filled with people, stores, and cars, and after walking through parks, the host father did the unthinkable: he walked over to a beggar by the side of the park and gave him alms. It wasn’t much, but it was also such an instinctual act of justice and compassion that I immediately felt some shame for not doing the same, though I had little change in my pocket to begin with. I was angry; I hadn’t even personally acknowledged the man’s presence and need beyond internal sympathy. Why did it feel so uncomfortable for me to walk over and give just a few dirhams, less than a dollar? Chump change could make the poor man’s day.
I have had similar crises all throughout the program so far, including in Fez. In the Fez medina, I never personally saw anyone in the Ville Nouvelle give alms, while the beggars of my neighborhood in the medina always seemed well-supplied. I convinced myself of the need to donate a few dirhams to those I saw most frequently by the end of our time in Fez, feeling satisfied that I hadn’t “wasted” any resources on “fake beggars.” This very sensation, however, is concerning to me. I have always seen myself as a good citizen who follows up on ideals of helping the needy with action, sometimes in soup kitchens and sometimes donating money to charities. The fact that my primary concern in waiting to give a few dollars worth of charity usually turned out to be “not wasting it” is a cruel inversion of our citizenship studies so far.
In the United States, and especially in New York, a wicked pattern has developed in which citizens are encouraged to ignore the deprived and destitute because “somebody else will take care of them.” That “somebody else” is usually a charity, or perhaps the government. This organization, the theory goes, can make better use of charitable resources than I can, making sure they aren’t spent on drugs or something similarly counterproductive. America is saturated with such organizations and programs. Morocco is bereft of them, but the citizens are more aware of the poor here, and do more despite earning less. America’s wealth of charities is in some ways a curse: rather than build a connection to the poor who live around us, we resolve that someone else can do it better before happily ignoring these other efforts as well. In the US, we frequently think our activism, votes, and charities make our citizenry stronger, and yet it seems we are encouraged to ignore the very needs we claim to fight for. Thus, the beggars seem to beg the question: who is really a good citizen? In my experience, we participants of the much-celebrated American democracy are the most aloof of all. Except maybe for those young Fassi Moroccans trying to emulate us, but that seems no flattery to me.
When thinking about the ways in which a model citizen’s character manifests itself, especially during my time in Morocco, I instantly think back to the time I was traversing the span of the Madina, trying to make it back home as the Sun was getting closer to setting. Along my journey from the heart of the Madina to the edge in which I lived, I soon was separated from the group I was with and travelling alone, unsure of how to elicit help in a city that I had seen on multiple occasions to contain those ready to take advantage of the foreigners’ learning curve. As such, I attempted to avoid asking someone to escort me, but rather point me in the right direction. Despite asking this question to a multitude of people on my way back to Batha, I only received two responses: the first was an expressed effort to escort me for an absurdly steep price, hoping the novelty of Morocco’s relatively weak currency would compel me to believe that the price was fair. Such an effort, one that is not nearly proportional to the favor being asked, was not a solely negative experience for me. It also pointed out the simple nobility shown by simply pointing someone in the right direction, giving a few instructions and wishing them on their way. Such a small act is not an enormous demonstration of good citizenship, but it is all that is necessary. Citizenship is not about one person going completely out of their way to walk a helpless wanderer through the city, but rather send them on to the next person who will continue the same simple act of pointing. Such an act held no significance to me before I came to Fez, and saw that such an act that I have taken for granted for is not omnipresent, and instead can be dismissed in favor for acts that serve an individual’s desires to a greater extent. And yes, while such an act and it’s significance may very well be underwhelming, it does teach that engaged citizenship can be very simply and elegantly embodied in the saying “it takes a village.” However, this quote is misleading, for while it does take a village, that does not mean it takes everything from every member of the village. If the village as a whole is conscious and generous enough, then the guiding of a “blind man” to his home requires nothing less than simple courtesy and a small degree of generosity from each person, knowing that the little effort they put in, though seemingly meaningless, will get a man home when combined with the equally small efforts of those in his or her community.
