A Moroccan Mosaic: One Week in Marrakesh

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Good to be back to writing on this blog. It’s been over a year since I left for co-op in Northern Ireland last summer, and an awful lot has changing over the following months. To name a few (small) life events:

  • I finished my second and final co-op at a peace and conflict reconciliation center in Northern Ireland
  • Decided on post-grad plans: a Master’s Degree in Conflict, Rights, and Justice at SOAS University of London
  • Completed my final semester of undergrad studies, wrote my capstone (Changing norms of humanitarian intervention, from Bosnia to Syria), and walked during commencement
  • And finally: began my last international experience at Northeastern University, in which I will be traveling over the next through Morocco, the Netherlands, and France

It’s been a long year, for sure. But I’m happy to be here for now, traveling in a foreign country with other students from Northeastern for this first time since Jordan. It’s strange to be on a Dialogue again: I feel more like I tourist than when I traveled solo during my co-ops in the Balkans and Northern Ireland, but it’s also nice change of pace to be with a group of students again, especially those who are themselves just coming out of Freshman year on their first Dialogue. It doesn’t seem that long ago when I was in the same place in Bosnia, when I had not idea what I wanted out of my future, my education, my career.

Not that much of that has changed, but these past four years have gone by faster than I ever could have thought — and it’s a bit bittersweet that it’s all coming to a close.

Morocco won’t be the only destination of this program: in a week’s time, I’ll also be traveling to the Netherlands and France to study North African immigrant communities in the European Union. At a time when the question of migration is central to the survival of the world’s greatest peacetime experiment, and when nationalist, far-right forces that market themselves as wardens against the Muslim world are gaining ground in nearly every nation, it’s an incredibly important time to be engaging with these issues. I’ll try my best to give them their due here on this blog throughout the next few weeks.

A quick note: as the wifi being a little difficult to manage in Marrakesh, I’ll be posting only once a week (rather than the two to three times as in Jordan or Bosnia), but I’ll make sure to make these posts longer and more fleshed-out for it. But enough housekeeping. I’m here to write about Morocco, after all:

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High Atlas Mountains

It’s been two years since I last traveled to Jordan, the tiny Arab monarchy wedged between Iraq, Syria, and Israel. I can still remember strongly the vast deserts and Bedouins and camels; the big, busy cities with building stacked haphazard atop one another like building blocks; the call to prayer that rings out five times a day; and of course, the all-to-real immediacy of nearby wars in Syria, Iraq, and Israel-Palestine.

There are similarities here, in Morocco, to all of that: similarities of religion, of language, of even politics that resemble that of Jordan and the Middle East. But Marrakech, my host city in Morocco, is also a world away from the hills of Amman or the desert of Wadi Rum. There is a shared religion, yes, as well as a shared language, a common history, and a similar culture. But in all of those similarities there is also a “but”: religion here follows a more spiritual Sufi branch of Islam than the more conservative Jordanian practices; Darija, the local dialect, is so different from Modern Standard Arabic or Jordanian aamia that it might as well be its own language (and is a constant frustration to my attempts to communicate, four semesters of Arabic be damned). Even in the largely shared history, culture, and society of North Africa, Morocco is its own different being.

For as often as it is lumped together by the media, the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region is not a monolithic place – far from it. And though I’ve always known that in the back of my mind, it’s taken this last program, at the final summer of my time at Northeastern, for this to really sink in.

Morocco is its own mosaic of a country, similar to but in so many ways different from those of the Middle East. And it’s incredible.

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Tin Mal Mosque, in the High Atlas Mountains
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Moroccan Souks in the Medina
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In the Old Jewish Quarter

I’ll put this out here right now: Morocco is not the Middle East. In Jordan, so much of the history and culture is shared by its neighbors in Iraq, Palestine, in Syria, born from being at the heart of several Islamic Empires (based in different eras in Damascus, Baghdad and Istanbul), and, later, the colonization of British and French imperial powers. But the Maghreb, as Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and (in some definitions) Mauritania is known, is a different region entirely. Being closer geographically to Europe, the Maghreb (or “West”, a name that is also the official Arabic name for Morocco) has always historically been closer connected to Europe than Jordan or Iraq, exchanging goods, people, and culture across the Mediterranean for centuries even before colonization by the French and Spanish.

Europe and the Middle East / North Africa have never existed in a vacuum — in fact, their histories have been mutually tied together for centuries. In an age in which political forces on both sides of the Mediterranean are advocating for separation, whether by keeping Muslims in the Middle East or purging European influence and democratic structures in North Africa, it’s important to remember that there has never been a time in Europe and the MENA region’s shared history where these two cultures have not been closely tied together. And there never likely will be, not matter what politics reactionary leaders might put in place.

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Downtown Marrakech

Morocco is known as the “Moroccan Exception,” in that its history and culture is exceptional even compared to its fellow North African neighbors. Importantly, Morocco has remained independent since the time of the first Islamic Empire (aside from an approximately 50-year status as a “protectorate” under the French and Spanish). While Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya lay under the domain of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, most of Moroccan’s modern history flourished outside of foreign influences, creating a unique, distinctly Moroccan identity and society.

