Shukran lmaghrib

A lesson in language is the key to opening doors to other worlds. In the case of our Illinois Wesleyan group, it was also the key to a morning filled with laughter and learning. AUI provided a two-hour seminar with Linguistics Professor Naceur Amakhmakh to give us a quick lesson in the Moroccan dialect. Each country tends to have its own version of spoken Arabic. And just like in the United States, each region has its own accent.

Our professor jumped into the lesson, offering his hand with a greeting of “Labas?” (How are you?). Startled, we caught on that he wanted us to imitate his words. Back and forth he went around our semi-circle, increasing phrases with grand pantomime, and no English allowed. The more we learned, the more he encouraged us to become part of the stories. Running out the door, he knocked in order to make us call in unison:

Group: “Shkūn?” (Who is it?)

Professor: “Ana,” (It’s me!)

Group: “Shkūn hada?” (Who are you?)

Professor: “Ana Naceur!” (It’s me, Naceur!)

When he discovered two of our group were married, the stories became more intricate:

Abby: Labas? (How are you?)

Me: Labas barak llāhū fik. Nti? (Fine, thank you. And you?)

Abby: Bekhīr lhāmdū llāh. (Fine, praise God.)

Me: Lynda masī ferhanna (Lynda is sad.)

Abby: ’Lesh? (Why?)

Me: Diego ma Fatima fi discoteque! (Diego is with Fatima at the dance club!)

Abby: Meskīn Lynda! (Poor Lynda!)

With laughter and the imaginary Fatima, doors were opened.

There may be many things to overcome when traveling – language is just one of them. People say to travel is to learn about more than the surroundings – it is to learn something about yourself and to confront preconceived notions.

What did I learn on this trip? I learned that Morocco is more than ancient buildings, it is the people who live here. From the sellers in the marketplace to university officials, all carry a pride of their country they honor with a friendly nature that welcomes others.

I learned that sometimes the best way to discover something is to become lost in it. Sadly for me, this usually meant literally getting lost. But if I had not been lost, I would not have seen a centuries-old manuscript being preserved in microfiche at the National Library with the help of a concerned security guard. Nor would I have stumbled across a quiet amphitheatre at AUI where a gardener kindly bushed off a seat so I could rest and study my map.

Lessons come in many forms – from sitting at a table with students boisterously telling stories and teasing about getting the last prune in a tajine, to trying to figure out how to do something as simple as laundry, and realizing your high school French class never covered “How much detergent do I need?”

I admit my education included gaining a new devotion for every member of our group. Through Abby I learned determination. It was she who rescued me our first day in Casablanca when jet lag hit me full force. Pulling me through a crowded medina, she grabbed a “petit taxi” and guided the driver through the maze of traffic back to our hotel. From Zahia I learned the wisdom of true communication. She not only translated our words into Arabic, but engaged each person in conversation about family, the city or the wares they sold.

Through Stacey I learned patience, as she answered a question for the fourth (or fifth?) time from our group.

From Ilaria, I learned a love of language, and was always inspired by her constant desire to learn more.

From Diego I learned to enjoy the moment – sharing a piece of flat bread in the Cite de la Portuguese, leaning on the wall of a fortress and watching boys play a pick-up game of soccer.

Through Robyn, I learned a calm talent of listening and placing myself in the shoes of others.

From Lynda, I learned that the search for knowledge transcends country, language and culture.

From Carolyn, I learned a contagious kind of wonder and appreciation for my surroundings, from the mosque to the marketplace.

I found myself hit with a pang of envy for all their students. And had the wonderful realization that I work in a place that gives me the opportunity to be inspired every day.

 Soon we will say goodbye to Morocco – the ancient medinas and the modern cities, the oud music and the cuisine filled with spices and history. Now, however, the doors are open. And I hope I will be easier for others to follow us through them.

So, perhaps, instead of goodbye, we should say instead, “Shukran lmaghrib.” (Thank you, Morocco.)

