Jawaher Al-Dhaher : Morocco

Reflection 1 

Friday evening on February 11, 2011 , and here I am, surprisingly content with just sipping on sweet Moroccan mint tea and flipping channels on my local satellite dish between “Arabs Got Talent”, a spin off the American original, and Al-Jazeera news announcing today’s resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. I smile, as both poetically reflect an empowering realization of my stay here: massive amounts of unique beauty, potential, individual expression, and strength simmer within the Arabic nations of the Middle East and North Africa, and my experience here thus far has assured me that Morocco is no exception. Despite doing a substantial amount of academic research on Morocco, my preconceptions before my arrival lay largely on what I heard from my professors, family and friends, in both the United States and in the Middle East. The warnings against bribery, petty thefts, prostitution, and the occasional (and dead serious) “beware of Moroccans casting an evil spell on you- they’re known for black magic” merely added to my exhilaration. But I took more seriously the many that enthusiastically went on and on about how exceptional Morocco is as a welcoming and historically rich Islamic monarchy, fusing Berber, Arabic, African and European elements into a uniquely Moroccan setting. They were right; Morocco stands proudly as an Islamic francophone nation, gracefully treading the fine line between modernity and ancient civilization, and constantly embracing the cross-cultural influences of all those who have (kindly and unkindly) interacted with it since its 12 centuries of existence. Naturally, I was filled with a combination of thrill, excitement, and nauseating fear of arriving in Rabat. However, I convinced myself that I won’t find Morocco radically different than the various Middle Eastern countries I have lived in, and as an Arab, I’ll probably blend in just fine. But, I was wrong, and I definitely didn’t take into account the wonderful surprises that my internship experience held for me. 

My first surprise was the vast fields of metal shacks outlining the underfunded Rabat/Sale airport I was flying into. However, to my comfort, I also saw mountains of lush vegetation and a shimmering turquoise Mediterranean coast. I had a weekend to kill on my own before heading to the office and meeting my team, so I visited the castle of Chellah, the Hassan Tower minaret, and Rabat’s old “mdina”, or city. Everywhere were red brick castle walls and massive oriental doors, worn down from their 1,200 years of life. Donkeys seemed to be native to even the capital of Morocco, and the narrow winding streets of the market place were bustling with vendors selling ceramics, embroidery, leather shoes, scarves, robes and pirated DVDs. Of course, everywhere too was the heartbreaking, exhausted faces of sunburned street children, beggars, and dispersed metal or wooden shacks. Morocco’s crisis with urbanization’s outcomes of unemployment, income disparity, homelessness and failures in housing and urban planning was clear to me from the first day.  

For the past three (and a half) weeks, I have been interning in a project called Youth Education Development Initiative, which is funded by USAID (US Agency for International Development), and run by A.E.D.  I was welcomed into project YEDI’s office by the traditional kiss on each cheek from its 12 friendly and cheerful team members, all of whom are Moroccans except one French lady, Claire. I was put directly at ease by everyone’s eagerness to get to know me: asking all sorts of questions about my life, my opinions of Morocco thus far, and reminding me to feel at home as part of their team.  

It is difficult to classify YEDI under one development category, as it covers the areas of civil society and democracy, gender equality, and education and youth development. One thing is clear: the target population for this development project is the out of school and underprivileged youth living in Rabat’s 3 neighboring impoverished provinces. Taking into consideration the Moroccan population’s youth bulge, the alarmingly increasing rates of middle and high school drop outs has resulted in high illiteracy rates, unemployment, and delinquency, all of which is emerging as a threat to Morocco’s security and social, economic and political development. To put it briefly, YEDI is an NGO working with the Ministry of Youth and Sports, and other local associations, seeking to reintegrate youth into education and economic systems, and to create capacity building systems for organizations and associations serving disadvantaged youth. Furthermore, it aims to strengthen the systems of coordination and collaboration between the governmental, nongovernmental, and private entities which provide educational and professional training services, and eventually employment, to disadvantaged young men and women.   

So what have I been doing here the past 3 weeks? Since the project has only been launched three months ago, it is still in the very first stages of the implementation phase. I have been working with two major components of project YEDI: basic education, and the “Dar Chebab”, or youth centers.  

