Study abroad stories: Johanna & Andrea in Morocco
AUC students Johanna Ramaer (Class of 2017, Social Sciences) and Andrea Haefner (Class of 2017, Social Sciences) both spent the Autumn 2016 semester studying abroad at the École de Gouvernance et Economie in the city of Rabat, Morocco. Ending up in the destination a bit by chance, both Johanna and Andrea reflected on their individual experiences with the International Office. Read on to learn about their daily lives, motivations for going abroad, tackling cultural differences and developing an appreciation for the beauty, landscapes, hospitality and lifestyle of their adopted home in North Africa.
Johanna Ramaer reflects on Morocco
My time in Morocco has almost come to an end, meaning it is just about a year ago that I decided to come here. Truth be told, Morocco was not my first choice. My exchange application procedure was an experience in itself. But all of my (in the end five) applications I wrote were based on one main motivating factor: to experience a different culture and to live in a non-Western country. At AUC, I am focusing in International Relations and Law, and therefore I thought living in a country with different understandings of human rights and cultural norms and values would put the things I have learned in a better perspective. And thus, I ended up living and studying in Rabat, Morocco.
At AUC, Morocco is not a popular destination, and as I said, it was also not my first choice. I think this is mainly due to two reasons. The first is the simple fact that many courses at the university are taught in French, and therefore not being able to speak French makes studying here slightly more complicated, though certainly not impossible.
Gender in Morocco
And the second reason, I think, has very much to do with the fact that Morocco is sometimes associated with subjection of women; implying it would be tough for girls to live there. When I told people I was going to study in Morocco, many people’s reactions were “Oh, are you also going to wear a headscarf?”, “Is it going to be hard living there as a girl?” and “What does your mom think of that?”. The fact that I have very blond, curly hair made these reactions slightly more understandable.
Nevertheless, I did find them quite superficial. Of course it is true that many Moroccan women wear headscarves and occupy different roles in society than most Dutch women do. But for me, the challenge was exactly to experience and understand such differences in order to put them into a better perspective, instead of seeing them as “bad” aspects of another culture because they are different from mine. And now I can tell from experience that (even) a blond, curly-haired girl from Amsterdam can live perfectly well in Morocco.
I will not deny that girls, also Moroccan girls for that matter, get a lot of attention on the streets. And of course the catcalling can become extremely annoying, but I never felt unsafe or harassed. In fact, the boys who do the catcalling often turned out to be very nice guys. It is part of a bigger culture, and when you try placing this specific aspect in this broader perspective, you will realise it is not as bad as many people think. It is true that women’s rights in Morocco are different and are still far from perfect, but the situation is much more complex and nuanced. So what it all comes down to is that you should not let your decision to come to Morocco be influenced by the fact that you are a girl.
Diversity from north to south
Also, Morocco is just a great country to travel through. Not only is the north very different from the south, but every city is different in its own unique way. Having been colonised by both the French and Spanish, you recognise both French and Spanish influences. It is a country where you can very clearly see and experience the impacts of colonialism, something I have learned shockingly little about. Travelling through Morocco is relatively easy: trains run between all the big cities and you can use buses or ‘grand’ taxies to travel more inland or to little villages. I have managed to travel a lot during the four months I have been here, but I still have not been able to see everything I wanted to. There is just a lot to see and do here.
A return to Rabat
But even just staying in Rabat during the weekend is really nice. Do not expect a major party life. The nightlife is very different from that in Amsterdam. You can buy alcohol, but it is not part of the culture as much as it is in the Netherlands. However, there are some clubs and especially a lot of cultural events. The latter is something I do not attend as much in Amsterdam, so for me it was really cool to be able to go to places with live music performances, little concerts and film festivals rather than to clubs all the time. And these are also the places where a lot of locals go to.
So all in all I have had a great time here in Morocco and I am very sad to leave. But maybe I will come back one day, inshallah. Which brings me to my final note: accept the concept of ‘inshallah’. It literally means ‘if God wills’, and is a phrase many Moroccans use daily. Moroccans are not the most punctual people and in general not the best in organising things, so you should have a lot of patience and just accept that not everything will go as expected. But that is also part of the experience and may even make your time here nicer, inshallah.
An interview with Andrea Haefner
What motivated you to choose Morocco?
