“I have indeed – praise be to God – attained my desire in this world, which was to travel through the earth, and I have attained in this respect what no other person has attained to my knowledge.”- Ibn Battuta
Ibn Battuta (1304 – 1368/69) is the world’s greatest and most-oft forgotten explorer, noted for his travels from Northern Africa, first east to East and Southeast Asia, then north to Andalusian Spain, and south to Sub-Saharan Africa. He was a medieval Muslim Moroccan scholar who, over thirty years, visited most of the Islamic World and a large portion of the non-Islamic world. He was asked to “dictate an account of the cities which he had seen in his travel, and of the interesting events which had clung to his memory, and that he should speak of those whom he had met of the rulers of countries, of their distinguished men of learning, and of their pious saints.”1 This account was titled A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling (تحفة النظار في غرائب الأمصار وعجائب الأسفار), and is frequently referred to as The Travels (الرحلة). Like Ibn Battuta, in the fall of 2018 I set out on my own journey east in the name of scholarship: a semester abroad in Rabat, Morocco. This is the recounting of my travels, رحلتي في المغرب.
“I set out alone having neither fellow-traveler in whose companionship I might find cheer, nor caravan whose party I might join, but swayed by an overmastering impulse within me and a desire long-cherished in my bosom to visit these illustrious sanctuaries. So I braced my resolution to quit all my dear ones, female and male, and forsook my home as birds forsake their nests.”2
“If by chance you were to meet me at the Casablanca airport or on a boat sailing from Tangiers, you would think me self-confident, but I am not. Even now, at my age, I am frightened when crossing borders because I am afraid of failing to understand strangers.”3
While the length of my journey did not compare to Ibn Battuta’s, I spent sixteen hours traveling from Indianapolis to Toronto to Montreal to Casablanca to Rabat. The journey did not feel real until I stood in line in the beige Montreal airport, waiting to board Delta flight #DL8602, and realized that I was the only blonde on the entire plane. It was the first time in my privileged life I’d ever been aware of being slightly different, and in the moment and the safety of western culture, it was more of an exciting harbinger of the adventures ahead in these “illustrious sanctuaries” than a source of discomfort. That would come later, beginning with my train ride from Casablanca to Rabat, during which my lack of Arabic proficiency caused me to miss the Rabat station and end up in the neighboring Salé.
In her memoir, Moroccan feminist and author Fatema Mernissi describes Rabat as “a modern, white metropolis with wide open city gates, situated on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.”4 When I finally managed to find exit through the Rabat Ville train station, I saw the crisp white edges of urban Rabat coupled with the lively traffic, invigorating sun, and unabashedly turquoise ocean. My physical surroundings were all I saw for the first week of the semester, when I was surrounding only by my cohort of fellow students and still speaking English. I was not yet cognizant of the fact that I was immediately identifiable as someone not from Morocco or Africa in general, nor of the limit of my Arabic communication skills and how I would “[fail] to understand [many] strangers.” I became quickly aware of both when I was thrust into the week of free time before classes started and the language pledge. I discovered that not only was I going to stick out in the classroom and struggle to keep up with the academic pace of my peers, but that I was not going to be able to seek refuge in public anonymity because my golden hair caught equally the Moroccan sunlight and the attention of passersby. My initial self-confidence turned into an act and then disappeared entirely. I was not only frightened of Rabat and Morocco’s confusing public transportation system, but of the border I’d crossed in the first place.
I had never been the worst at anything in my life, nor had I ever struggled to this extent with anything academic. I felt embarrassed and stupid in every class, lonely and inadequate with my lacking orality at my homestay, and uncomfortable and embarrassed by all the stares and catcalls on the street. Fortunately, my Modern Standard Arabic professor was able to recognize my frustration in the classroom, and her kindness and mentoring helped me celebrate the progress I was making and determine that the best way to practice my Arabic was to find familiarity in the unfamiliar. I started to frequent cafés, restaurants, and stalls in the souk near my homestay. While I thought that gradually establishing these weekly habits would allow me to develop a personal connection to Rabat and form relationships with the staff, owners, and patrons of my favorite establishments, I continued to feel anxious, lonely, and like I did not belong. Something was always a little bit off.