The first part of my work is visiting orphanages and training centers which provide educational and vocational training to youth coming from impoverished areas in Morocco. I spent most of my field work in three associations YEDI has helped fund and administer, each of which welcome illiterate young women and train them in the fields of embroidery, sewing, hair dressing, fine arts, culinary arts, restaurant work and more. My job has been to conduct interviews with the youth and administration of each center, inquiring about the processes of recruitment, training, and the linkages to private enterprises who eventually hire the young women. I aimed to understand who has (and doesn’t have) access to these services, and what social or economic obstacles stand in the way of them eventually becoming independent and employed. Some women raised the concern of their families not allowing them to commute in the evening time for work, or their inability to read well enough to sign contracts with enterprises or lead entrepreneurial projects of their own. Yes, these programs are remarkable in many ways: they are usually one to two year programs, with theory and practical training, and incorporate internship experience in restaurants, the market place, or tailors. They provide an official diploma or certificate, and offer young women skills to earn income, an increased standard of living, and a sense of self-worth. However, there were various fundamental shortcomings in their systems, such as a lack of emphasis on incorporating classes for literacy and basic education, or the lack of innovative ways to connect with the private enterprises. My work there has been to gather enough research in order to create plans suggesting where and how YEDI can intervene and strengthen these youth-serving associations.  

The second part of my work has been working with the government’s Dar Chebabs- or youth centers- nearly all of which are failed (due to programming, management, and their approach to youth) despite the large and well-equipped facilities provided to them. I spent quite some time in the province of Sale’s Dar Chebab, and worked with its director, my supervisor, various youth serving associations, and a delegation of the community’s youth, to attempt to articulate a vision of a “youth center of excellence”. We constructed workshops and led seminars on what models and frameworks to integrate, and how to approach the youth and revive the centers as a safe and fun place where young men and women can develop their athletic, academic, professional and artistic abilities.      

Working around Moroccans has been both enlightening and internally refreshing, because hovering all around their work environment is a comforting balance between professionalism and a humbling sense of humor. One thing that I have been thrilled to see here was the extent to which the local Moroccan people are activists seeking social change and social justice. This sort of social, economic and political consciousness is one I have unfortunately not encountered in my hometown of Dubai, and I was surprised and proud to see such dynamism and leadership here in Morocco.  After uprisings from the people, the King launched the “INDH” or the National Initiative for Human Development in 2005, aiming to support and fund projects that would empower and serve the most oppressed segments of the Moroccan population. I have had the privilege of attending conferences of YEDI’s partner projects, exposing me to the diversity of local activism and development work. For example, attending a conference on the closing of project SALEM, which worked to fight against child immigration (solo) to Europe, illuminated me with just how many groups of Morocco’s population (government officials, social workers, professors, professionals in the fields of development, economics and immigration, and more) dedicated years of time and efforts to the successful outcomes of this project. It was a face of group work and solidarity I had never seen before.  

I have also learned that the nature of development work, particularly in the beginnings of a project, is painfully slow. However, I am starting to respect the notion of process and the nature of human societies, and have meanwhile grown to cherish my every day interactions with local Moroccans. Perhaps my frustration with the completely different Arabic dialect has served my talkativeness well. I have learned to listen, and with that came the treasure of hearing all sorts of people’s life stories. I can safely say that the most valuable thing I’ve gained since my stay here is the stories that the random individuals in Morocco have shared with me. I listened about the experiences of  my landlord being the beneficiary of Save the Children’s school for handicapped children in a rural mountain village in Morocco, and about the old Moroccan man who established a modest-sized “English bookshop” carrying the most impressive and controversial volumes of literature, feminism, religion, sexuality and politics, most being banned in Arabic or Islamic nations. I listened to the youth in the centers talk about the inevitability of drug use, to an American volunteer’s two years of experience working with Morocco’s street children, and to various local’s opinions about the current King.  

