Rollins College in Morocco

In May 2013, 14 Rollins College students traveled to Morocco with their professors. Below are their stories.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Cultural Scavenger Hunt in the Souk

This post was co-authored by Julia Queale and Alex Mickler

This morning, we gathered at Dar Si-Hmad to find out about our challenge for the morning: a scavenger hunt for traditional and modern Moroccan clothing in the souk. The souk is a traveling market, similar to the farmer’s markets back in the States, but it is much more expansive with the items being sold - the souk contains not only produce but many types of household items and clothing. Its location changes to a different city each day of the week, every week, and on Sunday, it came to Sidi Ifni. Hidden with select vendors were the items of clothing, and we were split up into groups and had to solve riddles to find them—a task that sounded easier than it actually was!

​The souk was located in a large, empty plot of land that used to belong to an airport; however, now it is left open in case of emergency landings (rare, but still apparent with surprise to the town citizens). The entire town seemed to be at the souk—shopping for their weekly groceries, clothing, and goods. It was very lively and accompanied by a variety of sights, sounds, and especially smells. My group was able to figure out 2 of our 3 clues: we knew we had to find a vendor selling chicken or eggs and another selling vegetables, but the third clue stumped us for a while. Thankfully, another group hinted to us to look at a newspaper stand. Chicken and vegetables? Should be pretty easy to spot, right? Well, unfortunately, there were not only about 4 stands with eggs and chicken, but over half the souk it seemed was selling produce!
All of the fruits and vegetables were so colorful. If you wanted poultry, you picked your own chicken out—nice and fresh!
​Our speaking partners helped us tell the vendors that we were playing a game; however, they could not direct us toward the correct vendor as they did not know the answer to the riddles, either! At points, we all looked like lost tourists. During the hunt, we were responsible for trying to communicate with them—a task that was not only confusing, but challenging. By the end of the day, it seemed that all the vendors knew what we were up to, since multiple groups of Americans were wandering the souk looking for these bags of clothing, hidden with a number on the bag for each scavenging group.
Sienna, Alex, Dr. McLaren, Dr. Newcomb, and Mary Kate discover the souk. 
​After spending about three hours in the souk, we found all our clothing and dressed our mannequins. Even though the scavenger hunt was a bit exhausting, it was a great cultural interaction. We observed how the souk was laid out, how people bargained with one another, and who was doing the shopping. We also observed the type of items being sold by the vendors. Typically men ran the booths, while women shopped for their family. An interesting point, which we noticed, was the quality of the clothing and household items - they were of various origins, and all used. The souk was definitely a community gathering and appeared to be something that all the residents looked forward to each week, particularly when this was the opportunity to buy items of much higher quality than the "made in China" items sold in stores around the country.

​After lunch, Nour helped organize a trip to the Legzira beach, where absolutely astounding rock formations awaited us. We had a crazy ride in the grand taxis—basically, lines on the road, speed limits, and the number of people squished in the backs seat don’t matter here—and then we hiked down to the beach. Our first sight of the beach involved men playing futbal, individuals praying, and kids building sand castles. The futbal game was surprisingly interrupted by one of our students, Sarah, who joined in with the rough housing. After a few nudges and fearless face offs, the guys realized that even the girl in the skirt could rock the field. We continued our walk down the beach to the rocks, and they definitely didn’t disappoint - our pictures hardly do their beauty justice. It is amazing how the wind, sand, and water can create such natural masterpieces.

​For our last bit of free time afterwards, Julia and I decided to take a walk over to the hospital next to our hotel. As pre-med and public health students, we were very interested in seeing not only what other countries hospitals look like, but also understanding how their healthcare system works. A doctor was waiting out front, and he knew Spanish better than English so I was able to communicate with him to ask if we could take a tour of the hospital. He willingly obliged and seemed excited to have something to do on this slow Sunday. Through broken Spanish, French, Arabic, and English cognates, I was able to translate the tour. The doctor we met was a general physician, but for the entire hospital, they only have one OB-GYN, one pediatrician, and one surgeon! We saw a patient with a scorpion sting, who was given antibiotics, and left to ride out the pain in an examination room. What Julia seemed to notice, as soon we we observed the treatment of the sting, was the level of patient-doctor security of the medical system for a public hospital. If this were an ER in The States, neither one of us would have been able to observe an accident to the detail we observed the sting. The room in which the patient laid was particularly barren, with only the minimal medical supplies necessary, and hardly compared to our hospitals back home. This particular hospital is very poor, and he explained that as a public hospital, all the healthcare is free to people here.