By Amani Ahmed
The streets and even the sidewalks of the city of Fez are undeniably busy and crowded. If you don’t pay attention, it’s all too easy to bump into people or lampposts or trees or anything as you make your way toward your destination. I must admit that I, too, have had a clumsy experience or two. It’s not too dissimilar from the bustling nature of New York City or Philadelphia, two cities near to my own hometown. However, I witnessed a moment which describes the unique nature of Fez so perfectly. In my own experience, people in northeastern cities in the United States are generally completely focused on themselves and their own tasks at hand and expect that everyone else will do the same. There is an expectation that everyone else should take care of themselves and provide for themselves. The people of Fez seem to have a much more communal attitude. One day last week, while waiting for a taxi, I watched as a blind man made his way down the sidewalk of a main city square, with all the confidence in the world, because he knew he could trust his fellow citizens to help him on his way. As he walked, somebody would assist or direct his path and then leave when the coast was clear. After a couple steps, a new person would suddenly be at the man’s side to help him toward his destination. The whole ordeal was not rehearsed but it was completely fluid and I can honestly say I have witnessed few moments of engaged citizenship as beautiful as that. This man was able to have all the trust in the world in the people around him, people who are strangers to him, because he knew that his city would not let him down. Without hesitation, average people stepped up to be good neighbors and I think that defines engaged citizenship.
Engaged citizenship involves contributing positively to your community. Each person that decided to help that blind man that day decided to be forces of goodness. They helped to foster a society characterized by supportive and generous behavior. They became active members of their community in a way which enhances everybody else’s experience, because it allows for a greater trust to permeate the community. Knowing you belong to such a society would only make you want to return the positive attitudes and actions. It’s the perfect cycle of community and it creates good and active citizens.
I did not see that man make it to wherever he was going, but I know with all my heart that he made it there safely. I’ve never seen engaged citizenship practiced so perfectly before but I’m glad I finally have. I learned what blind faith looks like that day, and my own faith in humanity grew a little bit more. I was reminded what community should look like, and I feel encouraged to contribute more positively to my own communities. Engaged citizenship exists, and if everyone saw that man like I did, I am convinced that they would be reminded too.
Today, I had the opportunity to speak with a man called Ismail about citizenship. Ismail is a young Moroccan math teacher and is from the city of Fez. I interviewed him about his perspective and thoughts on active citizenship in Morocco through an informal conversation. For Ismail, being a Moroccan citizen most involves being connected to the culture and the faith that informs the country’s principles and values, Islam. He spoke about how Islam positively influences Moroccans and shapes the country’s narrative. When I asked more about other cultural aspects that are important, he explained how food is so central to the essence of being Moroccan. In his opinion and his experiences, people in many other countries do not eat as well as Moroccans do, and the practice of sharing traditional meals enriches the Moroccan culture. When people take the time to share a wonderful meal and tea, they are uniting friends and family, stepping away from busy schedules to enjoy the day.
Next, I asked Ismail about what a “good” or “bad” citizen would look like. He explained that he feels it is most important for a good Moroccan citizen to read. He feels that in the United States, people study for the sake of learning, because they have genuine curiosity and are passionate about their fields of interest. He explained how he has had access to American textbooks and they are more cohesive and conducive to understanding the subject matter. He feels that people in Morocco study to earn a degree and mostly memorize information instead of internalizing and genuinely understanding it, as he feels Americans do. In Morocco, he feels that many people, especially young people, do not have a desire to read books and develop their intellectual interests. He quoted a study he read once that claimed that in the United States, the average person reads 35 books a year. In the Arab world, one book is read for every forty people. This illiteracy is tragic and shameful for the Arab world, in his opinion. Ismail articulated how Arabs are often portrayed as oppressive, as terrorists, etc. in media throughout the world (particularly in Western nations), and he feels like the Arab world’s illiteracy contributes to an inability to properly defend and represent the true Arab world. When I asked him how illiteracy should be conquered, he explained that it is everyone’s responsibility, and programs should be created by good citizens and the government.
Regarding the government, Ismail is not so concerned with the responsibilities of the government or the relationship between the people and their political representatives. He said it is most important for each individual to be good. “Good” means knowledgeable, curious, empathetic, active, in Ismail’s opinion. People need to be good at their very core, in their hearts and in their minds. He continued to say that if people were all good, the government would be good by default. I was really struck when he said that the government is only as good as its people – its representatives and leaders are not the worst in Morocco, but they are certainly not the best. They are average, and they serve a community which they reflect. Individuals need to focus on themselves, and their own purification in order to create a society which deserves and requires certain privileges. For Ismail, Moroccans need to find goodness in their souls, always seeking knowledge and wisdom, especially in a way which may allow people to learn and contribute back to their communities