Monthly Archives: March 2012

What’s in a Day?

Midterms, and Languages, and Ambassadors, oh my!

School today was a pleasant surprise. Though I went to bed early, I was still exhausted from the weekends festivities (trust me, Moroccan’s know how to party, and their wedding hefla’s last all night long), and slept later than I intended, meaning I had to take a petite taxi to make it to school in time for my 8am class and the midterm that went along with it. I had a really nice taxi driver, who picked up some other nice people on the way, and (thanks to a great mix of FosHa and Darija) I was actually able to communicate and understand what was said in our conversations (Hooray for constantly trying to juggle 3 foreign languages!). I made it to class in time for some interesting discussions about djnun (aka. djinns) and what travel and experiencing “the Other” means for personal growth, change, and self-discovery. We had a midterm in the second half of class, which thankfully was a timed write on some of the literature we’ve read for the class (yes, in this class we actually read, discuss, and analyze Moroccan literature = win!).

Some of the books donated to Universite Moulay Ismail

My morning Moroccan History and Culture class was followed by Advanced Arabic Grammar, with a professor who never fails to keep class interesting, but what was really exciting about the day was what happened after lunch. Two of my friends from ISA and I went to get shawarma just off campus at a local place where we ran into some of our Moroccan friends. We then returned to campus together to listen to the American Ambassador to Morocco speak. He and his wife had come to the University to donate some books on American Studies (including titles by John Steinbeck, Malcolm Gladwell, Walt Whitman, Ray Bradbury, and J.D. Salinger to name a few) and have some discussions with the Moroccan American Association for Communication and Cultural Cooperation (MAACCC) on campus. After the public speech and official donation of the books, Ambassador Samuel Kaplan and his wife Sylvia moved from the university’s auditorium to the administration building for an exclusive meeting with the members of MAACCC and the American students who decided to sit in on the meeting (and were allowed in by virtue of being American). After introducing ourselves, the Ambassador and his wife asked us all if there was any way they could improve their mission in Morocco. They were rather pressed for time but still made an effort to listen to students’ input and address concerns, leaving a few minutes for pictures and some short side conversations before they had to head back to Rabat (Morocco’s capital is about a three hour long drive away from Meknes).

The Americans

It was an interesting experience as an American student in the crowd of excited Moroccans. I hadn’t known the Ambassador would be there until I got to school that morning, though I do remember overhearing something about it last week. Vaguely. [At the time I thought it was part of another cultural event MAACCC is having later this week, but that’s another story.] That’s very much how things tend to go in Morocco, at least in my experience. Flexibility is key, especially when it comes to scheduling, so when I heard that the US Ambassador would be on campus in the afternoon, I quickly changed my plans so I could go. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see him speak (and I’m always in support of sharing books!) but I didn’t really think about the possibility of meeting him personally. However, after the meeting, as all the excited Moroccan students crowded around them, asking for pictures, the Ambassador made a point to seek out the few American students who were hanging around to talk and get a picture with them. We were all just along for the ride, but he and his wife seemed like genuinely nice people who were happy to see some American faces in the crowd.

Overall, I was slightly surprised at how informal the whole affair was, but now that I think back on it, it makes sense. The more I learn of other languages, the more I realize how very informal the English language is, especially the American dialect. The use of English combined with Moroccan culture, which is so very hospitable and welcoming that American political distance seems rude and which allows people to interrupt speakers and turn any speech into a discussion, would naturally make for a somewhat informal experience by US political standards. The small size of the group also made both the speech and the meeting more intimate experiences. Plus, Sam and Sylvia Kaplan’s desire to listen to students’ input further encouraged an open dialogue and more personal interaction with them.

Sylvia and Samuel Kaplan

Sylvia and Samuel Kaplan

I found that their speech was entertaining. They made some interesting comments, (some of which are roughly quoted below), some of which I agreed with and some I found more questionable. They seemed like genuinely nice people with good senses of humor (I’m not entirely sure the entirety of their audience got all of their humor in this case, but I at least appreciated it). The one thing that bothered me was the issue of language. The entire event was conducted in English, for which I was grateful, since it’s still the only language I’m fluent in and events in English are somewhat hard to come by in Meknes, Morocco. Since the topic was American Studies and the friendship between Morocco and the US, the decision to use English was conducive to the purpose of the event as well. However, neither the Ambassador nor his wife spoke French or Arabic (let alone Darija). In sharp contrast to the Moroccan officials’ formal “Bismillah alRahman alRahim…” they made no attempt to use any words or phrases in any language other than English (except for an appropriated use of “par excellence” in part of the Ambassador’s speech, which doesn’t really count) in the whole 2.5-3 hours they were there. Not even a single “shokran” for all the “marhaban bikoum”s they received. Not all of the mostly-Moroccan audience had the English skills necessary to fully accommodate this, and some asked their questions in French, forcing the Dean of the university to make hasty translations as the Ambassador read his notes over his shoulder.

Americans already have a reputation for not knowing any languages other than English and not bothering to learn the language of the country they travel to.  The fact that our Ambassador to another country wouldn’t bother to learn any of the official languages of said country, nor the language of the people there (what people actually speak on the street in Morocco is different from the “official” languages) is embarrassing. The fact that he has held this position for over three years now (since 2009) and still does not know the language (or any of the languages used) makes it even worse.