On to Ifrane

Al Akhawayn University

Al Akhawayn University

The heat and dust of the cities dissolved into the lush green of Ifrane, rising 5,000 feet into the Middle Atlas Mountains, as we make our way to Al Akhawayn University (AUI).

Once a resort town for the wealthy French colonials of the Protectorate, the hills now hold a jewel in the Moroccan educational system that is AUI. The beautiful campus is home to more than 1,300 students in the fall and spring semesters.

AUI is a private university, created by royal decree from the king himself. The format here differs from the rest of the country – all classes are taught in English. “It’s very different from the French system to which we are accustomed,” said AUI graduate student Wafa Abuad, who is studying international relations. “French professors expect you to come and write down everything they say and memorize it. It is a lot of recitation.”

Wafa talks as she takes us on a tour of campus, past the classroom building for engineering and social sciences, into the fitness center complete with an Olympic-size pool where other countries bring their national teams to train. “We actually have classes on campus to teach students how to study in the American system – taking notes, writing papers that are more based on arguments that explanation, taking exams that are not from recitation.” 

After the tour, our group separates to meet with counterparts – dinner that night is filled with conversations of collaborations being formed, research discussed and adventures of the day. For my part, I wanted to learn more about the students of Morocco. The group has talked of the potential of future student and faculty exchanges with AUI. But would our students feel at home?

Laila Lebbar speaks with a student.

Laila Lebbar speaks with a student.

When inquiring about the students, my jaw dropped at the first adjective out of the mouth of the director of student activities, Lelia Labbar: “If I were to pick one word, it would be multi-talented.” (A favorite way of describing his own students at Illinois Wesleyan, I could just envision former University President Minor Myers jr. smiling at the conversation.)

Sitting in the Student Activities Office, Lelia laughs with students, switching quickly from French to Arabic to English. The office is a flurry of students, working on the students newspaper (published in all three languages), planning for the next weekend excursion for students into the smaller villages, looking for props for a play scheduled to open at the university theater that night. Hearing about the students at AUI sounds strikingly familiar to those at Illinois Wesleyan. “Our students work on many levels,” said Lelia, “volunteering for the community (AUI requires 60 hours of community service for graduation), working with clubs, traveling. The look to be exposed to the world outside of AUI, and outside of the world in which they were raised.”

AUI holds a special meaning for Lelia, she is also a graduate. During her time here, she did an exchange program to the United States, to a conservative town in Montana in 2006. “It was very difficult to make friends, and the international office was not helpful in having the students get to know one another,” she said. “I vowed not to let that happen to anyone else.” Her office works to reserve slots on trips and events for international students, encouraging them to mix with Moroccan students.

The interaction of Moroccan and international students has been one of the priorities of the new university President Dr. Driss Ouaouicha, who has been serving for several months. “The goal is try and disseminate Moroccan culture to the international students with classes in language and culture and society, as well as interaction with other students. At the same time, we teach the Moroccan students something of the outside world, and the American, or Anglo Saxon, system of education.”

There is a Moroccan proverb that says every bean has a rotten part, but for every bean, God creates a one-eyed rooster who can only see the good. The knowledge that difficulties exist – but so too do the possibilities of seeing the positive side – represents a strong concept in Morocco.

AUI was founded 15 years ago, partially in response to a darker side of a bean. The educational system in Morocco was not working. “Many of the universities would offer knowledge, and it was assumed those graduates would take government jobs,” explained President Ouaouicha. “When the government slowed in their hiring, the education system did not change, and no one was taking responsibility for it.” Universities assumed it was the role of government to make sure people were employed. “Universities were based upon the French system, which not very adaptable to change.”

The American system of teaching incorporates flexibility of changing majors and adapting to student talents, said President Ouaouicha. AUI became a model for other universities in the country to experiment with the American system. “The system is still evolving. Fifteen years ago we were talking about strategies that focused on faculty. Now we are talking about outcomes based on student needs.”