​We ventured to the maternity ward and the expecting mother’s room, which was the most populated area of the hospital. I wish I could’ve gotten more than a glimpse here, but from what I did see, the room seemed quite unsanitary. The doctor showed us radiology and surgical areas, and then we discussed some of the most frequent maladies in children—jaundis and cleft palates. Unfortunately, our tour was cut short by an emergency coming in, but what we did get to see left lasting impressions on both Julia and me. Although it appeared that this hospital was able to cover its patients’ most basic needs and was fairly well-equipped for a rural area, it also exemplified some of the faults of a developing country’s healthcare system. Public, and free care, is not as good as private care, which only the very, very wealthy people in Morocco can afford (a small portion of the population.)  Even though this is somewhat similar to our healthcare system, the medicine we are equipped with is much better overall.

​Although our healthcare system is arguably not without it’s own faults, this visit made me grateful for the modern medicine we have back home, yet the lack of infrastructure in Morocco saddened me. For both Julia and I, this experience really helped validate our interests and what we foresee ourselves doing in the future!

​After all of this excitement, our professors held a debriefing session to discuss our impressions and experiences thus far. Dr. Newcomb opened up the floor to discuss veiling, Islam, and Arabic society. Although I tried to come into this trip without any preconceived notion about Arab society, the media back home oftentimes makes it difficult to do so. When I told people back home that I’d be traveling to Morocco, many people were shocked and kept telling me to “be careful”—moreso than any other trip I’ve been on, which surprised me. However, Morocco has been nothing but welcoming and loving to us Americans, and it’s a shame that radical and extremist groups exist and can taint the image of Islam. The media seems to shift the blame solely on the religion, not the individuals, and making dangerous generalizations like these can be harmful to everyone involved.

Our experiences thus far have reminded us to always keep an open mind about other cultures and people, and to form opinions and judgments ourselves, not necessarily based off others preconceived notions.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Traveling to Tiznit and Sidi Ifni

After one last continental breakfast at our hotel in Agadir, we departed this morning for Sidi Ifni. On the way, we would be stopping in Tiznit, where a silver market was located, so many of us exchanged money for some Moroccan dirhams. It always amazes me how colorful other countries' money is; ours is somewhat boring in comparison! Our exchange rate was favorable--approximately $1 USD = 8 dirham. 

I really enjoyed Agadir and thought it to be a great introduction to the country. As a somewhat tourist destination, it eased us into the culture and helped us become familiar with our surroundings and the language, to a point. However, our next destination, Sidi Ifni, is a small rural town on the southern coast, and I expected the environment to be very different and to feel more immersed in the Moroccan culture. 

The drive to Sidi Ifni was filled with amazing views of the countryside, and eventually, the coast. Although the drive was long, I didn't want to fall asleep because the landscape constantly changed. We departed the Agadir coast, then transitioned to rural farmland, mountains, cliffs, and many, many sheep! Eventually we reached Tiznit, a small city with a shopping market and restaurants. Here, I instantly felt like a tourist and much more out of my comfort zone. I don't know if it comes from living in Florida for my entire life, but I have a strong opposition to feeling ostracized as a tourist because of the negative image us natives conjure of the Disney-goers. When traveling, I always feel compelled to try to blend in and live as one within the culture; however, Moroccan and Islamic culture (especially the Arabic dialect) posed greater challenges to this approach due to my unfamiliarity and physical distinction. Additionally, we are a group of 14 diverse, chatty, and mainly-female Americans, so the stares from the natives were somewhat justified. 

