Our final two days in Morocco were spent debriefing our field experience with our cohort. We spent an afternoon with Moroccan alumni of exchange programs and brainstormed ways we could stay connected. We shared our observations around our guiding questions, and gave feedback to one another. By sharing our experiences, we broadened all of our experiences.
My exhaustion was extreme. I had pushed myself through my field experience in Tangier, and I felt like I had so little left. It took a superhuman effort to show up to our meetings. On the contrary, I was still up for little excursions around Rabat- a random tram ride, a trek to find a bookstore, an afternoon at the ancient ruins of Chellah, a shopping spree in the medina, and a final cultural dinner at an amazing restaurant- Le Ziryab.
I was haunted by the finality of these days. The last Moroccan tea. The last call to prayer. The last nut from my takeout basket from the restaurant in Tangier. The last French episode of The Voice. The last Moroccan sunset.
I am so grateful for this experience. I have a deep appreciation for the people who made it possible, for Miriem and Wyatt, for my cohort. In my last hours in Rabat, as I packed my impossibly full suitcase, I thought of how I had gathered so much to remember that it would be hard to take it all with me. But, I am determined to take Morocco with me, wherever I go.
After nearly two weeks away from home and an exhausting schedule, my last day in Tangier was full of conflicting emotions. My time here had been full to bursting with unforgettable experiences, but the end was inevitable, and, to be honest, I needed to get away from the constant stimuli to process all that I had learned. I felt a little on edge as the day began, and I feared that I would lack the grace to be a good guest with my departure hanging over me.
Rachid, on the contrary, was not done being a good host. He wanted to make sure we revisited the best views and the most historic places. He wanted to squeeze in a couple more experiences in the short time that we had.
Item one on the agenda was breakfast and a big surprise. And I was surprised, too! Rachid had told me of his famous friend, the acrobat Mustafa Danger. By some crazy chance, Mustafa was in town for a family event. He met us for breakfast and I had a wonderful chat with him. He is charming, humble, and passionate about giving back to his community. He’s a great example of a Moroccan whose success came from his artistic and athletic talent, along with some amazing good luck along the way. Once a poor kid on the streets of Tangier, Mustafa is now a Guinness World Record holder and a famous high wire acrobat who has performed all over the world. It was easy to immediately like Mustafa and become a fan. What an honor to have the privilege of a conversation over breakfast with a world class acrobat!
After breakfast, we took a drive and ended up at the beautiful Parc Perdicaris. This large, natural area is a popular place for picnics and family outings. The park is built at the site of the home of John Perdicaris, a Greek-American who lived in Tangier for much of his life. He is especially famous for being the victim of a notorious kidnapping by tribal leader. Check out the Wikipedia article on him.
Rachid and I took the morning slowly, as we had nothing pressing to do. We enjoyed the park and a drive, and then made our way to the train station, where Starbucks and McDonalds reminded me that I was definitely on my way homeward soon.
The last remarkable site I saw in Tangier were cats. I was in the beautiful La Gare Tanger Ville, all enclosed in glass walls, with polished stone floors and a gleaming modern interior. And there were the cats. In the food court. Imagine a large modern mall in the United States. Now imagine cats roaming the food court and eating French fries offered by diners. I found it strangely unsettling, and very North African, at the same time.
Saying goodbye to Rachid was difficult. We had been so constantly in each other’s company all week, and who knew when or if we would ever see each other again? I’m not an experienced world traveler, so these temporary relationships are not normal to me. To think that I may never look over the sea at Tangier again… Although I miss my home, I am already missing Tangier as I board the bullet train.
On Friday morning we went back to Rachid’s school and said our goodbyes. I presented Fulbright certificates to Rachid and the director. In return they gave me a engraved glass trophy. I gave Rachid and Mostafa Mossyrock t-shirts for allowing me to co-teach in their classrooms, along with some books I brought about 21st Century Skills. Is it universal that certificates, trophies, and gifts are so valued? Morocco is reminding me how meaningful small remembrances can be for people. I have a plaque that I have kept since fourth grade for an essay contest, after all. I had started to get tired of all the certificates I was receiving, but today I realized that this huge experience was winding down. Soon, I would have just paper and glass.
The school’s staff came out to say goodbye, and then Mostafa insisted on taking us for coffee. The three of us went to a nice cafe near the school. Needing a snack, I tried to order a small bowl of fruit. What I ended up getting was a giant fruit and ice cream dessert that we deemed a “fruit trophy.” Moroccan food is art. Seriously. So, over coffee and fruit, we had a lovely final visit with Mostafa, who is kind of my Moroccan teaching twin, with his passion for creativity and collaboration.
