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Personal Statement: Observations of a North African kingdom

Photo by Nate Evans, Illinois Wesleyan University Buy this photo

By Jacob Axelrad, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 25, 2013

RABAT, Morocco — On January 26, I boarded a plane at Los Angeles Airport and flew to Rabat, Morocco, the country’s capital. Since then, I’ve been living and studying in a country that, until a few months ago, I knew little aside from the fact that its largest city, Casablanca, is the namesake of a classic Hollywood movie. I’m staying with a host family in Rabat’s Old Medina (old city), a city filled with mazes of tiny streets, street vendors and motorcyclists who pass so close to your limbs it seems they’re trying to remove one of them in the process. I take classes at the Center for Cross Cultural Learning, a private institution started by Moroccan academics that provides classes on Moroccan language, culture, art and history.

Since I’m not qualified to write about subjects like politics or culture, and since I haven’t (yet) visited many major tourist destinations, I’ve assembled a mishmash of observations, encounters and thoughts that have been my last 20 days in this very old kingdom.

English lurks beneath the surface

Sometimes, I’ve noticed, Moroccans will do this thing where when I’ll ask for directions on the street — throwing out the three French words and one Arabic word I know, flailing my arms in some kind of crash-and-burn game of charades, desperately trying to communicate — they’ll kind of quietly nod, not really saying anything. Then after, say, three or four minutes, they’ll finally point me in the right direction, at which point I thank them profusely for putting up with my ignorant Americanness. “No problem,” they might say, or “Don’t worry about it. You’re welcome.” I could see how this could be funny from their end, letting the American make a fool of himself. I hope they have a good laugh at my expense. Really, it doesn’t bother me at all. Seriously, I’m fine with it. It’s all cool, ok guys!

Globalization is weird

I can’t seem to walk down the streets of the old medina without hearing PSY’s “Gangnam Style” blasting from a shopkeeper’s speakers. Yet I wonder: Is the song really that good? Does it honestly deserve the cross-cultural prominence it’s garnered? I guess the evidence speaks for itself.

Country of contrasts

Keep in mind I’ve been in this country long enough to justifiably say many Moroccan drivers drive as though you, personally, are responsible for any and all of their problems, and that can be fixed by injecting sheer terror into your heart. Any other conclusions on my part would be premature. That being said, here’s a conclusion I feel a bit better about sharing, since it was told to me by someone who lives here: “Morocco is a country of contrasts,” my friend said as we walked through the two-year-old Morocco mall in Casablanca, a place that not only holds such American brands as Pinkberry and Starbucks, but also a freakishly large aquarium, a mini amusement park and an indoor ice-skating rink. On the beach by the mall, young boys offer camel rides to passersby while the minaret of the Hassan II mosque, the seventh largest mosque in the world, loomed in the distance.

But earlier, we’d passed by the bidonvilles, or shantytowns, slums where homes are little more than shacks comprised of metal and tin. In the United States, we too have extremes of poverty and wealth, but never before had I seen the two poles rubbing shoulders quite so closely, quite so glaringly.

Exchange rate

Despite the incredible beauty and richness of this country, there are moments or days when I do feel down for one reason or another — I miss my friends and family back home; I feel like this big, mute, helpless creature that has to rely on the pity of others in a culture where I don't know the customs or language. I’m weighed down by my guilt as an upper middle-class white American in this much poorer country — but then I go around the corner from where I am living and buy a pizza (not a slice, an entire margarita pizza) for the equivalent of around $1.50 U.S. and I can, at least for a short while, make myself feel much, much better (Note: The white-guilt thing never really goes away).

In which I learn about a cultural difference

“I’m 21,” I told a new Moroccan friend when introducing myself, before clumsily adding, “It’s a big deal in the States ‘cause it means you’re old enough to drink.”

“Yeah. I know. I’ve seen American movies,” she said, trying to contain her laughter.

“Right,” I said, feeling a tad ignorant — a feeling I’ve learned to kind of accept and embrace (as I’ve learned it simply won’t go away as long as I’m living in a different country). But the initial sting when I realize just how little I know about the world beyond U.S. borders never quite goes away.

“What age is a big deal in Morocco?” I asked, trying to keep the conversation from stalling. She paused as she thought for a moment.

“Well, not 21,” she replied. “But not 20 or 18 or 16 either, because your parents are still paying for everything. Maybe when you get a job and can pay for things yourself, then maybe that’s a big deal.”

At this I wanted to laugh. I wanted to politely inform her just how wrong she was. Oppositely in America, being old enough to spend your parents’ money on booze is clearly reason enough to rejoice and celebrate. Yet I decided to keep these thoughts to myself, fearing they could have been taken the wrong way.

Small comforts

A bed can be the greatest luxury. To know my host family has provided me with something so simple yet so essential can be better than touring the Kasbah, a fortress from the 12th century, or visiting the Hassan Tower, Rabat’s famed minaret. At times, when I’m tired from class lectures, sightseeing or from smelling the smells of cooking shawarma mixed with engine exhaust, I’ll lie on my bed and stare at the walls, patches of plaster peeling from the ceiling. I try to listen — to the sounds of my host mother cooking dinner, maybe couscous or macaroni and cheese — or to my host brother watching “Homeland” on his computer dubbed in French. The other day he jokingly asked me if Americans still thought all Arab men were terrorists and all Arab women wore the hijab. Though he was joking, I thought I sensed a tiny pang of sadness beneath his laughter. I laughed too, thinking it the only appropriate response in that situation.

And, sometimes, I listen to the muezzin recite the call to prayer, which happens five times a day, as it emanates from the loudspeakers of the nearest mosque’s minaret. It’s gotten to the point where I barely notice it anymore. Part of everyday life, know what I mean? I’ve been studying Arabic since I got to Morocco. But I’m far from understanding these words, even if their meaning is relatively simple. They roughly translate to, “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the prophet of God.” One day I’d like to understand these words for myself, without relying on Google translate, even if they don’t make any sense to me. Something, however, tells me the semantics add up to more than just linguistic barriers.

Jacob is an LSA junior and Daily Arts writer studying through SIT Study Abroad