At the silver market, our speaking partners helped us bargain with the vendors and ensure we weren't ripped off. While it was fun watching Dr. Newcomb and Leila banter with the vendors, I also felt a little frustrated not being able to communicate. Gestures and facial expressions can only go so far for a dialect so different from English. Language barriers are tough, but they both got me a good deal on a silver hand of Fatimah necklace and some earrings! One of the vendors told Leila that I should've been able to pay more for his product "because I was a rich American," to which she replied over and over that I was a student, and no, I shouldn't pay more, but nonetheless this exemplified some of the stereotypes that other countries have about Americans. While America is a more developed and wealthier nation than Morocco, generalizations can't always be made about it's citizens, and vice versa. 
Shopping in the market with Lauren, Sofia, Julia, and Jamila. 
We then had a traditional meal of tagines, large clay pots in which a variety of vegetables, meat (lamb/chicken), and cous cous are cooked. The tagine gives the meal even more flavor, and traditionally, they are consumed communally, with each person eating just the section in front of them. The meal was very colorful and rich--and was, of course, accompanied by lots of bread! This quickly became one of my favorite Moroccan meals. 

After a few more hours of driving, we finally descended on the coast once more and the small town of Sidi Ifni seemed to appear out of nowhere. Sidi Ifni is a popular surfing town, but for the most part, is very quiet and quaint. After just a few hours here, I instantly felt comfortable walking around, and a group of us ventured to see the beautiful coastline views. The constant sun made for crystal blue waters and the beach was gorgeous, but surprisingly, right under the overlook were piles of trash! We assumed this was due to a lack of waste services for this tiny, rural city, and the developing country of Morocco overall.

 Afterwards, we headed to Jamila Bargach's foundation, Dar Si Hmad, for dinner and conversation. We had some soup, kabobs, and zucchini with a tomato sauce that absolutely exploded with flavor. Over dinner, Asma (one of the speaking partners) and I discussed similarities in Moroccan and US education systems, favorite traditions, and her favorite cuisine--eggplant salads! The speaking partners give us  fantastic first-hand views and opinions and have really helped us integrate into the culture. This aspect of our program has helped me learn so much more, while also making friends across the world.

After dinner, our group took a walking tour of the city, which seemed to absolutely come to life at night! During the day, men could be found sitting at some of the few cafes, and not many women were in sight. However, at night, many young people were hanging out by the beach, and women and their young children all socialized at the central park. Men still occupied the cafes and restaurants, which was an interesting observation on gendered space. While women typically occupy the home, and men, the public sphere in Moroccan culture, here, all the women brought their children to play while they socialized with one another. Dressed in traditional jellabas, they were all smiling, laughing and enjoying each other's company-surprisingly still at 10 pm! Luckily, it wasn't a school night for the kids. :P

Since Sidi Ifni was colonized by the Spanish, many Spanish-style architecture exists, but these buildings are vacant due to some enduring tensions between the Moroccan and Spanish governments. Most were poorly maintained, but the contrast between the architecture styles was a testament to the history of this city. Many of the elders, we were told, still spoke some Spanish, but aside from them, everyone mainly speaks French and the Moroccan dialect of Arabic.
Maria's ("the last of the Spanish") home, an enduring symbol of nostalgia. 
Although today consisted of a lot of traveling, it nonetheless still provided us many experiences with globalization. Not only the contrast between popular, touristy Agadir and the traditional, rural town of Sidi Ifni, but also the changes in cuisine, dress, appearance, and dialects spoken by the natives exemplified how diverse Morocco is, and how in a developing nation, development isn't always planned--its often unevenly spread throughout the country.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Experiencing Agadir: Sardines, Camels, and Disneyland

May 17, 2013

            One of the most unique aspects of Morocco is the way in which smells travel. In Agadir, there always seems to be some scent in the air, some more pleasant than others. Yesterday, when we walked up to the second floor of our hotel, the smell of honey, cinnamon, and other sweet scents I didn’t recognize emanated throughout the open hallways. These smells must have risen from the kitchen below, because we had lunch soon afterward.

            Not all smells are of equal pleasure, however. Sometimes a faint sewage scent appears in the air as you walk along the street or are sitting innocently in the Casablanca airport.

            Scents may also reveal important aspects of culture. For example, I knew that Agadir must have a large fishing industry, because the strong Saharan winds from yesterday carried the smell of fresh fish to us when we were near the beach, even though the marina was a good bit away.