After a fond farewell, we set out for a downtown tour of Tangier before our trip to Tetuan for a public speaking contest. I posed for pictures near monuments, streets art, and historical buildings. Then it was time to hit the road south for our event.
Mostafa suggested a good place for barbecue on our way, so we stopped in a small roadside town that had a whole row of barbecue places. Barbecue in Morocco is different from ours. Their version begins with a stop at a window that is essentially the butcher shop. Customers pick out the cut they want with the carcasses hanging right there. I asked for lamb steaks and Rachid ordered “mince,” which are little hamburger patties. After watching the butcher cut the meat for us, we took our plates of raw meat to the cook. While we were waiting for our meat to cook, we ate an appetizer of olives and chatted at our table by the window. When the meat arrived, it was so much food! The only accompaniment was a mild red pepper sauce. Luckily, a stray cat showed up at the window, and Rachid fed quite a bit of meat to her. It was good, and certainly fresh. In fact, I think I saw a shepherd sitting out front.
After lunch, we went on to Tetuan. This city is very beautiful with its white buildings and Spanish architecture. We went on a walking tour of the old city center and medina, among the vendors and artisans. We found an open gate at the end of an alleyway. Behind it was an old leather tannery, with brick-lined vats dating back to the Middle Ages. That was another happy accident, just randomly discovered.
But, our magical luck was not gone yet. As we were reading historical markers on the buildings in the medina, and admiring the ancient architecture, an older gentleman came by, giving a tour to several people in Arabic and French. When he saw us, he asked if we spoke English. Then he offered to let us join them on their tour. He turned out to be one of the foremost authorities on Tetuan, a history professor, and a Fulbright scholar! He was giving tours of old houses that he was renovating, and he took us into one of them. We got to see it in mid-restoration, which was very interesting, indeed. But, we lost track of time and had to leave mid-tour. We were late for our event, an English public speaking contest at a nearby school.
When we arrived at the contest, the final round was being announced. We got to watch singles and pairs in the impromptu phase, giving speeches on topics provided by the judges. It was interesting in many ways. I did notice that these students did not speak as well as the students we saw in Tangier. Of course, it was the impromptu phase, so that was to be expected. There were private and public school contestants, and it was obvious that the private schools had an advantage. Throughout the whole affair, I was struck by the rudeness of the audience. There were students in the back of the auditorium talking loudly and distracting from the performances. No one seemed to be bothered, but it was something that we would never tolerate back home. After the contestants gave their speeches, there was a strange musical interlude. One young lady, despite the rudeness of the crowd, sang a lovely song, a cappella. Then a girl with a large and loud following in the rowdy audience butchered some Lady Gaga. Finally, a young man played an electric piano like a virtuoso, while, rather comically, in my eyes, a slow moving tech guy moved around the stage and adjusted sound equipment in the middle of the performance. The whole set up was really nice, as far as their stage and equipment goes, much better than anything I have had access to as a theatre teacher. Rachid told me that this was the reason that it was popular for events like this. However, it seemed like the folks running the show needed a little more training on tech support.
It got exciting near the end when a riot nearly broke out. In all the time I spent in Morocco, this was the only time it seemed remotely dangerous. A mother of a public school contestant was very angry when the winners were announced, and she got about half of the audience riled up, with shouting and shaking of fists. It’s the sort of thing that might happen back home when a parent freaks out at a basketball game when the ref makes a bad call. You see, the girls who won went to a private Spanish school. They had done a great job and deserved the win. From what I gathered, the disgruntled mom and her friends were protesting that the winning team was allowed to compete with kids who had less advantageous public education. I kind of agreed with her. However, I really sympathized with the event coordinators and judges who were just trying to have a fun event and honor some talented kids.
Now this is really important to understand. I was the only person in the whole auditorium that felt things were on the verge of out of control. Moroccans emote loudly and gesture passionately when they have an issue to relate to others. There was anger and there was a lot of drama to see and hear, but no one was threatening to do more than express their opinions with passion. In our culture, people repress strong emotions and are generally polite in large gatherings, even when they disagree. Outbreaks of angry yelling are scary for us. They often lead to violent behaviors. I can say I did not see violence in Morocco during my stay. (Note: There were reports of the teachers on strike being hosed down with fire hoses in Rabat during my visit, so violence happened. I just didn’t see it.)
Each day has been a series of comparisons and contrasts. How are we alike? How do we differ? I constantly wonder if my own behavior seems rude in my hosts’ eyes. Meanwhile, I admire their deep, constant, and open communication style. I am in awe of the connectedness of their culture. I feel like, as a people, they tend to have great respect for one another, and yet they do not hesitate to show their disapproval.
