My Moroccan Diary: Beauty in Another Beginning

When I initially chose to attend Loyola University Chicago, I prepared myself for four long Chicago winters. Then, last spring, I was fortunate enough to trade in the snow, slush, and sleet for the steamy streets of Saigon, as I spent the semester studying abroad in Vietnam (which you can read about here, here, or here). This year, as a junior, I quite unexpectedly found myself packing up again, this time to spend the spring semester studying journalism, broadcasting, and foreign correspondence in Morocco.


As I boarded my plane headed for Africa, I was filled with excitement, but also a sense of calm. I had already done the study abroad thing once before, so this semester should be a breeze! It wasn’t until I had officially touched down in Morocco, that I started to get a sense that things might be different this time around.


I had been feeling a sense of adventure, a sense of purpose, with this new country ahead of me. This would be the first semester of my life where I would be able to fully throw myself into journalistic work, which I quietly hoped would reaffirm all of my life decisions. After all, it would be nice to know that I’ve poured thousands of dollars and several years of my life into a job that I would actually like to do.


And, as a quiet side motivation that I didn’t like admitting to people, I was looking for something to bring back the passion and spark I had been missing from the previous fall semester. Leaving Vietnam, as I’ve written about in the past, was one of the most difficult challenges of my life. There’s a special sort of grief that comes out of being totally and completely happy somewhere, and then having to leave, knowing that even if you return, things will never be quite the same. It put me into a slump that took months to overcome.


In many ways, I was expecting that Morocco would become a place of healing. A fresh start and a new place to love.


The blue walls found throughout Rabat’s old city, or medina; photo by Shelby Kluver.


So, full of confidence and determination, I stepped off of the plane and into Rabat, Morocco’s capital. Instantly, the airport seemed different from what I was expecting. There were only three gates for airplanes to pull up to, which felt small. The air, which I had hoped would be tropical and steamy, was rather dry and unexpectedly chilly. There were no noises of motorbikes honking at each other, no sounds of a bustling city, and no crowds of people milling about. Instead, I got into the customs line to see only American study-abroad students around me. It was there, that the first thrums of worry began to start up.


It quickly became apparent that I did not know a single person around me. In Vietnam, most of the students were from my own university. We had gone to pre-departure meetings with each other and had gotten time to get familiar with a few of the faces. I was even accompanied to Vietnam by my best friend - a total safety net. In Morocco, I was going in alone, and hoping that I would make friends along the way…a fact that hadn’t been intimidating in the months before I left, but was becoming all too real when shoved in my face.


And while the main reason I had chosen this particular program — an intensive course in foreign journalism — was to immerse myself in journalism, looking at all of the laughing faces around me caused all of my previous self-confidence to fly out the door. Here were 17 other students, all pursuing journalism in Africa. There was no way, in my mind, that I would be able to keep up with their abilities, their experience, or their talent. Surely, after the first assignment, they would all have outpaced me and I would prove that I didn’t belong there.


Then, to my utter dismay, I realized that my language barrier would also be much more of an issue during this go-around. In Vietnam, I took an intensive Vietnamese language course that very quickly became one of my great loves. The language uses the Roman alphabet, so, while the sounds and words are completely different, it doesn’t take much effort to learn reading and writing. I felt confident in my ability to learn, when I could easily recognize words I had learned in class, or sound out street signs. That, of course, was cushioned by all of the Vietnamese people around me who were able to speak English as their second language.


This semester would not be as easy.


Rabat’s Kasbah of the Udayas, an old fortress built to protect the city; photo by Shelby Kluver.


To start with, I didn’t know any Arabic before I landed in Rabat. I hadn’t even been able to grasp how to say hello, thank you, or goodbye. Naively, I had assumed that since I rolled up to Vietnam in the dark, this wouldn’t need to be different. Additionally, I had heard that Morocco was a country of several languages, and I supposed that English would naturally be one of them.


Instead, when my smiling face greeted the customs agent in Rabat, I was welcomed in Arabic and French.


The Kingdom of Morocco was colonized by France; officially beginning in 1912 and ending in 1956. Since then, language politics have always been a hot-button issue in Morocco. French has remained a language of academia and power in the country, with Modern Standard Arabic (al-fuṣḥá), Moroccan Arabic (Darija), and traditional Amazigh also thrown into the mix.


English is not exactly a part of that equation. It is a language that is growing in power and popularity in Morocco, as around 18% of the country can speak it. But for a girl who cannot speak any of the other languages prevalent in Morocco, that number was daunting. And this time around, I had to conduct interviews and cultivate contacts. If I couldn’t speak any of the useful languages, my pool of potential sources drastically began to dwindle.


It was through that first day that my emotions flipped upside-down, shook themselves around, and then malfunctioned all together. Feeling confident can be a huge boost in the workplace, in a classroom, or in an unfamiliar situation. But when that feeling is suddenly ripped away, it’s easy to feel smaller than one ever could have predicted.


The mind is fickle like that.


Within Rabat’s medina, walls of every color can be found alongside arches, plants, and ornate doors; photo by Shelby Kluver.


But, obviously, I sit here and type this article two months into my program. I’ve survived, I’d like to say I’ve thrived, and I’ve realized that this semester is not going to be Vietnam. I’m not going to experience what I already had. And I’m still here.


There have been many challenges along the way, as well as more than enough successes. I can’t wait to continue to share my journey, as well as all that I have already seen. But it was important to me that I waited a few weeks before writing about my semester in Morocco. I needed to give myself time to explore the differences and come to peace with what I wasn’t ready for. By the end of the first week, I knew that I couldn’t survive by comparing my semesters abroad. I could relate back to what I knew, and recognize the differences, only if I then celebrated them for what they were.


It’s living in the moment. It’s being open to new things. It’s being flexible in the face of what you might have thought would be steady. When you’re busy looking back, you’ll end up running face first into something you’re completely unprepared for. And when it comes to travel, something that can so often break your heart in the best of ways, it’s best to dive in with both eyes open.


So, as I continue to explore and report and grow here in Morocco, I will continue to remember to take every moment for what it is, instead of what I had hoped it would be. And along the way, I’ve found that I quite love what it became.


حتى في المرة القادمة