            This morning, we took a tour of this marina and witnessed firsthand Agadir’s fishing industry. First, we went to where the fishing boats were made. All the boats, which consisted of mostly steel and eucalyptus wood, were constructed by hand outdoors instead of by machines in a factory. Our guide told us that the government has stopped factories from coming in to make the boats because the artisan work provides jobs to many families. Artisan work is valued for its own sake.  

             The harbor contained boats of all shapes and sizes. Some were finished versions of the Phoenician-style boats we saw being constructed, while others were small canoe-like vessels. We also visited a small fish market in the harbor where fish could be bought cheaply. The smell of fish was, of course, strongest here, and today there were no gusting Saharan winds to dilute it.

            Although I had thought that fish were an essential part of the Mediterranean diet, Jamila Bargach, the Founder and Director of the Dar Si Hmad Foundation that was hosting us and had developed our itinerary for half of the trip, said that people do not usually eat fish like tilapia, grouper, salmon, etc. because it is too expensive and does not feed many people. Sardines are a more popular consumption choice; three buckets of sardines are cheap and can feed a family for a number of days.

            After the fishing village, we took a bus up to the top of a small mountain where the upper class of Agadir used to live before the terrible earthquake that occurred in the late 1900’s. Now, just a few ruins remain. We didn’t get to see the ruins up close, though, due to the more titillating tourist experiences of riding a camel and holding a snake. These experiences were conveniently located in the section of concrete used for bus parking on top of the mountain. I must say, though it’s definitely Orientalist of me, that one of my goals while here in Morocco was to ride a camel. It was a short but fun ride – like riding a horse, except that you’re about three times as high off of the ground. My other Orientalist goal is to buy a flying carpet in Fes.

            Laila, one of the other speaking partners, asked me after lunch about how exposed Americans were to the Middle East and criticized some of their (my?) Orientalist views.

            “When I was studying in France,” she said, “I met a group of American students and told them that I was from Morocco. They looked at me and asked me where it was on a map! Incredible!”

            Despite the fact that until a year ago, I was one of these geographically ignorant Americans, I understand where Laila is coming from. The American education system is rather deplorable when it comes to teaching about foreign countries and politics in elementary, middle, and high school. Furthermore, it is probably a bit hurtful to some Moroccans that some Americans don’t know a thing about Morocco. Based on my conversations with these Moroccan students, Moroccans love American culture, and even if some don’t, they are at least very aware of America’s presence. Clearly, this cultural relationship between American and Morocco is not equally reciprocal.

            Laila was also a bit irritated about our camel rides. “When Americans think of Morocco, they all want to ride camels. Why? We hardly use camels for anything anymore. Yes, believe it or not, we have cars! We have cellphones!”

            “Well,” I said, “Americans don’t have access to Moroccan shows on TV like Moroccans do with American TV shows. Morocco is not predominantly in American news, either. News about the Middle East that Americans focus on is usually about the war in Afghanistan, and more recently, the war in Syria and what exact the U.S. should do about it. The only other big exposure to Morocco comes from Hollywood and Disney, and that’s why the camels and ancient medinas fascinate Americans.”

            I didn’t want her to think that Americans were stupid. Most just don’t have exposure to Morocco, and unless they seek information out for themselves, then they are unlikely to know anything about the country. In addition, both the camels and the medinas are aspects of the country that contrast greatly from the U.S. It is only natural to be fascinated by animals and settings that are not found in one's home country.

            “What both of you are saying makes sense,” Abdelkrim chimed in. “I have an American friend who studied here in Morocco for seven months. At first, he lived in the modern apartments by the place where you exchanged your currency. He said it was just like living in an apartment in America and hated it” – indeed, Agadir reminded me a lot of Ocean City. “Only when he later moved into a medina did he begin to appreciate his stay here.”

            However, the old medina in Agadir no longer exists due to the destruction caused by the earthquake. Nearly the entire city was destroyed by this earthquake; only roads and a few shrubs exist in place of where the old medina once stood. It makes sense to me now why the monarchy seems to be so well liked here in Agadir, since it was the monarchy that decided to rebuild the city. Without the monarchy, Agadir probably wouldn’t be much of a city anymore. The new king, King Mohammed VI, has two palaces in Agadir and visits roughly three times a year. Abdelkrim said that people always go out in the streets and cheer whenever he comes to the city.