President Ouaouicha is very familiar with the American system. A professor of French and English, he worked at several American universities, including the University of Texas in Austin. When I talk about Illinois Wesleyan, he smiles. It turns out he has stayed in Normal, Illinois! His high-school exchange program sent him to Port Byron, Illinois – a small town near the Quad Cities. His exchange “brother” became a professor at Illinois State University. “Yes, I have been to Normal,” he said, watching me do my best not to have my jaw drop for the second time that day. The world suddenly seemed a lot smaller to me.

Building Bridges

Although our main destination for this journey is Al Akhawayn University (AUI) in the town of Ifrane, we were able to return to the comfortable world of academia a day early in the capitol of Rabat. 

Dinner at a seafood restaurant right on the beach in Rabat proved an especially wonderful evening with the addition of Professor Saloua Zerhouni of Université Mohammed V Souissi in Rabat and her husband Professor Driss Maghraoui. Saloua has applied to become a Fulbright scholar to Illinois Wesleyan University in the fall, and her husband Driss teaches at AUI. International Office Director Stacey Shimizu arranged with Saloua to have our group meet faculty and administrators from Mohammed V the next day. 

The faculty at Mohammed V welcomed us into a conference room, where they introduced themselves (with much interpretation through Soloua, Illinois Wesleyan Associate Professor of Economics Ilaria Ossella-Durbal, and Professor Zahia Drici). What we thought would be a meet-and-greet became a sharing of research and teaching ideologies. Each professor discussed their research and commented on how much they would love to create connections with American universities. Much of Moroccan higher education is based upon a French model, they said, but the country has been integrating more and more American styles of teaching.

Despite the language barrier, professors found common ground, whether it was the professor who spoke to Environmental Studies Director and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and International Studies Abigail Jahiel about forests in Morocco, or the economists who chatted with Associate Professor of Economics Diego Mendez-Carbajo. Hispanic Studies Chair and Professor Carolyn Nadeau found a common bond and conversed in Spanish with a professor about the efforts of ecotourism in Latin America, and his hopes to bring it to Morocco.

“This is what it is all about,” Carolyn whispered to me at the table as people talked in several languages. “This is where we build those international bridges.” Carolyn came to Morocco to study the influence that Moroccan Amazigh (or Berber) tribes played on today’s Spanish cuisine. After the meeting, she left to meet with a retired professor who is published on the topic of Moroccan influences when it comes to food. “You can read all you want about food, but to be there makes everything come to life. In the marketplaces where they sell the spices, you can feel the texture, ask the sellers how they use them at home and in what regions they originated. There is nothing else like it.”

Illinois Wesleyan Career Consultant Robyn Walter’s advice was of particular interest to several vice presidents at Mohammed V. A recent report from the Moroccan government has declared the higher education system in a crisis. The strongest criticism is that universities are not preparing students for the job market – creating a high number of highly educated unemployed. An emergency plan is being enacted, with many steps that mirror Robyn’s current work at Illinois Wesleyan with students in the Career Center. Her guidance brought nods of appreciation from the group. 


At Mohammed V, Academic Outreach Librarian and Associate Professor Lynda Duke was able to visit the library, her second library of the day. Earlier in the day, the entire group was invited to tour the National Library of Morocco, which is located in Rabat. The director led us through the elegant glass-and-wood lobby (the highest quality cedar is used to repel the constant humidity), and spoke of the library’s collections.

The main focus of the library is not to provide books and other resources for checkout, but to create a collection of cultural archives. “This is really the traditional role of libraries,” explained Lynda. “They were meant to keep the manuscripts for use by scholars and clergy.” The National Library of Morocco is continuing that tradition, with more than 33,000 rare manuscripts, as well as a growing collection of book, periodicals, multi-media and databases. 

“Our efforts are important to conserve and make known that which is Moroccan,” said Library Director Abdelati Lahlou, whose background is in anthropology. “More than the physical conservation of these rare documents, is a chance to communicate with future generations the heritage of Morocco.” The library is only a year old, constructed near the site of the old library built in the 1920s during the French Protectorate. Like many other efforts, the library is a reflection of a Morocco emerging from its colonial past, and embracing its heritage.