I came here to, in part, study the collaboration and communication of Moroccans, and I must admit it is impressive. But, it is mainly cultural, not thoughtfully embedded in education. At least, that is what my limited experience is showing me.
My experience in Morocco took on a magical quality. It was as if incredible possibilities were jumping out at me at every opportunity, happy accidents that gave me surprise inside views of the country, the culture, the people, and the art of education. These spontaneous blessings were almost overwhelming! (Warning: This post is overlong. So much happened, and I wanted to record all of it!)
Today’s experiences included visits to a technical high school (Moulay Yousef), the American Legation Museum, a famous five-star restaurant, a sports academy at Ibn Batouta Stadium, an international poetry event, and a moonlit drive through the narrow streets of the medina. These encounters ranged from realistic and familiar to completely surreal. My Moroccan experience was quickly conditioning me to accept every new sensation and realization without questioning. What a feast for the senses this trip has been!
First stop was Lycée Technique Moulay Youssef. This high school was a stark contrast to the more exclusive high school where Rachid teaches. The students at Moulay Youssef are tracked for lesser jobs. These are not future engineers. This is a public school, and unlike Rachid’s students, these kids did not test into a higher placement/better school. It was like the difference between a honors English class and the vocational track kids. I found it very relatable, and these kids resembled my own students in many ways. There was compliance, but not as much enthusiasm for the work. When they were given the opportunity to ask me questions, they stuck to one subject- How could they end up in the United States? They were clearly looking for a way out, a way off the track in which they were permanently stuck. It was a bit sad, but, to me, a rural teacher in an economically challenged area, it felt familiar. Is there a way out? What kind of future do you have if you are not privileged by the system? I took it in stride, but I could sense that Rachid was uncomfortable, afraid, perhaps, that I was getting a bad impression of Moroccan education. On the contrary, the familiarity of the scene was important to note.
One of the magical bits of the morning involved the teacher of this class. He was, by some amazing coincidence, the same man who asked us to judge the public speaking competition. He wasn’t expecting us, as his administrator just sent us to him out of the blue, but he welcomed us graciously. I cannot find his name in any of my records, which is disappointing, because I found him to be very kind and dedicated to his work. His job at Lycée Moulay Youssef seemed challenging, but he definitely had the heart for it. Kudos to him for taking in an unexpected visitor and allowing us to observe his lesson and interact with his students.
The next stop was the famed American Legation Museum. Rachid and I enjoyed visiting all the historical relics of America’s long relationship with Morocco. I love history, and this site had been recommended by every American I had met in Morocco. I found it fascinating and revealing. Plus, there were some lovely pieces of art mixed in with all the historical photos, furniture and documents.
The next stop was lunch at Restaurant Populaire Saveur de Poisson, and it was by far the best food I have had in Morocco. In fact, this food ranks up there with the best meals I have ever had. Other travelers have thought the same. Check out this review and you will see pictures of the same meal that I had – freshly caught fish with amazing side dishes and a house juice blend. This place is a must-see in Tanger.
Then we took a drive along the sea, stopped to feel the breeze and take some pictures, rested a bit with our full bellies, and then it was off again to another school. This time it was a very unique context- a brand new, still under construction, sports academy adjacent to the stadium in Tanger. Students chosen for this public school test in athletic theory and practice. Every student is an athlete.
The students I visited were high school freshmen in the middle of a lesson on irregular verbs in English. As I learned from them, they are eager to learn English because they hope to have careers in teaching and coaching in the future, after their athletic careers. They were incredibly energetic and enthusiastic, which was a dramatic contrast from the school I visited in the morning. Sports and other extracurricular activities are not usually included after middle school in Morocco. If a student wants to pursue the arts or sports, they have to do so in clubs or classes beyond their regular schedule. This school integrates academics with athletics, and gives the students a focused education for a career in a related field. I was impressed. Being from a rural school, where sports get all the support from the community, it can be frustrating at times. I’d like to see greater focus on the arts and academics, but athletics are a motivator, and these students made it very clear for me. They were joyous. They were competitive in a way that showed their camaraderie and team spirit. And that was in an English lesson! Their teacher was a charismatic woman in a hijab, whose smile and eagle eye told the story of a woman who loved her students and ruled with both her heart and their well-earned respect. They were on the verge of wild in that room, but one look from her set them straight, without a cross word. It was lovely. And I really felt at home. I felt a twang of homesickness as I remembered my own obnoxious freshmen back home. These kids brought them to mind and made me smile.
