A Term Abroad in Morocco

“Morocco” was produced by the Dartmouth Office of Communications. Text by Hannah Silverstein. Video and photography by Robert Gill.

8/01/2018
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The Medina, or old city, of Fez can feel like “a web of narrow streets and alleyways,” says Thomas Hart ’19, one of 13 students who participated in Dartmouth’s 2018 foreign study program (FSP) in the ancient North African city. But open any door along those walled streets and you might find a spacious riad—a traditional Moroccan home with a welcoming garden courtyard at its center.

Hart and his classmates were in Fez to learn Darija, the local Arabic dialect, at the Arabic Language Institute in Fez (ALIF); take courses on Moroccan history and government; and experience everyday life in a predominantly Islamic culture.

The Fez FSP, led by the Middle Eastern Studies Program, is one of the nearly 50 off-campus programs Dartmouth offers annually through the Frank J. Guarini Institute for International Education in more than 20 countries on five continents. Approximately 600 undergraduates each year participate in these programs, which include language and cultural immersion experiences as well as academic intensives in theater studies, philosophy, biological sciences, government, earth sciences, and more.

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Map of Morocco
Classroom Learning Put Into Practice

Why spend a term studying in Fez? “This is one of the best opportunities at Dartmouth to study abroad and be immersed in a very different culture,” says Hanna Sheikh ’19, an anthropology major from Portland, Ore. 

Marlene Arias ’19, a double major in government and Middle Eastern studies from San Diego, agrees. “I wanted to go abroad to somewhere that was aligned with my academic interests,” she says.

Associate Professor of Government Dirk Vandewalle, an expert on the Middle East and North Africa who led this year’s FSP, says the culture and history of Morocco—and Fez, specifically—make it an excellent site for foreign study. “Morocco’s monarchy is a unique political system, with close relations to the West,” he says. “And Fez is interesting because it emerged 1,000 years ago as an important center for religious learning. So it makes sense to come to Fez to study the history of Islam.” 

During the FSP, Vandewalle taught a course on the government of Morocco and led a series of field trips for the students around the country—giving him a chance to get to know students better and them a chance to get to know him. 

“In the class I took with Professor Vandewalle in Hanover, I didn’t always try to talk with him, so I don’t think I realized he actually has a sense of humor,” Hart says. “It was great to have an expert with us who could answer questions about Morocco, about the Middle East—he is a fount of knowledge.”

Students also studied the history of Fez and took intensive language classes, taught by faculty at ALIF. 

“Our Arabic professors were Moroccan—their families had lived in Fez for generations, so they had a lot to say about the city’s history,” says Sheikh. “They were incredible teachers who were very motivating and engaging.”

The room where students practiced Arabic is an ornate, light-filled classroom that for many exemplified the new culture they were discovering.

“This room speaks to everything about Fez, how it has so much history,” says Sheikh. “This building was the old family home of a prominent Jewish family that lived in the Ville Nouvelle. The design includes Stars of David and scriptural phrases, showing the meshing of the Jewish and Islamic faiths within the culture of Morocco. Everywhere we went, there was some long legacy.”

Home Away From Home

“Living with a Moroccan family in Fez provided the best opportunity to learn about the culture and the customs of the local people,” says Jonas Stakeliunas ’20, who is originally from Lithuania. 

While taking classes, the students lived with host families in the city. Marlene Arias ’19, a double major in government and Middle Eastern studies from San Diego, says she was nervous at first about what her host family would be like. But soon she was integrated into a family with several teenage and college-age sons and a daughter only a few years older than the Dartmouth students. 

“We would play a lot of games after dinner,” Arias says. “We would play Jenga, and if you lost you had to do a dare—like they dared us to wear a djellaba [a traditional Moroccan robe] and dance to a song they picked. If one of the brothers lost, they had to do the dishes.” 

Arias says her host sister helped her and her roommate see a side of Fez they might not have found on their own. “She took us to get henna done in one of the neighbor’s houses, where all the women in the neighborhood go.”

For many of the students, the homestay was an opportunity to practice new language skills. “For our Arabic class we had to memorize a Moroccan pop song, and our host brothers knew all the words,” says Anisha Ariff ’19, who is from Phoenix, Ariz. “That was a bonding moment for us, because they felt like they could teach us.”