As you may have guessed, this program has been a rollercoaster of the best and worst emotions. My interactions with poverty and my contributions to the Moroccan efforts for social change have made this a profound and poignant learning experience. At this point, I’m engulfed with motivation for more world travels and development work, and all I can think is, this is just the beginning for me. Partly, but not entirely, due to the yummy couscous fiestas we have in the office every Friday, I know that no previous travel experiences can compare with my (nearly) one month in Morocco.  

I’m off to prepare for tomorrow’s train trip to Fes, an ancient imperial city known mostly for its magnificent Arabian Nights vibe, for housing the continent’s oldest Mosque and University (both founded by a woman), and for its souks selling handmade Moroccan artifacts. These trips are a privilege I won’t refuse myself, because even leisurely touring the county’s breathtaking scenery and encountering the most interesting locals and travelers only serves my personal development as a student.  

Reflection 2 

Leaving Morocco with the memories of IDIP

In a few short days, I am going to say goodbye to the wonderful and welcoming Moroccans who have become my family: project YEDI, my closest friend Karima (the only other young intern intern), my supervisors Raja and Najat and their entire extended family. They each have taught me about the raw reality of poverty, inequality and perseverance in the Moroccan context, and welcomed me to celebrate with them all that is magnificently Moroccan. While I am sad to be saying goodbye to what feels like a roller coaster dream, I am more than ecstatic to go back to my composed and less hectic Seattle life. Above all, I am excited to be in class again, to be back to a classroom environment where all is organized, concrete and comfortable.
Why? Because while I assure you that these few months have been infinitely more awesome and enlightening than any three months in a classroom can be, I will be honest. If you are not up for a challenge- emotionally, mentally and intellectually- then you’d probably want to reconsider the field of international development. As I spent more time with project YEDI’s team, local and government representatives, I became increasingly more amazed by the cycles that perpetuate poverty, more intrigued and dedicated to the attempts of progress and international sustainable development, but also more frustrated by the incomprehensible monster known as Poverty (and his buddy Corruption).

Drawing from my experience with YEDI, it became clear that to the Moroccan people, poverty is not only a lack of a successful and competent education system; it is also a lack of roads and an efficient transportation system which completely determine whether girls in rural areas are capable of making it to school and back every day. Poverty is a lack of training for teachers and government officials, and the corruption which leads to an unfair distribution of job opportunities in society. Poverty is the lack of awareness resulting in radical perceptions of gender roles and a woman’s place in society. Ultimately, poverty is the absence of the ability to have choices and ambitions in life, two vague but (in my perspective) fundamental elements of a healthy and prosperous life. Various elements of my experience learning about the complexities of Morocco from the perspective of the education system contributed to my realization that project YEDI alone can’t achieve considerable progress without the cooperation and dedication of most other sectors that play a role in shaping Morocco’s society, economy and policies. Morocco is suffering from high rates of unemployment, where so many educated and brilliant Moroccans are deprived of opportunities, and sadly so many more have not even given education a chance merely because they have no faith in what opportunities a university degree can offer.

All this has been expressed over and over by the nationwide protests, where youth are making it heard that they have had enough of their lives and potential being wasted shamelessly and carelessly merely because opportunities are being given instead to those who are rich enough to bribe. To my frustration, there seemed to be an overwhelmingly pessimistic attitude within the public towards chances to decrease the percentages of school drop outs, or to incorporate out of school youth into the local job market.  My supervisor and I conducted interview sessions at the Ministry of Youth and Sports, where we were nearly always distracted by student protestors critiquing society and governance, and making their dissent against corruption, the system of education and unemployment, extremely visible and heard outside the doors of the ministry. They chanted Arabic slogans along the lines of “you give your own children the best jobs and the most luxurious lives, but to the children of ordinary citizens you give nothing”. They were protesting exactly what I have found to be the saddest issue of Moroccan society. Simply put, this problem is the lack of education and job prospects, and the meaningless obstacles that make it agonizing to pursue one’s education or to find a well-paid, decent job. It was heartbreaking to meet young women who resort to being trained in housekeeping because the state has made it impossible for them to study what they are passionate about, be it economics, engineering or architecture. 

