Our course here, taught by a sociologist from the University of Fes, covered topics that included women’s issues, ethnic minorities, linguistic diversity, Islamic political and social movements, and music in Morocco. One of our last class meetings happened at the University, where Professor Sadiq Rddad invited students pursuing master’s degrees in Cultural Studies to quiz us on what we had learned and start candid conversations about Moroccan culture.
Undoubtedly, meeting with these students was a highlight of studying in Morocco. We broke into small groups, introduced ourselves (it was amusing to see how Moroccans and Americans both struggled to pronounce each others’ names), and dug right in. I was curious as to why the Moroccans in my group had chosen Cultural Studies, and the answers they gave set a high bar for the rest of our conversation.
“Our choices are shaped by three things,” Hamza claimed. “Our culture, our religion, and our crazy ‘selves.’ The latter is impossible to understand, but unpacking the other two teaches us why we make the decisions we do. I would love to go somewhere where I know absolutely nothing — I just want to learn, and that’s why I chose Cultural Studies, so I could better understand my own experience.” Mahmahdou, another student, agreed but added that cultural relativism was a concept he wanted to explore. “If you go to a country where people walk with one leg and you walk with two, then you are the fool.”
They had a slew of difficult questions ready for us, and not just the “what do you think of American foreign policy in the Middle East” inquiries that we were prepared for. Why did we choose to come to Morocco instead of other countries in this part of the world? Do we conceive of Morocco primarily as part of Africa or the Middle East? If we had to describe our identity in one word, what would it be? Most of us are still developing answers to these questions, and responding helped us discover motivations and beliefs we didn’t know we held (we hope our readers will encourage us, when we’re back in the States, to articulate these!).
Intellectually, we quickly became exhausted as the conversation veered from the implementation of democracy to illiteracy and education. Eventually, we took a break from ‘serious’ topics to discuss more personal questions: what would our ideal family look like? Does religion have an impact on our daily lives? What upset or confused us about Morocco?
By the end of our two-hour conversation, laughter was erupting regularly from every corner of the classroom as the members of all the small groups cemented friendships we hope will be long-lasting. Each group had representatives stand up to convey what was covered, including 9/11 conspiracy theories, the veil, the (Arab) Spring (parentheses added to emphasize the contribution of ethnic minorities in the Arab World, as one of the Moroccan students cautioned us), and the Moroccan monarchy. We exchanged emails and promised to stay in touch, a commitment that has already resulted in new Facebook friendships.
One Moroccan described what we’ll take away from the experience: “Discovering other people’s way of life and beginning to see from their perspective empowers us. Ultimately, it’s only through knowing another culture that we understand our own.”
Thanks to Sadiq and his students, we leave for Moroccan excursion with a better understanding of the culture we’re exploring, confident that the experiences we have abroad will provide insight into what it means to be American and ultimately what it means to be ourselves.