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Discovering Morocco

Written by Nicole Vukonich, '11
January 24, 2011

The breeze was warm even though it was just after midnight when we arrived, for a majority of us, to a new continent late last May. The lights of the Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca, Morocco, glowed like a beacon in the distance promising adventures and experiences unlike we had encountered before. Energized and eager to find the real Morocco hidden beneath tourist baubles and postcards we set off on our journey that for all would become, as student Bryan Stebbins exclaimed, “the single most transformative experience of my life, thus far, and of my experience abroad.”  

Each year the Seattle University French in France program takes a culminating study tour—usually visiting the less traveled regions of France, like Corsica. For many years, Victor Reinking, associate professor of modern languages and literature, had wanted to take students to Morocco but the timing wasn’t quite right. Finally, last May, over a period of 10 days, 17 students led by Reinking, Paul Milan, associate professor of international studies and modern languages and literature, and Jean Jacques Malo from the University of Nantes had the opportunity to visit a country that to Reinking, “is a country that I really love, where I lived for a long time and where important things in my life happened.”  

The initial idea came to Reinking while working on an anthology of poetry. “Rather than go and have a guide show us around,” Reinking remarked, “we could actually go to someone who’s woven into the fabric of the place, like poets and intellectuals.” As the logistics of the tour came together, a visit to the University of Fès was added to the schedule. “I realized that beyond poets we could also put students together with students,” said Reinking, “but also put faculty with faculty and hear what they are talking about.” The students, as part of the Contemporary Moroccan Literature course, had the opportunity to, as Reinking stated, “make connections and meet some of the poets they were reading, but also get a completely different perspective of what an Arab, Berber, Muslim country means...by experiencing it first hand and actually listening to good creative artists from that place and to ordinary people.” 

(The photo exhibit “Imagining Morocco” currently on display in the Department of Modern languages in Xavier features selections of poetry, photographs and excerpts of reflections by students who participated in the first study tour to Morocco. As part of International Education Week, there will be an opening reception Friday, Jan. 28 from 3:30-4:30 in the Modern Language Department in Xavier. Visit International Student Center for a full list of International Education Week events.) 

  
PHOTO GALLERY: Visit "Discovering Morocco" to view some photos and a video taken by the author and other students on the trip. 
Beginning in Casablanca, we met with the poet Abdallah Zrika. The afternoon sunlight filtered into the room and bathed us all in the soft light. Upon first impression, Zrika contained a peace and inner light that radiated from him. We were captivated.   Student Erica Feild recalled “listening to Zrika read his poems in Arabic, and suddenly being able to connect with them in a way I hadn’t while I was simply reading the French translations. I remember the way that he savored the words, and the unique cadence created by the drawn-out natural pauses in the Arabic pronunciation.   When he switched to French, something was lost. His personality had somehow changed.”   Feild also commented that Zrika “doesn’t write to express a theme. Rather, he writes to express what comes from within.” After our meeting with Zrika expressed both in French and in Arabic, we were spellbound at this truly magical country and setting where we had been placed. 

While in Casablanca—a city that for many brings to mind the classic movie with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman—we had the opportunity to see the opulence as well as the poverty.  “No tourists go to Casablanca,” Reinking said. “It’s a run-down third world city, but it is important to see that too. It’s not all just the medina of Fès or Rabat that’s been all painted and fixed up. It has many of the problems that the continent has too.” It was important to see all parts of a country, the beautiful as well as the parts that need improvement. For student Nick Peterson it was “an awakening to the non-Western human existence in the world.” 

The Hassan II Mosque, also in Casablanca, is the fifth largest mosque in the world. The immense size of the mosque was humbling even from a great distance. At one time, the mosque is capable to fit more than 105,000 people at worship. For Milan, visiting the mosque “was like going to see a modern Vatican. It was an amazing, amazing structure. We were able to get a much better sense of Islam by going to the great mosque.” While on tour at the mosque, with our shoes safely tucked into little plastic bags, we were able to see the expert craftsmanship in the intricate mosaics that led to the  delicately hand carved plasterwork adorning the walls with verses of the Koran and finally the carved cedar ceilings depicting work from all regions of Morocco. The great chandeliers reflected off the marble floors and wool carpets insulated our bare feet. The texture, detail and color palate of the craftsmanship engaged the senses as never before. Upon exiting the mosque, the wind whipped off of the bay as the waves crashed onto the beach below. The impressions of awe, humility and grandeur were tangible among the group. 

