How Diving Head-First into Moroccan Culture Changed My Life
When living abroad, TEFL teachers tend to hang out in the "foreigner bubble," spending most of their free time with fellow expats. Although hanging out with other foreign teachers can provide a welcome respite from a new and challenging culture, spending too much time with expats can detract from what can be a rewarding intercultural experience.
When I moved to the remote city of Oujda, Morocco to teach English, I decided that I would spend as much time with Moroccans as possible. I threw away any expectations of what Moroccan culture might be like and chose to simply take it all in. I was not only there to teach, but to learn.
By discarding any preconceived notions of Arabs or Muslims, working earnestly to learn the local language, and adapting to local customs - from fasting during Ramadan to haggling for groceries at the cheapest open air market, I developed lifelong bonds and learned lessons that have stayed with me to this day. In this article, I will share the techniques that I used to adapt to Moroccan culture and how this experience changed my life.
1. Be Yourself
It may sound cliché, but it’s actually challenging – especially because who you are affects how people see you. Not only was I a woman, but a Jewish one. How would Moroccans treat me? My anxiety dissipated soon after I stepped off the plane. Having fallen asleep on the train and missed my stop, the conductor saw that I was frazzled, personally escorted me to the nearest station, and bought me a coffee.
The kindness of Moroccans has never failed to fill me with awe. If people could be this compassionate, I thought, perhaps they could accept me for who I was. I reasoned from that moment to be fully open about my Jewish identity.
Sharing my identity was an integral part of my teaching. For almost all of my students, I was the only Jew they had met. Meeting me shattered their stereotypes of what Jews were and expanded their idea of what it meant to be an American. My students were surprised to know that I didn’t celebrate Christmas and that, like them, I didn’t eat pork. They were fascinated by the similarities between Hebrew and Arabic. I even led a workshop where I taught students Hebrew songs and folk dances! These experiences not only enriched my students’ education but were gratifying to me, as I knew that I was opening the door to mutual understanding.
2. Say Yes!
If your host country is anything like Morocco, then you will receive a plethora of invitations to family events, tea, and meals at the homes of people in your community. Say yes! Attend the weddings, the baby showers, and the dinners. Stay for tea. Don’t worry about time – in fact, as the hours pass by, you will have made new friends, learned some new words, and felt inspired to cook that delicious food you just tried.
Moroccans are excellent hosts. They never fail to put out their fanciest tablecloths and plates for guests, and they will always insist that you eat more (you must make it clear that you are full by saying “chb3t, safi baraka”, or they will keep feeding you). Further, unlike Americans who might ask for guests to bring something, Moroccans will never, ever ask for anything in return. Being a guest at the homes of my students and neighbors taught me the values of hospitality and generosity.
As I write this article, I fondly remember the dinner party I hosted last night in my Washington, D.C. studio apartment, where I prepared couscous with meat and vegetables from scratch – steaming it three times in the Moroccan fashion. Needless to say, my guests were impressed! It is thanks to my Moroccan hosts (with the help of Cooking with Alia on YouTube) that I have learned to cook so well.
3. Learn the Local Language
Most of my fellow expat teachers communicated with Moroccans in French, the colonial second language. However, there is something special about communicating with a person in his or her mother tongue. All of my interactions with Moroccans – including the ones detailed above – happened in Moroccan Arabic, or darija. Actually, calling it “Arabic” is a misnomer. If you asked anyone from Oujda, they would tell you that the language they speak is not Arabic. It is completely distinct, with pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary that vary even according to one’s hometown!
Having previously studied Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) for a few years in the United States, I applied that knowledge to learning the local dialect in Oujda. I took advantage of classes offered at the American Language Center where I taught, but the space where I truly built my language skills was in the homes of my neighbors, students and friends.
Learning the local language is not only a sign of respect, but it opens the door to becoming part of your new community. Although I made frequent mistakes, Moroccans always seemed impressed and gratified that I had taken the time to learn their tongue. My darija allowed me to build relationships with my neighbors that I never would have had had I not known darija. I was able to ask the baker downstairs to use her oven, join the family across the street for tea, and donate some money to my neighbor so that he could buy his son glasses. Knowing darija enhanced my experience of living in Morocco, and I do not believe that I would have had half the experience I did if I had spoken only French or English.
4. When in Rome
When you move to another country, you move into a culture with social norms completely different from your own. You also bring your own set of customs and values with you. However, by “doing as the Romans do,” trying something new and keeping an open mind, you can experience the beauty of another culture.
Some of the fondest memories I have of Morocco took place during the month of Ramadan, the holy month during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Although I was not Muslim, I chose to fast along with my students, neighbors and colleagues. Like them, I broke my fast with a ftour (breakfast) of harira (a tomato-based soup), dates and tea and stayed up until 3:00am to eat my last meal of the day. I often shared in the communal experience of breaking the fast by inviting my neighbors over for ftour or attending one at the house of neighbors and friends. Even breaking my fast alone was a beautiful experience: knowing that every other soul in my city was waiting for the adan (call to prayer) in order to eat the first meal of the day was truly special. It made me feel part of the place where I was. I didn’t feel foreign. I felt Moroccan.
Teaching abroad can be a highly rewarding experience, and much of the reward comes from building relationships with locals. However, this is by no means easy. Not mentioned above were moments of culture shock – moments that left me hurt, confused and in tears. However, each of those moments was a learning experience, and I came out wiser from it.
Despite the bumps along the way, my experience taught me that it is absolutely worth it to dive head-first into your new culture. By being yourself, saying yes to invitations, making an effort to learn the language, and “doing as the Romans do,” you may not only gain a new level of respect and understanding for your host culture but also discover another side of yourself. I know I did.