A Semester in Morocco
From January to May 2015, I lived in Rabat, Morocco's capital city, studying Arabic and journalism at the Center for Cross-Cultural Learning.
I still remember my Irish dancing teacher’s last words to me before I left for Morocco last January.
“Of all the people I know, I’d have never thought it’d be you to go all the way to Africa,” she said, grinning wide. “If you told me you were going as far as Revere [MA], I’d have been just as surprised.”
For 16 years, I feared Rita O’Shea about as much as I admired her. From a young age, I knew that dance class time wasn’t the time to fool around... she made that pretty clear to me the day she kicked me out of class for misbehaving on the dance floor. I was only 4 years old and probably hyped up on sugar, but I was wasting her time and she wasn't afraid to tell me. During the years I danced under her name, Rita’s propensity to speak her mind is what scared me most. To be fair, it still scares me. She has never been, and probably never will be, one to sugar coat things.
But these days, it also happens to be the quality I admire most about her. She’s candid; she tells you exactly what she thinks whether you’re ready to hear it or not. It might not always be what you want to hear and sometimes what she says might be best taken with a grain of salt, but every once in a while, Rita says exactly what you need to hear.
Still, her parting words came as a shock to me. I moved nearly 1,000 miles away from home three years ago; what was another few thousand miles? I let it go, though, because I imagined that despite how normal it all seemed to me at the time, she probably couldn’t help but think back to the 4-year-old she first knew me as — the quiet girl who all but refused to dance on stage at the family ceili and only reluctantly agreed to do so with tears in her eyes and the promise of taking home one of the ceramic pumpkin centerpieces. She was likely referring to the teenager whose anxiety manifested itself in some pretty unfortunate ways before and after every major Irish dancing competition, and the now 21-year-old college student who visits dance class every time she's home because she isn’t ready to say goodbye to the community she grew up in. All of this was, and still is, a big part of who I am.
So when Rita said almost the same thing last May, I just smiled and shook my head. I knew that her words were merely a reflection on the version of me she had known so well for 16 years. That girl, I realized, will always be a part of me, increasing in complexity from the experiences that shape her. In other words, Rita showed me, likely without intending to, that I can be both the girl I just described and the girl who boards a flight to Morocco, nearly 5,000 miles away from everything familiar to her. Sometimes, it takes the help of others to peel back the layers of ourselves we don’t realize we haven’t yet shed.
After hearing it for the second time, I found myself less concerned with what Rita said and more interested in remembering why I had chosen Morocco in the first place. It was a question I had been asked quite a bit, sometimes out of genuine curiosity and other times, unfortunately, as if to suggest I was crazy. I initially chose Morocco because of the program it offered: field experience in journalism and language study in Arabic. But I wanted more out of my study abroad than a line on my resume; I wanted to immerse myself in a different culture. I wanted to live and learn in an area of the world and among people who are too often misunderstood and misrepresented by the media. I wanted to escape the safe walls of Loyola's campus with the expectation of getting lost, frustrated and challenged at every turn. In Morocco, that's exactly what happened. I woke up most mornings to the sound of the call to prayer. I walked home from school each day on roads covered in a day's worth of trash. I ate dinner each night with a family who didn’t speak the same language as me and I relearned how to accomplish basic daily tasks like how to shower and use the bathroom, how to shop and how to eat. Tasks that initially appeared impossible soon became routine.
For all those reasons and many more, Morocco wasn’t the study abroad experience I envisioned for myself as a high school student preparing to begin classes at Loyola. I didn’t come home with a long list of wild nights out on the town, nor can I say I visited a different country every weekend. What works for one person might not work for another, and I knew that wasn’t the experience I had set out for. I returned home missing Morocco in the same way I had missed Chicago — my other home away from home — while I was there. I ached for things like the sound of my home-stay sisters’ squeals of laughter, the taste of mama Naima’s tagines, or for one more night listening to Gnawa music in the desert. I never imagined I could miss a place that challenged me as much as Morocco did.
In the weeks that passed after my return to Boston, I found it harder and harder to respond when people asked, “How was Morocco?” I no longer felt satisfied simply saying that it had been incredible, because that barely scratched at the surface. If people asked for stories, I gave them stories. The more Morocco began to feel like a distant memory, though, the more I was forced to think about the experience in its entirety rather than the individual days that made up the 15 weeks I spent there. Morocco was a learning experience in every way imaginable as an American student abroad, a journalist, and ultimately, as a human being. So this post, which is just as much for me as it is for all those who kept up with my travels abroad, reflects on just a few things I learned as I stumbled my way through a semester in Rabat. In a way, this is my final goodbye to a spring spent in the North African Kingdom.
So then, you ask, how was Morocco? It was experiencing something new almost every day. It was scrambling to find ways to communicate with someone when I didn’t have the vocabulary to. It was hectic family dinners at 10 p.m. and quiet breakfasts of bread and tea before school. It was long bus rides, soccer games on the beach, and beers in Ceuta. It was the chaotic, trash-covered medina of Rabat that I learned to love in spite of what the crowds did to my blood pressure. It was meeting people who challenged me to think differently. It was watching my host sisters sing and dance to Gangnam Style until we were called downstairs to eat. It was walking through the deserted medina late at night after all the shops had closed and the street cleaning had begun. It was couscous Fridays that gave a completely new meaning to the phrase, “I'm full.” It was establishing friendships with shopkeepers and becoming regulars at King’s Sandwich. It was long days at NGOs and late nights on the terrace. It was the kind owner of Arab Cafe instinctively offering me toilet paper when I approached the cafe counter to ask to use the bathroom behind it. It was this happening, and me shaking my head to say no, I only came to ask for another cup of coffee, please. It was conversations in French and broken Arabic with cab drivers, and spontaneous nights at the club that turned into mornings. It was street harassment at a level I'd never experienced before and it was cats, oh so many cats. It was meeting some of the most welcoming people I’ve ever met, but also meeting some of the least. It was creating lasting friendships in Morocco and strengthening the old ones at home.
In one sentence, Morocco was my home away from home.