Our next adventure took us all to the city of Fès. The ancient city provided the backdrop for enlightenment, and Milan described his first trip into the medina, the ancient walled city, as “kind of like Alice in Wonderland dropping down through the rabbit hole—it was just a totally different world.” Small, crowded pedestrian only passages, merchants selling their goods from family owned shops, donkeys carrying goods too heavy to carry, women buying vegetables for dinner, children running around playing, cats sleeping wherever they could and people walking slowly greeted us as we ventured farther and farther inside. As Yu Yeun Kim commented, “time no longer passed by in the same way in the medina—it was a world apart.” 

Ancient walls stood sentry as artisans handcrafted details on wares in an unhurried fashion. Full of life and excitement the medina of Fès became one of the places that lent us a piece of itself through the hospitality and openness we found there. Student Christian Cahill found “a community that I noticed every night in the squares where it seemed like the whole town was out chatting and enjoying life.” 

We attended a lecture at the University of Fès and were able to meet graduate students in English. For a short period of time we were all, as Milan put it, “scholars trying to learn as much as possible.” While our conversations with our Moroccan counterparts at the university did not last long, we all had a feel of collegiate life in Fès. A short time later we met with a dynamic, interesting professor named Fatima Amrani. For student Katy Guinotte, Amrani “was the most interesting person we met. She spoke of all the issues I wanted to understand. She is a woman who is striving to improve the condition of Muslim women. She spoke of the veil, of education, of the patriarchy, of the king, and of the changes Morocco needs. I will remember that meeting for a long time.”   

Hospitality is a very inherent trait that was upheld as we went from place to place. If it was a smile on the street, a conversation with a child about candy, or talking over a cup of mint tea, everyone we encountered was well versed in this trait. “A very fond moment for me,” recounted Reinking, “was when I called my old friend Naïma and she said she’d have everybody over for lunch. It’s so Moroccan, but I thought ‘I can’t do that,’ and she insisted. Since she knew we were there she had to meet my students and to come over.” That day after lunch at Naïma’s house we were all stuffed. We ate a couscous and meat tajine with vegetables, little condiments of olives and other local vegetables followed by roasted saffron chicken and bread. After that it was fresh watermelon, cookies and mint tea. There is something so unique about being invited into someone’s home and to share a meal with them. 

Another unique experience was when one of Jean Jacques Malo’s students from Nantes called their father who lives in Fès and has an ancestral home there. We were all invited to his traditional Moroccan home, literally across the street from where we were staying. The outside walls were the same light tan color as the rest of the medina, however, behind the doors revealed an artistry and craftsmanship that is rarely seen in America. Similar to the mosque in Casablanca, the base of the walls were patterned with intricate mosaics followed by intricate plaster carvings and topped with a carved cedar ceiling. We were seated in the formal receiving room and served Moroccan pastries and mint tea from a platter carried by two attendants. Again, this intimate insight into daily home life went above and beyond all of our expectations. After our little repast, we were given a personal tour of the home and anecdotes of how life had been when there was a family in residence. Now empty except on very special familial occasions due to the cost of the upkeep and the lack of modern conveniences, we were able to imagine the home back in its prime, bustling with life and activity. All rooms opened out onto an atrium or a courtyard where the sunlight was always present. As we left that sanctuary, we returned to the hustle and bustle of the medina. 

Our adventures in the medina of Fès came to an end when we boarded vans to our next location. After briefly stopping at the ruins of the ancient Roman city, Volubilis, we rested in the countryside about an hour outside of Fès. Met with remnants of Roman society, we were struck with the expanse of the Roman Empire. The great arches, columns and mosaics remained preserved.  Khenifra, nestled among the Atlas Mountains was our next destination.  

