An Educational Adventure in Rabat, Morocco - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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An Educational Adventure in Rabat, Morocco

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Friday, September 7, 2012

Eva Mwanika, a Ph.D. student at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati who recently returned from a language and culture program in Morocco, shares her summer experience:


I just returned from four weeks (June/July, 2012) in Morocco through the AMIDEAST Education Abroad Summer Intensive Arabic program. My aim for the program was to continue the Arabic Language and Culture study that I had started at the University of Cincinnati, a consortium institution of HUC-JIR/Cincinnati. The intensive summer program would allow me to finish a semester’s worth of work in just four weeks, and, in preparation for my comprehensive exams, to learn the nuances of the Arabic Language and Thought in an authentic cultural context.

I arrived in Morocco on June 24th and was met at the Mohammed V, Casablanca airport by a taxi driver, who after greeting me warmly in Arabic, handed me my AMIDEAST orientation package. As if to frame the cultural context I was entering, a sight that first caught my eye on the way from the airport was the name of a gas station ‘Afriquia’ with French and Arabic captions underneath it.

During my time in Morocco I stayed with a Berber Muslim couple, Abdallah and Naima, who only spoke French and Arabic and the local Moroccan Arabic dialect, Darija. Since I do not speak French, I had no choice but to start utilizing all the Arabic I knew – which at this point was not much – the minute I walked through their door. Their home is in L’océan , a neighborhood located near the waterfront west of Rabat. Our conversations were usually over  الشاي بالنعناع (mint Tea) or, while my host mum Naima and I were watching Egyptian and Syrian soap operas. The topics ranged from life in America, the common elements we share in our African cultural, historical, colonial, and political heritage, to the personalities of David Levy, the former Member of the Knesset who, as my host dad Abdallah proudly pointed out, was born in Rabat.

Abdallah was surprised that I had never heard of André Azoulay. He went on to explain to me in Arabic that Azoulay was a مستشار to the King, a word unfamiliar to me. My language instructor, Ustaz Achraf, subsequently enlightened me to the fact that مستشار was a title referring to “advisor” and as it turned out André Azoulay, a Moroccan Jew, is senior advisor to the current King Mohammed VI and previously was advisor to the King’s father, King Hassan II. The topic of Jews and Muslims living together and respecting each other came up frequently at home and in class.

Another instructor, Ustaz Mohammed, while acknowledging the challenges of two cultures interacting, pointed out that he grew up calling his Jewish neighbor  عمي (my uncle). The building, ‘Cimetiere Israelite: עשיר ורש נפגשו עשה כלם‘ (The rich and the poor meet; He is the maker of them both (Proverbs 22:2)), which is a few blocks from my host family’s house further spoke of this Jewish-Muslim cultural proximity.

My classrooms were located in the AMIDEAST building in Agdal, which is a twenty minute petite taxi or tramway ride from L’océan. Classes are run in conjunction with the Mohammed V University. The language instructors started each class by applying the vocabulary of the day to current global events which allowed us not only to learn the linguistic aspects of Arabic but also to openly discuss cultural, political, and social issues within and outside Morocco.

A typical day in class consisted of four hours of اللغة العربية الفصحى (Modern Standard Arabic) and an hour of الدارجة(Darija-Moroccan Arabic). Given the intensity of the program, it helped not to have to go far to experience the historical heritage of the Kingdom of Morocco. My host family and I often went on spontaneous local tours.  Rabat is divided into the medina (old fortified city) and various neighborhoods. We visited The Qasbah of the Udayas and the Hassan Tower which were built in the 12th century by the Almohad Dynasty. The  Almohad Dynasty started building the Hassan Tower with the aim of constructing the world’s largest mosque but the construction stopped after the death of Sultan Yacoub al-Mansour. The ruins of the unfinished mosque and the Mausoleum of King Mohammad V and his two sons, King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah, are all located in this popular historical complex.

One evening after class, some of my classmates and I took an hour train trip to Casablanca to see the Hassan II Mosque, which we had heard was quite the architectural structure. It is the largest mosque in the country and the seventh largest mosque in the world with the tallest minaret and a sliding roof! The centrality of this mosque for the Moroccan community became evident during my last evening with my host family, which happened to be the first day of Ramadan. After what seemed like a long day of fasting, we sat waiting for the prayer televised from the Hassan II Mosque that would announce the fast break and commencement of the إفطار (evening meal). The table was laid out with all kinds of pleasantries – dates, chebakia (my favorite Moroccan sweet), fluffy pancakes, soup, pastries, sweet drinks, and bread, among other things. Bread is certainly a staple in Morocco. It is used as a utensil for eating and is served with every meal. I would not have indulged as much if I knew that the إفطار was to be followed in two hours by aTangine beef dinner!

During my stay in Morocco, I also visited Marrakesh, which is approximately a four hour train ride south of Rabat. In Marrakesh, I experienced the largest and most vibrant cultural square I have ever seen, the ساحة جامع الفناء (Jamaa el Fna Square). All through the night and into the next day snake charmers, fruit vendors, and numerous open-air food stalls were open for business and entertainment. We wholeheartedly threw ourselves into the haggling that was conducted in French, Arabic or Darija, more so to practice the language than to purchase, which actually delighted the vendors but also disappointed them a bit. We also visited the Tombeaux Saadiens قبورالسعديين a building that holds members of the Saadi Dynasty, including the room with twelve columns holding the tomb of Ahmad al-Mansour and his family. The graves of servants and soldiers are in the garden outside. These monuments are made of marble with the tombs tiled in green, white, and black with Arabic inscriptions. We overheard a guide point out to a group of tourists that there were no images or depictions of the deceased on the tombs.

Now, four weeks later, I look back on this trip. I am immensely appreciative of the exposure I got to the Moroccan way of life through study of the Arabic language. The cultural immersion allowed for both linguistic and cultural insights, including the numerous phrases and blessings continuously proffered, that I would never have been exposed to sitting in a classroom.

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