Other than my thoughts in regards to language, the afternoon was a positive experience overall. Everyone was very excited and energetic, happy to share their experiences. Sylvia even commented on the large amounts of positive energy emanating from everyone on campus. It was an interesting experience and made for a memorable afternoon. 

Here are some of the more interesting/memorable quotes from this afternoon: 

Samuel Kaplan: (Ambassador)

I would suggest that the most complicated word in the dictionary is friendship.

[Discussing 4th of July] “…we celebrate our Declaration of Independence, which of course gave Morocco the opportunity to be the first country to support our independence. Yes I know that!”

[Discussing Obama’s inauguration] “…then President Bush got on a helicopter and flew away, and that is something I’m really proud of.”

Through all the earthquakes, well, we don’t have that many earthquakes in America, but you know what I mean…”

Sylvia Kaplan: (Ambassador’s wife)

 “I was a trapped house-wife in the suburbs….not with this husband, in my training marriage.”

Ritalin would have really helped me.”

[After a last-minute interruption by someone plugging for the Moroccan Autonomy Plan] “You generally can’t have a discussion in Morocco without the topic of the Western Sahara coming up, so at least now we know we’re having a real Moroccan discussion.”

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Confronting Misconceptions

One of the many things I love about traveling is the opportunity it presents for greater understanding between peoples. There are a lot of cultural misconceptions out there, and stereotypes exist in all corners of the world, about all people from different perspectives.  Stereotypes aren’t that great to begin with but what really bothers me is when they become the basis for prejudice and discrimination, as is so often the case.

Since the attacks of September 11th, America has fostered a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment, much of it stemming from ignorance.   This chart (found on Tumblr) lists only a few of the most common misconceptions about Muslims:

Many people are surprised to hear that the Koran contains many of the same stories and characters found in the Bible.   Islam began by accepting and building off of the Christian and Jewish traditions of the time.   That’s why the three Abrahamic religions are so similar, and why they are often referred to as the “People of the Book”: they have the same origins and share many of the same stories in their holy texts.

Another phenomenon I’ve noticed is a tendency to look at Saudi Arabia as a prime example of the Muslim world.   Granted, Saudi Arabia is the home to both Mecca and Medina, two cities of great religious significance to Muslims worldwide, and was the birthplace of Islam, but one country is not representative of an entire religion.  Of course, Saudi Arabia will say it’s the home of ‘true’ or ‘pure’ Islam but I’ve found in my time here in Morocco that many Arabs (at least here) see Saudi Arabia as the most backward of all Arab countries.

I feel like the Arab Spring has done a lot to put the Arab World in a more positive light in the West.   It has served as a reminder that these people are not so different from us, what they want is not so different from what we desire, they struggle for values we share, and there are more countries in the Middle East than just Iran and Iraq.

In truth, the so-called “Arab World” is incredibly diverse.  Muslim countries include some in the Middle East of course, but also Africa, Asia, and Europe.  That’s not even mentioning the large numbers of Muslims living in countries without a Muslim majority (like America).  Even within one country the interpretations of “Islam” are multitudinous.  You could, in theory, lump all Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and all other branches of Christianity together and claim that they’re all exactly the same because they’re all “Christian”, but you wouldn’t really understand their beliefs.  Same goes for Islam.  There are countless numbers of branches and interpretations, lumping them all together does none justice.

Of course, there are many other issues concerning America’s perception of the Arab World, but I hope that this at least provides some basic information so the next time someone mentions ” those Arabs” or “those Muslims” you stop and think before jumping to conclusions.   It’s a big world out there, and we all have our differences in customs and perspective, but at the end of the day, no one’s really all that different.

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Conscious and Caring

This is one of my favorite photos from my time spent in Morocco and it was the product of a very special day.

Some of the ISA students and staff, along with several of our Moroccan friends, spent a couple of weeks collecting donations for a donation trip to a small village in the mountains called Bouqashmir.   Each student contributed and we collected as much money as we could to purchase blankets for the village (It’s COLD up there!  Especially at night).  We also brought along clothing, school supplies, soccer balls, and the University contributed a whole set of computers.  The trip was unfortunately postponed several times but that just made everyone even more excited when it came to the actual event.  The bus ride up to the mountains was full of music, drumming, karaoke, and dancing people – not to mention someone’s pet dog going up and down the aisle too.  Everyone was happy when we finally arrived and we were almost immediately met by the director of the  school in the village.

The director and head of the village showed us the town, which basically consisted of a couple of buildings for a school and another for a restaurant, with some other buildings half-constructed on the other side, explaining that they were trying to build housing for the students who have to travel far from their family homes each day (we’re talking severely rural here).   We then got to spend some time with the students themselves, visiting each class, sitting with the kids, and explaining what we were doing there.

Afterwards, we all helped unload the donations we had brought, creating a big pile of materials that covered almost a whole wall of the restaurant before having a sort of gifting ceremony.   Each ISA and Moroccan UMI student ceremoniously gave a blanket to one of the children from the village.  The rest were left for the director and other village officials to distribute to those most in need.   We also gave a couple of soccer balls to the boys and crayons to the younger girls.  We ended up with one extra box of crayons and realized this young girl had been too shy to come forward.  With some persuasion and a gentle hand, the director guided her up to accept her gift.

With many smiles and much celebration, we all took pictures before leaving the village.   It was a rewarding experience for all and a day that will certainly be remembered by everyone involved.

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