Upon arrival, we could immediately tell that we were no longer in the city and that we would probably be the only non-Moroccan tourists. The red earth and hills provided a striking contrast from the urban settings we had previously found ourselves in. Everywhere we went we were met with welcoming salutations and smiling school age children who cheered when we said, “bonjour” and waved to them. In Khenifra the spirit of community was very much alive and was very welcoming. Every Sunday in Khenifra there is a great market or souk. At the souk there is everything you can imagine. Produce of all kinds, animals at auction, raw wool, dyed wool, cooking utensils, pitchforks, lamp oil, rugs, fabric, clothing and candy are just an example of what we saw for sale. “The marketplace becomes the social occasion to pass on news,” said Milan.“You literally saw people pour out from all over that region, not only to sell goats but also to exchange information and to see what’s going on.” While visiting the souk, Kristen Vergara had an opportunity to spend time “watching the animal auction and sit in a hut made of sticks and leaves talking with a Berber woman who had never traveled more than an hour away from her birthplace in her entire life.” For many American college students, the notion of staying so close to where you were born would be entirely foreign and inconceivable. Everyone we met in the souk was kind, generous and willing to speak and share with us.   

We took a day trip from Khenifra deeper into the Atlas Mountains. Driving on one lane winding roads through fields higher and higher into the mountains, we did not quite know where we would end up, but trusted our drivers to get us wherever “there” was. Climbing out of our vans into the bright Moroccan sun, we found ourselves at “the source” or Oum er-Rbia. Student Maggie Kellogg found Oum er-Rbia to be “visually (and aurally) stunning.” For her “what made it even more beautiful was the seemingly impossible way in which people had been able to construct a village literally on top of a rushing stream of water gushing out of a mountain.” Children played on the narrow paths close to the village while mothers prepared lunches and men caught up on information with each other.  Lunch was served in tajines next to the rushing water coming from the source. “Nobody ever complained about what we were eating,” reflected Reinking. “Here we were, up in the mountains and I said that what they had for lunch was goat. Everyone said ‘Yeah!  Goat!’  I was surprised that these were American students.” 

We emerged from the Atlas Mountains and powered on to our final destination before returning to France. Rabat, the capital of Morocco emanated a return to urban life with strong French influences. The buildings were whitewashed and the city was dotted with embassies from all over the world. For me, seeing the American flag waving from our embassy was an interesting moment.  After spending five and a half months in France, that was the first time I’d seen an American flag. It was a feeling of homecoming, but also a reminder to relish our last few days in Morocco and abroad. 

At our hotel, directly across the street from the Moroccan Parliament, we met with our final two poets. Rachida Madani, a poet from Tangier (a city on the northern tip of Morocco, close to Spain), read excerpts of her poetry to us in French. Student Adrian Giesy commented, “She writes like a cubist painter, playing with several perspectives. It is this way of seeing that brought us to the allegory of Khadir—the man with all the hidden perspectives who struggles against the human habit of not tolerating what we can’t understand.” Madani presented an alternate view on Islam than we had heard from Amrani in Fès. Both women were striking in their opposition to their views.  Michelle Cahill recounted that she “saw the side of Islam made up of the left and feminists. That is a side of Islam that I rarely ever see.”  

The final poet on our journey was Abdellatif Laâbi, the 2009 Prix Goncourt winner in Poetry. “He really is one of the world’s great intellectuals,” said Milan, “certainly in the Arab world, in the Moroccan world and in the French-Arab speaking world.  It was a privilege that few American students have had.”  Annie Rose Favreau remembers, “when I first saw Laâbi I had a strange sensation as I realized that this person—this person who was sitting only a few feet from me—had experienced unthinkable pain and imprisonment...there was a disconnect between the pain, anger and power that courses through his poetry and the amicable person before me.” When asked why he returned to Morocco after being imprisoned and tortured for his work under King Hassan II, Laâbi responded, “le tyran est mort” or “the tyrant is dead.” For Milan the ability “to see that sense of freedom of speech in such a public place was uplifting,” as before it was dangerous to speak so openly. 

When our 10 days in Morocco came to an end, we were sad to leave the magical country we had discovered on our adventures in Casablanca, Fès, Khenifra, Rabat and places in between. The friendships we cultivated with those we met and amongst each other will not fade with time.  Without our knowledge of French, Morocco would not have blossomed and opened our eyes to the endless possibilities and cultural riches that the gift of language can bestow.  

Nicole Vukonich is a senior majoring in political science and French.