Andrea Haefner: Sometimes life takes unexpected turns, and such an unexpected turn took me to Morocco. Initially, I had a placement at Bogazici University in Istanbul, but after the failed military coup, my destination changed to École de Gouvernance et Economie in Rabat, Morocco’s capital. Both countries offered what I was looking for in my study abroad experience: getting to know a new culture, different ways of life, traditions and social norms. Particularly in light of today’s rising xeno- and islamophobia, I found it important to withstand the constant drawing of boundaries, and to instead build bridges. I experienced the beauty and hospitality of an Islamic country that welcomed me with open arms and am happy to share my experiences at home.
What is your day-to-day life like?
AH: I lived in a little riad, a traditional Moroccan house with an open courtyard in the middle, with two other exchange students in the old fort of the city. My day to day life? Well, if I was lucky I would wake up in the mornings from the smell of pancakes that my Dutch roommate made. If I was unlucky, I would wake up to the sound of raindrops -- unlucky for I knew this not only meant that I would get wet outside, but already when leaving my cozy room. The sporadic roof of our little house unfortunately wasn’t rainproof and it took a few days of rain until I figured out the best formation of pots to keep our hallway and living room as dry as possible.
After having breakfast, I would hop on my little red bike to go to Uni. The 40-minute bike ride was maybe not the safest, but definitely the fastest and most interesting way to make my way through the city. And with only ten hours of lectures per week, I didn’t have to take this journey up too often anyways. Well, at least in the beginning. Then I still had lots of time to discover Rabat and the rest of the country. Towards the end of the semester, I studied a lot and my visits to the university became more frequent. I didn’t mind the intensity towards the end though, as I truly enjoyed the courses I took at EGE: Gender and Development, Africa in the 20th century, Studies in Postcoloniality, Civil Society and Arabic. All topics which are not offered in a similar manner at AUC and which were particularly interesting to study from a different perspective in a North African country.
After doing my readings and maybe an assignment here or there, there was always plenty of time to do whatever I desired: going down to the beach for a surf, meeting with friends for a tea, getting my groceries on the market, going to a concert in the evening, etc.
Living in a completely new environment gave me the chance to change my day-to-day life in a way I wanted to, without any established routines interfering with it. Generally, my life slowed down quite a bit in comparison to Amsterdam, somewhat adopting the Moroccan lifestyle. I lived more in the “now”, without planning everything ahead. I accepted that things were cancelled on a regular basis or that an event wouldn’t necessarily start on time. It gave me more time for myself, more time to read, more time to live in the moment and more time to go to bed early. The almost non-existing Moroccan nightlife didn’t invite me to stay out long, so my typical day would end rather early. Also good for a change!
Do you notice many cultural differences? How did you adjust to those?
AH: I think it’s no surprise that there are numerous cultural differences between Morocco and the Netherlands- the most obvious and most often referred to one being religion. But also in smaller scales I noticed every day that I was living in a different country: the tea was way too sweet for my taste, the traffic while bike riding was nerve-wracking, I ate couscous with my hand out of the same bowl that everyone else was eating from, I had my Moroccan friends envy me for being able to live by myself before being married, I found many people around me walking in a djellaba (which on first sight for a Westerner might resemble a bathrobe) and so forth.
And how did I adjust to those cultural differences? By embracing them and being open towards the new! I felt welcomed when people invited me to eat together from one big plate, I took it as a sign of proximity. One of my first purchases in Morocco was a djellaba, which I loved wearing after I got back from an evening at the hammam. I had the most interesting conversations with Moroccan and international friends about the ways we were brought up and how it influenced the way we see the world. In fact, this was for me the most important incentive to go abroad: to not only learn about cultural differences, but to experience them.
Are you meeting a lot of locals?
AH: I met a lot of locals, but at the same time I met a lot of foreigners. Rabat, as the diplomatic and political centre of Morocco, is hosting a lot of expats, who work for various institutions, programmes and organisations. Therefore, just like we know from AUC, it is easy to get stuck in an exchange student and expat bubble and you really have to make an effort to get out of it! But I always tried, and also made some good Moroccan friends with whom I went on a hike, went to concerts or cooked together.
And the little magic trick to get to know locals?! Learning the basics of darija, the local Arabic dialect, was extremely appreciated by everyone I met.