Items, such as maps that date all the way back to the Almohad dynasty of the 12th century, are cataloged and preserved on microfiche. “It is marvelous,” said Lynda. “You can tell there is a focus on scholarly research, but the building has also been designed to be open to as many people as possible, from the expansive lobby where the community can hold exhibitions, to the glass walls inviting in the public. I could have spent two more days there.” 

More days could not be spared, however, as we headed out of Rabat, and on to Ifrane, and AUI.

To Love Morocco is to Want to Know It

What is it that makes us fall in love? What is that spark, that moment of connection that makes one place stay in our hearts? How often can we pinpoint a moment when that transformation takes place?

For me, I fell in love with Morocco as I sat in the restaurant of Casablanca’s Hotel Guynemer, with the group from Illinois Wesleyan clapping along to the songs of the oud player. The hotel director, Mustapha – whose huge smile is matched only by his savvy for knowing what his visitors need – joined along with a set of hand-made Moroccan drums, crafted with goatskin. It was then that Morocco felt like home. 

Today we say goodbye to Casablanca, and headed to the capital city of Rabat. Like any city in the world, Casablanca is a city of stark dichotomy – modern buildings of glass that exude prosperity, and old medinas that enfold traditions into everyday life. One of my favorite images of Casablanca was watching an older man pulling his wares in a donkey-driven cart along a busy six-lane road. A driver in a sleek, black Mercedes gave a quick honk to let the old man know he would be passing. The old man waved to the driver, who smiled and shouted “Saha!”, a common way of saying thank you meaning “to your health.” Tradition and progress together, but all in the friendly Moroccan style.

Perhaps one of the greatest symbols of tradition and progress combining is the Hassan II Mosque. The mosque, completed in 1993, is a tribute to King Hassan II, who ruled Morocco from 1961 to 1999. A massive structure with ceilings vaulted to dizzying heights, the term “spare no expense” could have been envisioned for the mosque. It took six years to construct the mosque. Everything is the best – cedar wood, titanium doors, shining marble and plaster carved with such intricacy it resembles lace along the walls. The tour guide tells us more than 10,000 craftsman carved that artistry into that plaster. The breathtaking walls ascend to a dome that can open to bring sun and air to the 25,000 worshippers the mosque can accommodate. Another 80,000 can take part in prayers outside on the marble grounds that surround the minaut (or tower) rising more than 650 feet into the sky. Two-thirds of the mosque is built stretching over the water, inspired by the phrase in the Koran, “the throne of God was built on water.”

Never having been to the great cathedrals of Europe, to stand in a structure so large and so imposing gives one the feeling of shrinking. It was amazing to me how all of the questions left my head as I walked with required bare feet across the cool marble floors. I have often felt like a tourist, a welcome foreigner, during my days in Morocco, but this was the first time I had a feeling I was an interloper. No matter how friendly the tour guide, how many polite nods I received security guards, I felt apart.

Confused by my reaction, I boarded the bus with the rest of the group to Rabat. Conversations turned toward religion. Buddhism, Judaism, Catholicism were discussed and compared to Islam, the national religion of Morocco. And I knew – I knew my discomfort did not stem from the overwhelming surroundings, but from my own ignorance of the religion that inspired every mosque in Morocco. King Mohammed VI is considered the protector of the Islamic faith, and a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. The country prides itself on its openness toward other religions, and has been a safe haven for non-Islamic people. Yet here, Islam is a way of life. And I felt a pang of guilt that I professed to love Morocco, without understanding such an important element of what makes Morocco. Perhaps it is one thing to loved, and yet another to truly understand. I hope my time here can bring me closer to understanding.   

The Art of the Barter

On the narrow streets of the Moroccan medinas, a lesson in culture is easy to learn. All you have to do is go shopping. 