Morrocan kings and dynasties have long ruled Morocco, even through the French/Spanish colonization; Moroccan culture — a mix between indigenous Berber (or Amazigh), Arab, Sephardic Jewish (a society that, unfortunately, has largely disappeared since the Arab-Israeli wars), and European influences — has likewise had room to develop independently from its neighbors, protected from the East by the Atlas Mountains. This is the “Mosaic” of Morocco: a society that is on the surface homogenous, but in detail incredibly diverse, with a strong sense of Moroccan identity pervades throughout, born from centuries as a independent nation. Signs are posted in Berber, Arabic, and French; small but strong religious minorities, such as Sephardic Jews and Christians, still exist in major cities such as Casablanca and Marrakech; and many foods and cultural practices have likewise been adopted as much from the Spanish and French as the Arabs.

This “Moroccan Exception” isn’t just a cultural phenomenon, but a political one as well. During the Arab Spring, Morocco was one of only two countries to experience large-scale protests not to experience a revolution or civil war, but to enact gradual but meaningful political reforms (the other, in fact, being Jordan). Here, a cautiously progressive monarchy serves as the balance point between the religious establishment, parliament, and the people on the streets, slowly moving the country towards a more constitutional monarchy while still maintaining important powers for himself. While no where near a full democracy, with the government having own habits of political repression and media censorship, this “exceptionalism” has made Morocco a remarkably stable nation, and one that isn’t nearly as autocratic as the likes of Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Algeria.

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Alleyway in the Marrakech Medina

As for myself, what I’ve seen in Morocco over the past week is a country that feels very much different than Jordan. It’s not just the red-washed city, with buildings made of orange and pink clay and bricks, or the prevalence of the indigenous Berber culture and language. It’s in the way people are — lively, expressionate, passionate, and fiercely loyal to their family. There’s more color here, in short: souks that bustle well into the night, market stands overflowing with vegetables and fresh fruit, and personable Moroccans who are liable to come talk to you at a cafe or on the street. I love it.

For the past week, I’ve been staying with a host family here in Marrakech: my host father and mother, as well as my host brother Ayoum and his brother, Mehdi. Traveling with them and living with them throughout their daily routine — going to the hamam on evenings, eating couscous on Friday, watching the World Cup or going on a family outing to my host mother’s home Berber village in the Atlas Mountains — has been by far the highlight of my time in Morocco. It’s incredibly how quickly Moroccans are to welcome you into their home, to treat you not just as a guest but as a family member. While the language barrier and the lack of introversion time is challenging, it’s also worth it to have experienced this window on what life is like day-to-day in Morocco.

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My Moroccan host family and Northeastern roommate, Rayyan (left)

There are issues here, of course. While remarkable modern (in the Western sense) and tolerant in many ways, Morocco is also a very poor country, one still struggling with educating and caring for its people even as it develops into one of the most important economies in Africa. Here, there are multinational cooperations making new opportunities in Africa and industries humming with French and German textiles contracts; but there is also a huge unemployed population, a lack of a social safety net caused by IMF free market reforms, a large black market informal economy and widespread government and private sector corruption. Our Dialogue, entitled “Economic and Cultural Dynamics” of Morocco, is looking at these structural problems just as much as Morocco’s unique culture — problems that disproportionately impact minorities, women, and young people, the very demographics that rose up in protest during the Arab Spring and in several smaller movements after, most recently in the Berber Rif region in the North.

Traveling to my host mother’s home village last Sunday brought a lot of this home. The village of around 200, some 30km from Marrakech, is closer connected to Morocco’s large cities than some other villages, but the differences between it and Marrakesh is still stark. Here, people speak Berber instead of French or Moroccan Darija; employment opportunities, outside of a few local shops, are fewer; and families tend to stay large and marry together much more than in the city. While a welcome retreat from the heat of the lower-lying Marrakech, it also went to show just how much of a discrepancy there is between life in the cities and the countryside.

In Marrakech, by host brother — Ayoum — can attend a good university, learn four languages, and pursue his dream of one day being a Moroccan history professor. But those opportunities are much more limited in the mountains, and especially amongst the Berber/Amazigh people, where his mother comes from. If Morocco is to become a middle-income, rather than a developing nation, these issues will have to be solved. But there’s still no telling when that will really be.

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Amazigh children playing soccer in the Atlas Mountains

There’s about a week left to go until I leave Morocco for Amsterdam; far too short to have any real knowledge of this country and the people who call it home, but hopefully enough to have a glimpse into what makes Morocco what it is. I’ll be sure to post another blog post before the Netherlands, as my brief time in Marrakech comes to a close.

So far, this Dialogue and Morocco have been amazing, albeit a bit more challenging that previous programs I’ve been on. We’ll see what my second week in Marrakech, and on to the the Netherlands and France, compare as I wrap up this final summer semester with Northeastern.

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