The Paradox of Studying Abroad in Morocco

Leah Siegel

A couple of days ago I got back from the Netherlands, but it seems like a lifetime ago.

The culture shock I experienced first going to Europe, and then returning to Morocco, was overwhelming.  English was everywhere.  I was surrounded by a good deal of wealth.  Women weren’t wearing headscarves.  Women weren’t wearing jellabas.  Women, in fact, were wearing very little in comparison to what I’ve seen for the past couple of months.  (And this was in a place at least thirty or so degrees cooler than Rabat.)  I could go running by myself and not get harassed.  I could go to a bar and stay out late without worrying my host mother.  I could simply wander around the city and not stick out, not be stared at.

Picture added for viewing pleasure. Chefchaouen, Morocco.
I want to convey to you how nice it was in the Netherlands after being in Morocco for almost two months, because most students at Whitman, and in general most white people living in the Pacific Northwest, don’t experience that tingling sensation at the back of your neck when you know that people are staring at you.  All.  The.  Time.  You don’t know where to look.  You automatically look down at your feet, but then you wonder if this makes you seem weak, so you look up in front of you.  But this allows you to see people staring at you from the periphery of your vision, and you become even more self-conscious of the attention that you’re attracting.
You can tell when a man is about to call out to you.  It’s actually quite amusing to observe.  First his eyes lock onto you: target spotted.  The obvious next step would be to choose what to say, but this in itself is complicated for the typical Moroccan male.  White people in Morocco come from all over Europe, so first he must decide which language to use.  Do you look Spanish or French?  English or Italian?  Apparently my ethnicity is ambiguous, because I have gotten salutations in a plethora of languages.  Ciao, bella.  Ã‡a va?  Hola!  Speak English?  Parles français?  If you watch him at this point, you’ll notice a hint of frustration on his face, as if he was thinking, “Why, oh why, is Moroccan Arabic not universally understood?  It would make this so much easier!”
I’ve thus been relatively anti-social on the street.  Aside from people I see day-to-day, I avoid eye contact and walk fast on my way to class to avoid unwanted interactions.
Here’s the thing about living as an American in Morocco: I will never seem Moroccan.  I will never blend in.  I knew this coming into the program, but I didn’t comprehend it.  So despite my best intentions, there will forever be Moroccan quirks which I’ll never understand.  And, despite their best intentions, most of the Moroccans I meet won’t be able to understand me.  To illustrate, I once started talking to a local calligrapher in the old medina.  He asked me why I was in Morocco, and I tried to explain that I want to study Moroccan society.  “But why,” he pressed, “did you come here when you could have learned all that on the internet?”  I said that I additionally wanted to experience something new, something different from life in America, but he refused to accept this answer.
Ultimately, the concept of studying abroad in a place like Morocco is a paradox.  I come to learn and to understand what it’s like to be Moroccan, but the fact that I can afford to spend a semester abroad in another country inherently alienates myself from the typical Moroccan.  There was an invisible barrier constructed the minute I got off the plane in Rabat in September.
Life in Morocco has not been hard, but it’s not been any cake walk, either.  The time I spent in Amsterdam, and the ease I felt while I was there, proved this.  And honestly, I’m glad I’m not there for the entire semester.  Not only would it be ridiculously expensive, but I wouldn’t be able to appreciate my life back in America.  The different lifestyle that I’ve observed here has held up a mirror to the one to which I’m accustomed.  And I think, especially as a student of sociology, this is something that cannot be overvalued.