The word medina literal means “town,” and represents the older portions of towns, which current cities have grown around. The center of each medina is the mosque, and the medinas are usually surrounded by gates or ramparts. Within the walls of the medinas are a maze of winding roads and alleys, with shopkeepers selling goods of vibrant colors, from rugs and jewelry to hand-blown glass lamps and exotic spices. Owners call out in a variety of languages to lure customers, declaring their shops are good luck, and have items as beautiful as the women who stroll by. 

Buying anything in the medinas is a lesson in culture. Bartering is the standard, and the price on the tag is never the price. Bartering is not for the faint-hearted. Fully armed for barter battle, I entered a shop with Career Consultant Robyn Walter, who works in the Career Center at Illinois Wesleyan. Robyn came to Morocco to study the efforts to combat white-collar unemployment in Morocco. As it turns out, today she did a bit of combat of her own. Robyn is a master at the barter.

The savvy shopkeeper offered a price, and gasped in horror at Robyn’s counter-offer. I watched in awe as a mini-drama unfolded:

SHOPKEEPER: This is the best quality, the best quality you will find.

ROBYN: (cool and collected) I’m sure. It is lovely. Just too much.

(The shopkeeper lowers her price a bit. Robyn shakes her head no.)

ROBYN: It’s not that it’s not nice. It’s a matter of what I have in my wallet. No.

SHOPKEEPER: Please, please! Now it is not a matter of price, it is a matter of karma.

(The shopkeeper lowers the price again, but not to Robyn’s price.)

ROBYN: (calmly) No, no thank you.

(Robyn turns to walk away. The shopkeeper dramatically turns to a man sitting near her and shouts in Arabic. Without looking up, the man gives a curt nod.)

SHOPKEEPER (smiling): Okay.


Bartering itself is just another social interaction, a sign of friendliness and respect. When I tried moments later, and caved miserably soon, the same shopkeeper laughed and shook her head in mock shame for me. “Bad deal!” I could not help but laugh and say, “Bad deal, but good karma?” She agreed with a laugh as well. Robyn gained her respect, and she and I both gained a story to tell others. Shared moments between people are part of what makes Morocco special. 

The medinas differ greatly from town to town. The hectic life of Casablanca is never far beyond the walls of the medina, but life seems to come to a stop once inside the medina in the coastal city of Azemmour. There, the steep walls are interrupted by a few shopkeeper stalls and the ornately carved or decorated doors, often painted green or blue for good luck. Residents walk to the bakery to have their flatbread warmed. Young girls take great pleasure in calling out “bon jour” to us as they carry trays of dough on their heads.

Like Azemmour, the town of El Jadida is a former Portuguese stronghold. A baker in El Jadida points to where the ships would come in the 15th and 16th century to load up their bread right from his ovens.  His shop is in the Cite de la Portuguese, the neighborhood around the old Portuguese fort, which still carries the decaying cannons on its ramparts. The steadfast cistern, built in the 16th century, still remains in the Cite de la Portuguese, and is a historic site. In a cool underground cavern, held up with austere columns, the sunlight pours into the cistern. We tread lightly through the water, in which shines the reflection of the vaulted ceiling. The group finds it nearly impossible to capture the reflection in photo. Another hidden treasure of Morocco.

Meeting Morocco

At first glance, Morocco is the country of the picture postcards, right down to the palm trees. Yet to say one knows an entire country at first meeting is a naïve as saying one know everything about a person with one look. 

Morocco is an ancient country, counting time in millennia rather than centuries. Its people have seen the coming of the Romans, Portuguese, Spanish and French, who pulled Morocco into empires that no longer exist. But Morocco remains. Amid the bustle of the marketplaces and the quiet of the mosques, there is a feeling of steadfastness and calm. No matter how transient the world and the people who pass over her, the heart of Morocco will stay the same.

