Would you believe that after almost 2 weeks in Morocco, I have yet to see a proper sunset? So many evenings I have tried, racing up to rooftops and terraces between 7:45 and 8pm, but always there is some impediment – mountains, buildings, clouds, the sandy windstorm in the desert. Finally, on our 2nd to last night in Morocco, I got to see the sun set in Rabat.
After the hammam on Wednesday, we took a 4.5 hour train to Rabat, to spend the next 2 days with my colleagues at my company’s study abroad center there. In recent years I have been very lucky to be able to travel with my work, and often times I even prefer to travel for work than for vacation. I get to see a side of the country most tourists never see, and have automatic hosts and cultural informants in my colleagues. This was very true in Rabat, where I saw a different side of Morocco than I have these past 2 weeks.
Rabat is the capital of the country, but is often overlooked by tourists, and so has more a feel of a “regular” city, without all the trappings that come with tourism. The city feels very European, with wide boulevards and many European-style apartments. Even the medina’s streets are more orderly than those in Marrakech, and certainly moreso than in Fes. There are many embassies there, and the neighborhood where many of the embassies are is also where my company’s office happens to be. After morning meetings and lunch with my colleagues, we went to meet with a professor at the local university, Mohammed 5. This woman was a force to be reckoned with – she was tough on both students and the university administration, expecting the highest standards from each – and receiving it. She teaches a class on Maghreb identities, a subject near to my interests and heart, and speaking with her for an hour reminded me how much I miss having these discussions in a classroom. When I get home, I’ve decided to track down the syllabus and course packet.
Then we were off to meet 3 host families in the medina. Our students are always placed with families in the medina, and always in families with children living at home. This helps them integrate better, and also facilitates communication, as sometimes there may be no language in common with the host parents. Each of the host families served us food. At the first, it was muffins and orange juice; the second, it was homemade sweets and tea (Henia, the host mother, is a caterer, and it showed); the 3rd, it was dates and milk. By the time we left the 3rd house, we were waddling.
Professional grade sweets from Henia
Although I could only really converse with the 2nd mother, it was clear that all of them had no trouble communicating with their American students – the language of mothering and food crosses all cultural and linguistic barriers. The first mother showed us how she made many pastille at once and froze them, and recounted how her two students would say to her every Friday,”Don’t start the cous cous without us!” and they would race home from class every Friday to help with the cous cous.
The 3rd family had a young daughter who spoke English, and my colleague Nisrine explained to us that in more traditional families, having an American student in the house helps give more freedom to the daughters, who are permitted to go out and about with them. In the 3rd family, we got to meet one of the students studying with my company in Rabat, and she happily showed us around her neighborhood. She gave hugs and waved hello, and made us buy baked goods from her favorite bakery. Even though she had come with no French or Arabic, she had made herself a home in the medina, and I was wholly impressed.
When I first arrived in Rabat, I admit my first reaction was that this would not be my choice of place to study abroad in Morocco. To me, it seemed more European than Moroccan, without the more frenetic rhythm that characterized the other cities I have seen here. But as I walked through the medina and no one bothered me, and hopped in a metered taxi without the need to argue over the price, and visited the homes of the people who live there… I changed my mind.
I actually think it’s the perfect place to study abroad. There is enough familiar that students would not be (hopefully) too overwhelmed; while still being thoroughly Moroccan in terms of family life and local culture. You can explore the city relatively unmolested, and more easily make the city a home for a few months. The rest of Morocco is there at your fingertips, and Europe is just a quick flight away. Truly, I think if I were to study abroad again, I just might do it in Rabat.
This was what I decided while Keith and finally watched the sunset over the Atlantic. The air was just hazy enough to give the scene a dream-like quality, and the lighthouse on the beach made a perfect backdrop for the sunset. Behind us lay a graveyard, with thousands of souls buried facing towards Mecca; to the other side was Rabat’s sister town of Sale, just across the river as Cambridge is to Boston. For an hour we sat and watched the sunset, before strolling back through the darkening medina to our hotel.
Our final morning in Rabat was spent at the office of the Fulbright mission in Morocco. Students may intern there, which was the reason for my visit. However, I confess we spoke little of the internships, and instead engaged in a mind-stretching discussion with the executive director of the mission, a retired professor from Clemson. He was from upstate NY and his niece had gone to Barnard, and my colleague Nisrine finally had to pry us out of his office well past our meeting end time. He had studied abroad in Tunisia back in the 60’s, and we discussed North Africa, the King of Morocco, and the philosophical underpinnings of study abroad from his time to now. When I speak with such accomplished academics and leaders, I always feel as if I know nothing at all, but am reminded how much I do love to learn and need to apply myself more directly.
Then, because it was Friday, my colleague Oussama invited us to his apartment for cous cous. One must eat cous cous on Friday in Morocco, and it is a shame to not invite guests. So Keith and I and another professor were all invited, and ate a proper Friday cous cous at Oussama and his wife Hafsa’s apartment. With meeting the host families the evening before, and being invited to Friday cous cous, I had finally been welcomed into the homes of Moroccans – not a riad that used to be a home, but real homes. And this is why I love traveling for work – true, my days were filled with meetings and not sightseeing, but the discussions I had and the ability to meet Moroccans in their homes were richer experiences than any tour I could have possibly taken.
After we had eaten our fill of cous cous and drunk some mint tea, Oussama and Hafsa drove us to the train station. But, he was supposed to have taken us back to the office, where we had left our luggage! So then he turned around and sped to the office, and back to the train station, and we pulled in with 4 minutes to spare. However, the train tickets had been pressed against the wet wipes in my purse, and the print had been almost completely washed off. The controller was quite mean, and refused to let us on the train. So I dashed to the ticket window and purchased a 2nd class ticket, furious that there were 2 comfortable first class seats sitting vacant, and we’d now paid for our train tickets twice. At least we caught the train though – wouldn’t THAT have been an awful way to end our trip? And once on the train, I sweet talked the much nicer controller into letting us sit in our original seats, so all was right in the end.
So here I am, on the train back to Marrakech from Rabat, wondering at how quickly my two weeks here have gone by. It seems like ages ago we were coerced into going to that restaurant in Tangiers, our first day in Morocco. I have so much to process, and thoughts have already started to percolate. I plan to share a few wrap up posts in the next few weeks, once I get over the jetlag and have time to reflect. Look for some recaps, some recommendations for anyone planning a trip to Morocco, and some insights gained after traveling for 2 weeks in this beautiful complicated country.
For now, we are heading back to our riad on the Rue Bab Doukkala in Marrakech, and I think we will hunt down the old man and the old woman and the young guy with their sweets and harira once more. And we will say, as one of the host mothers in Rabat said to me, “A la prochaine, insh’allah.” (until next time, God-willing.)