            Although the old medina is no more, an artificial medina a few miles away from our hotel was constructed. We visited this medina in the afternoon.

            Abdelkrim remarked, “This is like the Disneyland of Morocco.” He was right. The medina was more of a tourist attraction than a real medina. Earlier, Abdelkrim had compared Agadir to the Las Vegas of Morocco, except this comparison was made with love rather than with cynicism, like the former comparison was made with.

            A man named Coco Polizzi designed this new medina. Polizzi is of Italian descent but was born in Morocco. The architecture was perfect, exactly as how you’d imagine a traditional medina to look. Abdelkrim said it was too perfect.

            What impressed me most about the medina was that everything was hand made. I saw Polizzi’s medina featured on a TV show called Homes of Morocco on the plane ride to Casablanca. On the show, Polizzi said that he created the medina to keep artisan work alive. The medina trains young artisans in a variety of crafts, and then they can sell what they create in the medina’s shops. There were silver shops, spice shops, leather shops, herbal shops, silk shops, shoe shops, and woodwork shops. Shop sellers would try to put different clothes on you or get you to smell a variety of spices as you walked by.

            Polizzi also said that some Moroccans would make fun of him for not being originally from Morocco. Family names and blood ties are still somewhat significant in this country. I mentioned this to Jamila, and she noted that the issue of when exactly someone becomes part of a nation is very much present in America as well and continues to be a topic of great interest in anthropological studies.

            In the evening, we went to a space that Dar Si Hmad bought and watched a Berber music performance by a group of college students. There were about nine students: four sat on the floor with drums while the others danced in unison around the drummers in a circle and sang in Berber. Abdelkrim told me that this music comes from the southern parts of Morocco and the Sahara region.


            Towards the end of the performance, we all got to dance with the musicians. One of them handed me a drum, so I got to play a song with them, too. It was so much fun! I have never heard music quite like that before. When I went to bed that night, the sound of drumbeats continued to pound  in my head.  


Monday, June 3, 2013

First Impressions of Morocco

When entering into Morocco it was very clear the amount of globalization taking part in the nation. The first thing that I noticed on the plane was the variety of languages that everyone spoke. It was interesting to hear everyone speaking and knowing what the other person was saying. It seemed as though everyone knew every language. This is a clear sign of global trends around the world taking place. Even after landing in the country everyone was able to communicate with us with ease. A few of us on the trip went to buy water at the store and the man there not only spoke English but was also able to tell us how much the water was in American dollars. Later tonight when we were walking on the boardwalk you could even see that most of the signs were in English. While I did not think much about that at first, I later realized that it was strange to have so much English surrounding the area.
Another first impression that I had was when we were on the plane there was a lot of different styles of dress that people had. It seemed as though all the women had different ways to wear their head scarves. It was interesting to look at the generational styles of dress. When looking around you could see the older women on the plane dressed in more conservative dresses and pants with a head scarf. but when you looked at younger women they were often wearing more modern clothes with a head scarf. It was interesting to see how the globalization of dress has affected the generational ties. When talking to someone, they said they saw a family get up together and go to the bathroom to change into more conservative clothes and put head scarves on. It was different to hear about a family doing that considering that is not something people do in America.
Another big sign of globalization that I noticed was when walking down the boardwalk in Agadir; you could see many western stores everywhere. There were stores such as Apple and Lacoste, it helped to demonstrate the global flows of goods throughout the world. The stores demonstrated the western store companies coming into nations in order to create business. The western stores also helped in making the distinction that this city is more catered toward tourism. If you look in the stores at the clothes they were not very conservative clothes that the typical Moroccan would wear.
My overall first impression of the country was that it was very interesting to see the amount of globalization that has taken place. When I think about Morocco I think of desert rural land, not tourist western stores. I always see Morocco as a place that seems to be untouched by globalization. It is a nation that lives and thrives from tradition. However, after seeing it today I realized that globalization is something that a nation cannot escape. It surrounds daily and even the most traditional societies still have globalization within.
Photos: Julia Queale, except "Aeroport Al Massira," Alex Mickler