So then it was time to go to our big event of the day, the International Day of Poetry hosted by the poet we met at Ahmed Chaoki school, Dr. Mohamed Lahrichi. I was under the impression that we would be going to hear others read poetry, but it turned out that I had somehow become an honored guest. I was even on the poster! In fact that poster, with my face on it, was projected onto the wall when we arrived. I was stunned and unprepared, but what can you do but go with the flow, right? They seated me next to a famous radio personality and published poet – Abdellatif Benyahya. It was so surreal and overwhelming in many ways. I sat through and evening of poetry readings in French and Arabic, and then, with only a little warning, I was asked to read a poem in English. So I did, and I gave it my best dramatic reading voice and tried for all the world to sound like I belonged with that amazing group of poets and award-winning student poets of all ages. Mr. Benyahya was a delightful man, who told me of his love for Sylvia Platt in broken English, and then signed a book of his poetry for me. We all received the ever-present certificates and roses from our host, Dr. Lahrichi. The head of the education delegation was present, so I finally got to meet him and pose for pictures, too. What a night!
But we weren’t done. Two of my Fulbright TGC cohort members had come to Tanger for the night on their way to a day trip to Chefchaouen. Rachid was working to hire them a driver for their trip. They had checked into a traditional riad for the night, and we decided to pick them up and go out to dinner. The riad was in the medina, which means all of the roads to it were walled, narrow, and dark at night. But this was Rachid’s home turf, and he skillfully drove along the tiny cobbled streets while I recorded the nerve-wracking journey on video.
After picking up Abby (Becker, of Alabama) and Rachel (Caldwell, of Virginia), we visited the towers of the casbah of Tanger under a beautiful moon. Then we went to the pier for a late dinner and conversation. I confess it was good to have Americans there to hear about my bizarre day. I needed to check in with reality after my stint as an international poet!
I started the day already exhausted but very excited. I had been looking forward to this day for two reasons. The first was that it would be an opportunity to experience Moroccan home cooking with Rachid’s mother. And then our plan was to journey out into the countryside to visit a rural school. Both of these activities were expressly added to the itinerary for my benefit, thanks to Rachid’s determination to give me a meaningful experience in Morocco.
So, first thing in the morning Rachid picked me up, and we drove to Mnar Castle along the coast for very windy photo shoot. I’ll admit that photo shoots had lost their charm for me, as did the cold breeze off the bay after just a few minutes! But, honestly, the view was incredible, and I am so thankful to Rachid for making sure I could see so many beautiful sites around Tangier.
We drove along the bay with it’s surf, seabirds, and fishermen, then stopped at an open-air market. Our task was to shop for Rachid’s mother who was making our lunch. Rachid’s sneaky agenda included getting me out into the market to fend for myself, bartering in Darija and hand gestures, while picking out the best produce. I was pretty terrible at it, to be honest. However, I managed to buy scallions, berries, squash, and some other beautiful fruits and vegetables.
Later at Rachid’s apartment, cooking was already in progress. I got to watch for a bit, but then it was clear I was to be a guest and not a cook. His mother cooks every afternoon and her adult children show up for lunch over the space of two or three hours. She happily chops vegetables and roasts tajines while watching her favorite shows on the television that sits on the kitchen table. I got to watch a few examples of Moroccan television with commentary from Rachid.
Their apartment was lovely, with beautiful views from both sides and warmly furnished to accommodate a large extended family when they visit. Although they started out living in the medina when their father was a poor craftsman, it was evident that Rachid and his siblings were creating a very comfortable life for their parents and the next generation.
We ate a beautiful salad, tasty meat tajine, and fresh fruit. Amazing mint tea followed, of course. After lunch they gave me gifts- textiles and a teapot. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for their hospitality. I was a bit frustrated, though, because I knew it was coming and Rachid had evaded my pleas to take me shopping for his mother. I only had the flower arrangement I had received at the poetry event to give to her. Before we had to leave, his sister Kenza arrived and we had a lovely conversation, despite our language barrier. Both women literally embraced me with warmth and friendship. My impression of these Moroccan women is one of strength, vibrant intelligence, and warmth. I was sad to leave them.
But this was the big day, the day we would finally see what rural education looked like in Morocco. So, we set out on our rural adventure, heading out into open country, where every bend in the road revealed an awesome vista. Although this is Rachid’s homeland, he had never traveled this way before, and it was a longer trek than he had imagined. We stopped often for directions and assurance that we were on the right road, something Moroccans do often. We talked to school boys, shepherds, and teachers at tiny schools along the way. It was a perfect overview of a rural area in northern Morocco.
We finally arrived in the town of Dar Chouie, and stopped at a school. It turned out to be the wrong one, but the director of the school met us at the gate and made Rachid promise to come back after we visited the middle school down the road.