“No one noticed my anxiety…because I was wearing my huge Berber silver bracelet and my red Chanel lipstick.”5
“I felt so sad at heart on account of my loneliness that I could not restrain the tears that started to my eye, and wept bitterly.”6
Any time that I reflect back on the time I spent in Morocco, I always wonder how much of the feeling that something was off was because of me. There is a long train of anxiety that runs through my family tree, and I have taken Zoloft for the past four years in order to take the edge off a life that felt too unnecessarily intense and norepinephrine-filled. It is a bad habit of mine to take a situation and obsessed over aspects of it that cannot be changed. Like Edward Said’s Orientalism, I am sure that some parts of my feelings of “outsiderness” were artificially constructed or exaggerated by my brain. Yet at the same time, I can remember specific moments that my psyche did not make up. My discomfort during the holiday of Eid al-Adha was not just because of my unfamiliarity with the Muslim holiday, and was also due to the fact that I did not personally enjoy watching two rams be killed and dismembered on a rooftop in ninety degree weather. I did not cry when my parents flew back to Indianapolis after their visit because I was homesick and a little tired, but because I already missed the sense of pure belonging that I felt with them. I was not annoyed simply because a men would inappropriately yell at me when I was walking down the street, but because I was too scared to do what I actually wanted to in the moment, yell back at them and defend myself.
All of these moments made me hyperaware of the fact that I was an outsider in this country, and that both other people and myself saw me as such. Like Mernissi, I manipulated certain aspects of my appearance as a protective measure. Instead of red lipstick and Berber jewelry, I changed my face into an impenetrable mask of hardness, wrapped jackets around my waist, and wore my baggiest and most nondescript clothing. These little measures were my way of trying to deal with all of the moments of disconnect that I perceived between my personal identity and what I saw as the greater Moroccan culture, both myths in some regard.
While there were moments of pure negative emotion, they were equally countered with moments of pure joy. My longing for the annual Thanksgiving neighborhood run and my mom’s mashed potatoes was quelled by a trip to the Sahara with my friends and peers. Spending the entire night outside, barefoot in the terra cotta-colored sand dunes under a blanket of stars, made me feel comfortingly small and strangely content. When I think about summer, memories of swimming in the Mediterranean Sea in Tangiers arise alongside those from years of muggy Indiana Julys. Sticky-sweet cookies filled with almonds and honey are new-found favorite comfort foods, and I still dream of post-class falafel and mint smoothies with Sara and Ayesha at Yamal Al-Sham.
My struggles and triumphs in Morocco taught me a lot about myself and what I can withstand, emotionally and academically. I have never been one to take the easy road (in this case studying abroad through an institution that did not have comparable, if not more, academic rigor to Bowdoin), and I am glad that this was the choice that I mad. Even more so, I am glad that this is who I am. Knowing what being an outsider feels like has made me significantly more empathetic and conscious of others’ experiences and emotions. The edge of my anxiety has always forced me to remain sharp and helped me to excel in much of what I do. My strong legs and stubborn spirit kept me running around the Mohammed VI University campus regardless of the weird looks and inappropriate propositions flung my way. There is strength and knowledge in being an outsider. Not always, sometimes it is just purely exhausting and disheartening. But as Mernissi so eloquently points out, there can be simultaneous risk and reward, fear and exhilaration, joy and sadness in spreading one’s wings. Life is rarely mutually exclusive in this way, and my Moroccan experience was certainly not. Although if I had to settle on a value judgment, I would probably settle on “net positive.” It was necessary to “[forsake] my home as birds forsake their nests” and “use my wings” to live life as a nomad, even if it was just for a little while, to gain “in this respect what no other person has attained to my knowledge.”
“This country … is one of the finest in the world; in it God has brought together the good things dispersed throughout other lands…”7
“‘When a woman decides to use her wings, she takes big risks,’ [my grandmother] would say, and then would add that, conversely, when a woman doesn’t use her wings at all, it hurts her…And so, I learned that story — narrated by Scheherazade, the heroine of The Thousand and One Nights— by heart. Its main message is that a woman should lead her life as a nomad. She should stay alert and be ready to move, even if she is loved.” 8
- Ibn Baṭṭūṭaẗ, Muḥammad Ibn ʻAbd Allâh and Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen Gibb, The Travels of Ibn Baṭṭūṭa A.D. 1325-1354 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1994), 6-7.
- Ibid, 8.
- Fatema Mernissi, Scheherezade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems (New York, NY: Washington Square Press, 2001), 1.
- Ibid, 3.
- Mernissi 2001, 2.
- Ibn Battutat and Gibb 1994, 13.
- Ibid, 415 – 416.
- Mernissi 2001, 2.