To give a brief glimpse of Morocco’s higher education system, there are public universities open to all, but which require vigorous standardized testing and unnecessarily complicated procedures for acceptance into the desired program. It is the poorer segment of society, rich in intelligence and diligence, who attend these public universities; and it is them who are protesting against corruption and a lack of job opportunities. This is because nearly all decent jobs are given to those who graduate from private universities, which cost a fortune but are academically much more laidback. Private universities welcome the students from rich families whose closer relations with the monarchy promise them high-paid jobs and relatively lavish lifestyles. Realistically speaking, in Morocco- and most of the developing world- it is who you know, not what you have to offer that will define the quality of life you have.

Thus, what the formal education system in Morocco has done is discourage thousands and thousands from taking part in it, and thus has created a system where youth have lost motivation and more importantly the appreciation of literacy and basic education. The majority are much more inclined towards being illiterate with a concrete skill that sells. It was painfully difficult for project Y.E.D.I. to successfully integrate basic education into youth centers and professional training centers, or to motivate young women to take literacy and education seriously.

Perhaps Moroccan youth born into poorer families, those within the target regions of Project YEDI, have long ago realized that the struggle to endure the obscurities of obtaining a university degree and working one’s way up the social ladder is helplessly futile. Perhaps that is why there is a shocking amount of youth from poorer regions in Morocco who drop out of the vicious and unpromising formal education system. As I mentioned in my last report, I spent most of my time coordinating with youth centers, basic education and training centers that give young women skills in tailoring, ceramics, cooking, or pastry making. As I saw more of Morocco, I realized just how many of these centers exist, and how many people I have met who choose institutions providing technical training for manual or crafty labor over a comprehensive intellectual education that might offer a higher paying job.

I didn’t know exactly how I felt about providing women with services which train them specifically in designing artisans, housekeeping, pottery and cooking. What On the one hand it offers them with marketable skills they can make a meager income out of, and it preserves the traditional intricacies of Moroccan culture. On the other, I felt as though the development projects do not attempt to radically reform Morocco’s hierarchal social structure. It perpetuates the current system in place in which a large segment of the population remain for the most part illiterate and discredited by the formal education system, minimizing their chances of flourishing and expanding in leadership roles and career path.

In other words, I felt as though this approach of providing skills that would allow illiterate women to sell pastries or dresses from home was not adequate enough to achieve women’s empowerment. After finishing their training, they work in small pastry shops close to their apartment, depending on availability- as shop owners usually employ family members and their friends. Most times they try to sell products from home, but with the Moroccan rural culture that usually means giving out clothing and food three quarters of the time for free or for gifts. If they do work, once they marry, they say their husbands don’t want them working anymore.
On a micro level, these services do lead to better quality lives, relatively. However, even when they do gain skills in embroidery or pastry making, they express that so many obstacles emerge that stop them from leading independent or fulfilling lives. But I constantly thought of these developments on a macro-level probably because I would compare the lives of the beneficiaries with mine and my peers in the Middle East and the United States. I constantly reflected on the inequality that exists on a global, macro level.  Why couldn’t we provide services that would give these women a chance to reflect upon or contribute to the practices of law, engineering, literature or politics? Why couldn’t the greatest ambition for these young, capable women be greater than working in the kitchen of a pastry shop or successfully selling traditional Moroccan dresses from home? Comparing the nature or giving value to careers is not what I intend to do. All I want to express is that these women are not given the privilege to choose their career path or modify their lives as they desire.  I was slightly uncomfortable by the dependency and obedience towards husbands and fathers, particularly when it came to putting their skills to productive use. Because of cultural outlook on women, and insecurity and violence in the streets, they had no choice but to remain close to the household. But I was more so unhappy with the intellectual repression caused by illiteracy and a lack of academic discourse. It seemed as though they were all trained in producing traditional artisan with hopes to gain some (and at most times inadequate) income, when perhaps they had the potential and intelligence to be a part of Morocco’s growing entrepreneurial, political or economic sphere. Are my thoughts biased and perhaps even elitists? Maybe… I am aware that I have much to learn about understanding the value of life from another’s perspective. It is this idea of relativity in the context of globalization, poverty and development that was hardest for me to comprehend and accept during my experiences working with out of school youth.