As much as we might love to place people and countries in neat categories, Morocco seems to defy definition. Although we know it as Morocco, its official name is Al-Mamlaka al-Maghribya – The Kingdom of the West. It is a crossroads of Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the traditional Berber, or Amazigh, tribes. The country has been a gateway for differing cultures to convene. Signs are printed in Arabic, French and English.

The remnants of the French Protectorate which dominated the country from 1912-1956 are still visible. French is widely understood (though people have had challenges understanding my high-school-trained French. I am not certain I could speak with a 3-year-old in France). Those picture-perfect palm trees? They were imported by the French and British. Another lesson in how travel presents a time to learn and re-learn what we think we know.

Today marks the beginning of a journey to meet Morocco. Our group from Illinois Wesleyan will travel down the coast tomorrow to several towns, and then head east to meet with colleagues in the capital of Rabat. After that, we will journey to Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, up in the Middle Atlas Mountains. Today, however, is Casablanca.

Casablanca is busy and bustling. The greatest of the ports in Morocco, it is also home to one of the royal palaces. One look at the serious soldiers our front was enough to deter pictures, but we forged onto to the old marketplace, or medina. Shopkeepers called to us to see gorgeous fabrics and cooking ware, such as the traditional tajine.

After 24 hours of travel to gather together in Morocco, many from the IWU group are sitting at a corner café in Casablanca, practicing ways to pronounce the Moroccan version or Arabic, rather than the way it is spoken in Egyptian or Jordan. Sipping mint teas and cafés au lait, we quiz Dr. Zahia Drici, who grew up in France and spent time in nearby Algiers. She smiles with the same patience as many of the shopkeepers as we try to fold our clumsy tongues around the elegant language. Almost all shopkeepers know a smattering of English, and offer to translate when they can. I am hoping I can translate more than words I might not understand, but a people I do not yet know. 

Prologue: What is the Morocco Initiative?

Illinois Wesleyan University sent faculty and staff to Morocco as part of a joint seminar that is laying the groundwork for exchanges between universities in the Islamic countries and Illinois Wesleyan.

 Seven faculty and staff were chosen to make the weeklong journey to Morocco this June, after spending a semester studying about the country in a weekly seminar-style meetings.

Those chosen for the Initiative were Academic Outreach Librarian and Associate Professor Lynda Duke, Environmental Studies Chair and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and International Studies Abigail Jahiel, Hispanic Studies Director and Professor Carolyn Nadeau, Associate Professor of Economics Diego Mendez-Carbajo, Associate Professor of Economics Ilaria Ossella-Durbal, Career Consultant Robyn Walter, and University of Communications Staff Writer Rachel Hatch. The group was led by Associate Dean of Curriculum Zahia Drici and International Office Director Stacey Shimizu. 

In the seminar meetings, each member chose a topic and readings to discuss with the group, based upon their research or areas of interest. During our sessions, we have explored readings on topics such as the changing roles of women, the economic challenges the country faces, the avenues of education for the Moroccan people, and Moroccan cuisine representing a cultural crossroads. What follows is a blog from University Writer Rachel Hatch:

As a writer, my interest in traveling abroad is to gain a deeper understanding of the experience of students, staff and faculty travels for the stories I compose for the Web site, news releases and the Illinois Wesleyan University Magazine. As the only member of the Initiative who has not traveled extensively, I aim to set down the experience of crossing the ocean for the first time in a blog while in Morocco. 

Going into the Initiative’s weekly meetings, I was aware I would learn about Morocco – a culture and land completely different than my own. What I did not know is how much the information would change how I will approach the June trip. My project is to write a story about the university where we will be staying – Al Akhawayn in Ifrane, Morocco. What I thought would be a simple story on an institution is evolving into an understanding of what the university represents to all of Morocco – the pulling forces of education and tradition, and what it means for a nation to emerge from its colonial past. Now each person I see, from university scholars to street vendors in the souks, will be part of the larger picture of a country known as the gateway to the west. And as nervous as I am to travel for the first time to a foreign country, I cannot wait to meet it.