When researching Morocco for my semester abroad in Rabat, I devoured all of the blogs and articles that Pinterest and Google had to offer. Reading all of these articles about living in Morocco as an American, I forgot that the “American” experience in travel has almost always meant the white experience that would go on to resonate with some of the white women in my program—but that, I soon realized, was different from my own experience.
The media I saw in Morocco made me feel the most beautiful and confident I have ever felt in my body. For the first time in my life I looked around at magazines, music videos, and advertisements, and I saw my skin color, my curly brown hair, and my curves reflected in every single one. I lived in Rabat, the capital city on the northwestern coast of Morocco. The old city, or medina, was much smaller and more conservative than Marrakech, which is well known for its museums, extensive markets, and cultural events. Living and going to school in the medina, I quickly learned to find my way through the small alleyways always full of kittens basking in the afternoon sun and grandmas buying fresh groceries for the day.
Even a random Tuesday afternoon could be an adventure because of nearby places like the Kasbah of the Udayas, a beautiful walled garden with the waves of the Atlantic rolling onto the beach right below it, and the Chellah, ancient ruins only an hour away from the medina by foot. One of my favorite places in all of Rabat is a street right outside the Nouzhat Hassan gardens lined with artists displaying their latest work. I would often buy fresh orange juice nearby and wander down the street to talk to people about their art or just about life.
Ultimately, my time in Rabat taught me the importance of being open and true to my own experience while always holding space for the different ways fellow classmates experienced the same country or even program. With that being said, here are some topics I would have loved to have heard a different perspective on as a Dominican American woman in Morocco.
What to wear
Even though back home my warm-weather style typically involves short sundresses and low-cut tops, I came to embrace dressing more modestly as a way of showing respect for the country and culture that was my new home. It sometimes felt like I was curbing my own personality or confidence to fit in with the norm, and those moments made me really question the ways my style conforms to cultural norms back in the States—something I had never considered before. Because most people perceived me to be Moroccan, I felt the need to dress more modestly than I might have otherwise.
When packing, take note of the clothes and accessories that make you feel like your truest self—which is a simple way to add yourself to a new, culturally appropriate wardrobe. That can be a colorful sweater or unique earrings, but it can also be a certain nail polish color or hairstyle.
While I did feel the pressure to cover up, it had more to do with cultural norms and preconceived ideas than a true fear of street harassment. One of my friends said it best when she noted that the male attention was similar to what she received back home in her neighborhood—only in Arabic. Like at home, it can be terrifying to be followed or to be out late at night alone, but the added fear of being in a new place definitely made me more careful. While the people featured on TV and advertisements in Morocco typically have light- to medium-brown skin, Moroccan people include all shades of brown and black, and unfortunately colorism and blatant racism are very much alive. These issues play a huge role in how one deals with street harassment. As a lighter- skinned woman of color, I noticed that most of the comments that came my way were in Arabic and easy to ignore, which is what I felt most comfortable doing for most of the semester.
Explore the winding alleys and streets during the day with a friend so you feel more confident and aware of your surroundings. Having the phone numbers of someone from my host family and from my program on speed dial and befriending the stall owners near my new home made me feel more comfortable navigating the streets. Something I wish I would have done: reached out to women of color in my network, through cultural groups or the office of off-campus study at my school, and online groups or websites to see how other women like me dealt with issues of race and sexual harassment.
Talk the talk
Though I speak some French, which often helped me get by in spontaneous conversations with people asking for the time or for directions, the few bits of Darija that we learned sporadically in class were the most helpful in bonding with my host family and feeling capable during my time abroad. Unfortunately, our program and many other abroad programs with language components focus on Fus-ha or traditional Arabic rather than Darija, the dialect spoken by most in Morocco. Outside of my host family, I largely communicated in my very rusty French or in a mix of English and Darija.
Find some learning resources for Darija prior to going to Morocco, and study up on the conversation starters. Even with my very basic Darija I was able to introduce myself and become friends with local shop owners who started to teach me even more Darija halfway through the semester! Not only does learning the language, especially the specific dialect, show that you deeply care about and respect a culture, it also lets you create relationships with the people you meet.