Despite boasting a high number of women playing a role in politics and civil society, there is undoubtedly a long way to go for Morocco to achieve gender equality. I constantly wondered whether religion and traditional culture are a good or bad thing for women’s rights in developing countries. On the one hand it creates an environment where women are protected and valued as precious- but on the other hand it creates vague obstacles difficult to overcome- such as the mentality of family, employers and the women’s self-perception. Because unemployment leads to delinquency and violence, men become more protective of their women, fearful of crime. Ultimately, eradicating poverty, in terms of educating men and young women, providing jobs, decreasing delinquency and drug abuse, and building roads is essential to gender equality.

Nevertheless, I was very much intrigued by how determined, conscious and outspoken the educated women who did manage to hold leadership roles in society really were. Most of the directors of development projects, associations or centers were women who with time acquired a tremendous amount of respect and admiration from Moroccan civil society and governance, the men and women alike. But what I could not ignore is how they constantly remark that they have to manifest twice as much accomplishment to finally be given a considerable amount of appreciation.

You have probably picked up on just how perplexed I am by the question of poverty and development, but I assure you this frustration has not discouraged me from the field of international development. On the contrary, this frustration has been transformational and has motivated me to have faith in the power of a global level group work and cooperation. It is a phase that is probably necessary for all us students of development as it reflects the discomfort one inevitably feels as we begin to more comprehensively understand the inconsistent nuances of poverty on a field level. I have no intention of glorifying my experience as flawless and linear– because that’s not what anyone would experience in the fields of development work. Frustration is eye-opening because it challenges us to understand the unpredictable nature of government and society, and the roles that history and capitalism, along with the autonomous freedom of individual choice, play in the development of a poor country.

What I can glorify, however, are the lessons on cultural celebration, community, and “carpe diem” that I learned from Morocco’s vibrant people, and which I think the western world and the rapidly modernizing non-western world ought to also learn. To my delight, there seemed to be a cultural renaissance among even the upper classes in which Moroccan traditions, locally hand-made artifacts and indigenous languages are merged with modern life style. From the time I spent living life with Moroccans and listening to their perspectives, I came to learn that through art they express soul and spirit, historical narratives, or the ordinary everyday life. To ordinary Moroccan individuals, art is a celebration of the past and present, celebration of life, without a need to justify why.

Perhaps it is beneficial as a tool of perseverance against poverty, but in Moroccan culture art is an entity worthy in itself, appreciated solely for the beauty it uniquely offers. Ultimately, art is appreciating the now for absolutely no reason. In the Moroccan worldview, everything that is created is an art. Soul is expressed into everything from the intricate pottery and ceramic designs that decorate the walls of houses and mosques, to the wise fables and sassy figures of speech made up of a mélange of Berber, Arabic, French and Spanish. I was constantly exhilarated by the story telling, the festivities, the architecture of the old cities and the market place, the carpets, the scarves, the Moroccan countryside and the vibrant cultural and landscape diversity of its many cities. 

In the Moroccan world view, time is generously invested in all that is created. In Marrakesh, I was invited to eat Tanjeya, the traditional Marrakshean meat and herbs dish which requires 24 hours of cooking and seasoning. I was amazed as I watched the students at the training center making traditional pastries for the Eid celebration, where each piece required a ridiculously long amount of calculated and intricate designing and preparing. I would even go as far as to say that there was a artistic cultural expression in the Moroccan communal values, reflected by their habits of sharing their food and even their babooshes (slippers), belonging to anyone entering the house. As I discussed the issues of Morocco with the director of an association that provides literacy lessons, she emphasized that whereas there is a high degree of poverty in Morocco, you’ll rarely find someone suffering from hunger- as they would always find someone who would share their food with them. I’m not sure how much of that is accurate, but it is definitely indicative of the commitment to collectivity and solidarity within the Moroccan mindset.

Well, this is it, and my time in Morocco with IDIP is done. For now, I look forward to reunite with my IDIP classmates to smile over all our worst and best memories of our three months abroad. I know I’ll be back to visit what now feels like family, and until then, I highly encourage you to take a trip to Morocco.