Finally, we arrived at Lycée Colegiale at Dar Chouie. The director and his staff were very welcoming. We had tea in the director’s small supply closet of an office (quite different from the directors’ offices in urban schools). Then we visited the classroom of an English teacher, Mohamed. This dynamic young teacher had just returned from Texas where he had learned about the use of PLCs (professional learning communities) for language teachers. He was passionate about language learning and bringing his knowledge to rural students. Learning English is a huge advantage for Moroccan students, and it can help ensure a brighter future for them, too.
His students were beginners in English, so my interactions with them were simple. However, they were curious and engaged, especially the girls. Girls in rural Morocco are hard to keep in school. It has nothing to do with their aptitude, but entirely to do with social structures. Rural families tend to be conservative, and they are uncomfortable with their daughters traveling long distances to school. They prefer to keep them at home. Girls tend to go to small primary schools close to home. However, junior high and high school, in particular, have lower female attendance, due to the travel time. So, to address this, they are starting up boarding schools for rural girls. Families are more comfortable sending the girls to stay at the school rather than have them travel back and forth. Still, giving rural Moroccan girls a reason to stay in school is part of the problem. How does it improve their outlook in life? It seems that knowledge of English and connectivity to the rest of the world may be the key to independence and breaking out of poverty for many of these girls.
After our visit at Lycée Colegiale, Mohamed and his adorable four-year old daughter MJ accompanied us to the Dar Chouie elementary school, where the director had asked us to return. Our accidental stop on the way actually led to my favorite school visit of all. Brahim, the director, enthusiastically greeted us and ushered us into his pleasant little office as soon as we arrived. He had prepared coffee for us and was so excited to host an American. Despite having two very fluent English interpreters with us, Brahim decided to stick to English himself, with great determination. I was inspired by his enthusiasm and completely won over by his charm.
Brahim showed us his lovely little school. It was mostly new and freshly painted and beautified. The complex not only housed the primary classrooms, but it also served as a dormitory for the older girls that attended the junior high. It was well-equipped, with a computer lab and a space that Brahim referred to as a broadcast room. This room was set up for large meetings with all new furniture, and there was a sound system. He fired up the microphones and speakers and proceeded to do a spontaneous interview of me right then and there! The interview was broadcast over the whole school, right in the middle of the classes. I would have been horrified, but this man’s contagious smile and pride in his school made it a joyful event. He then took me to a classroom, where the wonderful young teacher of fourth-graders graciously allowed us interrupt her lesson. Her bright and cheerful classroom full of attentive youngsters was beautiful to behold. One of her students volunteered to teach me a lesson in Arabic. As usual, I was pathetic, but I did manage to write, “How are you?” on the chalkboard, with the encouragement of the whole class.
We prepared to leave reluctantly. But, first we needed to visit the restrooms. Rachid headed for the regular one, but Brahim insisted that I use his own bathroom in his home. And this, my friends, is where my traveler horror story begins. Inside his apartment in the middle of the complex, I met his lovely wife and two young sons. They showed me to the bathroom and all went well until I went to flush the toilet. The top of the tank was off of it, and, when I flushed it, it began spraying everywhere. So, being a resourceful woman, I reached in to fix it, since I’ve fixed a few toilets in my time. However, Moroccan toilets are not the same as American toilets, and I only made it worse. A small spray became a fountain! I finally had to give in and go out and confess that I was flooding their bathroom. Brahim apologized to me and tried to usher me out, but his wife saw me and burst into laughter. She stopped him and took a towel to me, wiping off my glasses and hugging me. We both were laughing uncontrollably, which is definitely a universal language. I thanked her for her kindness and apologized for the mess, as I finally let Brahim escort me to the car.
On the road once more, Rachid took a more direct route home, on the advice of Mohamed. This route took us near the city of Asilah, a beautiful town along the Atlantic known for its clean streets, skilled craftsmen, and beautiful murals. We stopped to walk through the medina and take in the sights at sunset. Then, we sat down at a cafe for tea and nuts. Rachid gave me a lesson in Arabic, teaching me to write the alphabet on a napkin. I was probably one of his worst students, but he is a great teacher, and he persisted.
As we walked back to the car in the sea breeze, I got to teach Rachid a lesson. He wanted to understand what the word “chilly” actually meant, and we discussed its connotations like the two English teachers we are.
We finished the evening with a stop for a late dinner at McDonalds. I wanted to be able to tell my students about the difference between American and Moroccan fast food. Apparently, McDonalds is pretty fancy in Morocco. It was clean and beautifully furnished, with a lovely outdoor seating area overlooking the Bay of Tangier. It was by far my favorite McDonalds.