By Anna Jacobs
Charlottesville, Virginia – The transition from tourism to residency in Morocco was a difficult one. Questions of where to travel turns into question of where to work and how to earn money.
Adventure searching turns into job searching and the monotony of routine can wear you down, even in a completely different country. However, what kept me intrigued were the infinite lessons I was learning, in cultural and political analysis, but also in language dexterity.
As any Moroccan or ex-pat will tell you, you can use anywhere from three to five languages day. I was an English teacher for part of my stay in Morocco, so I was teaching English at work while I spoke a mixture of French and Darija with my boyfriend and other friends. Add a random encounter with someone from Northern Morocco and you find yourself trying to speak Spanish. Take a trip down to Agadir and you will start wishing you had learned at least some Berber.
While such a rollercoaster in sociolinguistics is a thrill for students of culture, it is also quite exhausting. I would often have days where I conducted one or two interviews for my research(probably in French), went to the souk(speaking Darija), and maybe stopped by a Hanut on the way home(which was run by two nice men from Agadir who loved teaching me random Berber words).
I also made a conscious effort of skimming some Moroccan newspapers and magazines to keep up with current events(mostly French and some feeble attempts at Fusha)–and by that point I would be falling asleep for an afternoon nap. Add in some sort of debate about US foreign policy, immigration, our second amendment obsession with guns, Islam around the world, my frustration about sexual harassment later in the evening, and well, you get the picture.
It was exhausting. A beautiful exhaustion that only learning can inflict upon you and that could only be momentarily appeased with a decent night’s sleep–though even when you slept your mind would be subconsciously reviewing and synthesizing all the days events and observations.
As a Fulbright grantee and student of political science and sociology, I was primarily focused on researching sub-Saharan African migrants, human rights, and civil society-state relations in Morocco. This entailed an internship with an international organization, over three-hundred interviews with migrants, and dozens of meetings with civil society activists, professors, and journalists. I have written about this and it has been published on Morocco World News in a series of articles, so, for the sake of brevity, I will address other aspects of my experience.
From September 2011 to July 2013 I lived in apartments in the Oudayas and L’Ocean in Rabat, which included a three month stay with a Moroccan family. This gave me a particularly up close and personal relationship with differences in privacy, intimacy, eating habits, and domestic and social habits.
Not too far removed from my University experience in the United States, transitioning from a social setting dominated by alcohol and parties to a group of friends and context where this was not the typical means of “letting loose,” was a difficult one. This does not at all mean you cannot find that scene in Morocco, especially in major urban areas like Rabat and Casablanca. I just wanted to try something different and I did.
I learned to appreciate sitting in cafe’s and talking, rather than necessarily partying it up in people’s houses or clubs. I began to treasure sitting down to dinner with my boyfriend and his family, and, most drastically, I gained an appreciation for watching soccer matches in cafes–especially those that featured FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, or, of course, the Moroccan National Team.
Sexual harassment, as so well articulated by Ms. Nidal Chebback in her MWN article “Sexual Harrassment in Moroccan Streets, who is to blame?” is unfortunately a daily reality irrespective of how you dress. Of course, it is a question of degrees and wearing more modest clothes does, perhaps, lessen the intensity of the gazes and comments. However, it doesn’t play enough of a role in deterring this objectifying experience, one that can occur for women wearing all types of clothing–whether that be the hijab or the niqab.
Navigating this experience was an unfortunate reality for me in Morocco–not all the time perhaps, but enough of the time that I was extremely conscious of what I wore, how much makeup I put on, how I wore my hair, etc. This occurred less often if I was walking around with men, especially my Moroccan friends, but this fact often aggravated me even more. I had the sense that, as long as a man was there–I was deemed as “claimed”–and thus safe from harassment. This was perhaps a sign of respect for the man, but what about for me?
However I cannot stress enough how this experience is replicated in various forms throughout the world. It is a daily struggle for women everywhere to various degrees, and this reflects a global patriarchy that, to this day, from east to west, objectifies women. It affects us consciously and subconsciously and provokes an inherent fear that we are constantly the ones to blame. Was I too flirtatious?
Did I smile too much? I was probably too talkative…maybe I looked at him or her for too long? Are my pants too tight? Is my hair too long? Should I change my hair color? Does this dress look slutty? The degradation we inflict on ourselves to justify the misogynist notions circulating around us only serves to reinforce this system and the insidious ways its permeates individual and social identity.
Sometimes the most obvious notions are the most difficult to come to terms with. Why is that? Why do we often overlook what is staring us right in the face? For me, it relates to truly learning how listen and where to look. Personally, human rights and social and political engagement are the first places I look to understand a place, and Morocco was not left wanting. I am not just talking about the multitude of political activists that challenge the authorities and status quo everyday, especially those I had the privilege of interviewing for my research. I am also talking about everyday acts of struggle, courage, and kindness that often go unnoticed.
People challenge the status quo in unique ways that we may not know(because we don’t care to ask) or that we may not understand. My grandmother was one of the few women to attend university in a small rural southern town in North Carolina in the late 1930’s.
She graduated as a music major and instilled the principles of a liberal arts education at a time and in a place where women were still second-class citizens. Such a seemingly small act of challenging the status-quo has led to the a tradition of education in my family that was one of the defining elements of my life. It has not only instilled a love for learning, just for the sake of learning, but a desire to make teaching and scholarship a significant part of my professional life.
My Moroccan boyfriend of five years, who I used to challenge to be more ambitious and work harder, was already embarking on his own personal rebellion against the system, one that I was too blind to see. As Maya Angelou said, we are only as blind as we want to be, and I, like so many people, wanted to see things in a carefully framed, black and white picture. I had put myself and him into two different boxes with the various stereotypes that went long with them–I was ambitious, he was not; I was privileged, he was not, I was politically engaged, he was not. I was tolerant of other points of views, he was not.
It was an incredibly narrow minded and ignorant exercise in self-righteousness that took me nearly two years in Morocco to truly begin to break away from. He wanted to pursue a career in surfing and designing surfboards that many people, myself included, laughed at.
But that was his passion, and he is pursuing it, irrespective of the obstacles, the financial instability, and the immense sea of individuals telling him it is impossible. In a social context not always associated with social and economic mobility, he was striving for something more and staying true to himself along the way. What did this lesson mean for me? Read the third and final part of this narrative to find out.
Anna Jacobs graduated from the University of Virginia with degrees in Government, Foreign Affairs, and French literature. She will be starting a Master of Philosophy program in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oxford this fall. She is Morocco World News’ assistant Editor.
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