‘Morockstars’ Abroad: Exploring Cultural Crossroads in Morocco

From Sunsets in the Mountains to Underground Prisons in Fez: Morocco through Time

It was right before sunset, and the “Morockstars”—a group of seven other students and I accompanied by faculty advisors Chair of the Language Department Devondra McMillan, French Master Stella Leach, and Mathematics Master Stephen Wallis—had just finished climbing to the top of a church on a hill overlooking Chefchaouen, Morocco’s “blue city.” Looking down from the church, the painted cobblestone streets and stucco walls sprawled down the Rif Mountains and blended together into a sea of blue, only interrupted by the stark green of bushes and trees. However, it had been almost 17 hours since our last meal, and I was too distracted by my gnawing hunger and thirst to fully appreciate any of the beauty. The last memory of a meal I had was scarfing down a handful of cashews and some mango yogurt in the quiet, pitch-black darkness of 4:30 AM. As the group prepared for our day of fast in recognition of Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam, my roommates and I woke up too late to eat. Finally by 8:30 pm, the eight of us sat down to unpeel our oranges and distribute cans of Pringles. I couldn’t help but admire the wave of hushed, eager anticipation of an entire city shutting down to heed the call to prayer that would soon blast through every minaret of every mosque, letting us know the time to break our fast had come. As our two weeks in Morocco came to a close, the sky, a brilliant orange freckled with rosy pink and muted purple, was the backdrop to an unforgettable immersion into a rich culture. Morocco was unlike anything I had experienced, yet I could not bear to leave it behind. I remember walking into my first Harkness Travel meeting in the Spring Term, only recognizing my close friend Hannah, who had previously agreed to apply for the “Morocco: Cultural Crossroads through Time” trip with me. We cast each other an uneasy glance and sat down while Mrs. McMillan guided us through a riveting itinerary; from eating couscous on Fridays to exploring Volubilis—ancient Roman ruins—to bathing in Hammams—communal bathhouses—the trip allowed us to experience Morocco as a traveler rather than a tourist. Before we even stepped foot in Morocco, the trip leaders emphasized the importance of immersing ourselves in the culture and engaging with the people on a deeper, and oftentimes more uncomfortable level than what an itinerary full of tourist attractions would have afforded us. Instead of staying at fancy hotels and dining out at restaurants every night, we would be living in homestays with local families and cooking traditional dishes such as tajin chicken and lamb kefta meatballs. In order to achieve this goal of full immersion, Lawrenceville partnered with Where There Be Dragons, a travel program that focuses on hands-on engagement. Our two trip leaders were Shino, a Washington D.C native who studied Arabic and the Middle East in college, and Bad’r, a Moroccan native who taught us Dareeja (Moroccan Arabic), traditional songs, and respectful engagement with locals. As a Muslim growing up in the U.S., I found the trip’s emphasis on the role of Islam in shaping daily Moroccan life particularly valuable. Throughout the trip, I saw parts of my religion that I had only ever read about come to life. I saw ancient Madrassas, or Muslim schools, where scholars across Africa would congregate to study the Quran, and appreciated the peaceful reflection after a call to prayer. Before visiting Morocco, I couldn’t imagine living in a world where the religious ideas and values I had grown up with were so deeply ingrained into a society. It was a bit of a culture shock seeing my peers’ excitement towards learning the Arabic phrases and traditions I had grown up with my whole life–I was able to relive my culture through their perspectives of eager engagement and curiosity. Where There Be Dragons based their principles off the Five Pillars of Islam, and much of our itinerary was guided by the values of charity, faith, ritual, self-discipline, and pilgrimage. During our day of fast, we ended up donating the money we saved for meals to a local nonprofit supporting women's education. The trip leaders actively worked to show Islam as a multi-faceted, dynamic religion; for instance, a conversation with a female Moroccan Peace Corp leader about women in Islam dispelled many stereotypes I had held about Muslim women that are oftentimes portrayed as oppressed and silenced in the media, ultimately allowing me to reflect on my own identity. We talked about the empowerment many women feel wearing the hijab as well as modern-day feminist movements across the Middle East. Overall, I was exposed to many perspectives that I wouldn’t have access to amongst my peers at Lawrenceville or my family in Chicago. While the trip was full of fascinating sites, such as a prison that spanned the entire underground of Fez, the country’s cultural capital, and housed around 400,000 prisoners, no travel experience should be exempt from its fair share of uncomfortable experiences. For instance, although staying in the homestay was where I made the most meaningful connections with Moroccan locals, there were moments where language and cultural barriers were frustrating and limited my ability to communicate. However, when I was outside late into the night playing games with the local children or laughing during a communal meal of bread, tajin chicken, and Moroccan mint tea with my host mother and siblings, I realized that embracing the discomfort that may accompany these experiences is a small price to pay for the exchange of culture and ideas that trips through the Harkness Travel Program work hard to promote.

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