Living with families, students could immerse themselves in the daily life of their new city. Sheikh’s host mother would sometimes send her and her roommate out to buy fresh milk from a merchant on the corner near their home. 

“We would practice our Arabic with him. There was a strike against packaged grocery store milk—people thought the company was unfairly lowering prices—so he had long lines all the time,” Sheikh says. “He would tell us how our Western grocery stores should stay in the West. It was interesting to hear people’s perspectives on things that we were learning about in class, and as my language skills got better, I could really connect with people.”

Sheikh says she appreciated how much her host family made her feel welcome. “They would spoil us—when we would do homework in the kitchen our host mom would bake for us and make tea. We basically ate four times a day. I felt so taken care of.”

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James Park ’20 shares a laugh with his host mother in the courtyard of her home.
James Park ’20 shares a laugh with his host mother in the courtyard of her home. (Photo by Robert Gill)
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Homestay hosts made the students feel welcome in Morocco.
Homestay hosts made the students feel welcome in Morocco. (Photo by Robert Gill)
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Anisha Ariff ’19 (right) and Juliana Overbey ’19 drink mint tea with their host father.
Anisha Ariff ’19 (right) and Juliana Overbey ’19 drink mint tea with their host father.
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Morocco, Fes Host Family Visits Far right: Jonas Stakeliunas ’20, From a spring 2018 FSP in Morocco. The program was led by Diederick Vandewalle, a professor of government.
Jonas Stakeliunas ’20 with his host family. (Photo by Robert Gill)
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Marlene Arias ’19, Juliana Overbey ’19, Anisha Ariff ’19, Nik Fatin Irdhina Binti Nik Harith, ’19 (Dina), Hanna Sheikh ’19
From left: Marlene Arias ’19, Juliana Overbey ’19, Anisha Ariff ’19, Nik Fatin Irdhina Binti Nik Harith, ’19 (Dina), Hanna Sheikh ’19., From a spring 2018 FSP in Morocco. The program was led by Diederick Vandewalle, a professor of government. (Photo by Robert Gill)

“The Fez FSP taught me to be a better traveler—to not be afraid to take risks and really engage with people.”

Marlene Arias ’19

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Man playing instrument in blue city
Street performer in the capital city, Rabat. (Photo by Robert Gill) 
Mountains, Cities, Deserts

In addition to studying, the students had ample time to travel throughout the region by bus and train—and, in the desert, by camel. They visited, among other places, the famed “blue city” of Chefchaouen in the Rif mountains and the capital city, Rabat.

One highlight of the program was an overnight trip to a desert camp in the Sahara where members of a nomadic community host international tourists. To get there, the group had to ride camels over the sand dunes. 

“Riding camels is really uncomfortable—we were all so sore by the time we got off,” says Sheikh. But the trip was worth it. “It was a full moon, and the reflection of the moon on the sand dunes was amazing,” she says.

The program schedule included long weekends in which students were encouraged to explore.

“You learn how adventurous you are,” Hart says. “I climbed Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa, with two other students—we planned that trip ourselves. You also figure out how to interact with people when you don’t have a lot of commonalities. I don’t speak French, and I was only starting to learn Moroccan, but still you find ways to communicate.”

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The University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez dates back to 859 CE.
The University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez dates back to 859 CE. (Photo by Robert Gill)
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Student hiking
Thomas Hart ’19, on a morning hike above the city of Chefchaouen. (Photo by Robert Gill)
Bringing the Experience Home

While in Fez, the students met some recent Dartmouth graduates—Nicole Castillo ’17 and Devyn Greenberg ’17— who are now teaching English in Morocco on Fulbright scholarships. As undergraduates, Greenberg and Castillo participated in the Morocco FSP. In fact, they first learned about the Moroccan Fulbright program from the faculty leader of their FSP, who took their cohort to Rabat to visit the Fulbright Commission there and learn about applying for the scholarship.

Castillo says the FSP “made me want to go back and immerse myself. Things as simple as living with a host family, waking up to the call to prayer in the morning, having dinner late at night, learning the shopkeepers’ schedules because people take breaks at midday—if you don’t have those daily experiences, it’s hard to understand the context of a country. Those aren’t things you talk about in class.”

Back on campus, Arias says the FSP “taught me to be a better traveler—to not be afraid to take risks and go to places that aren’t necessarily advertised on the map, and to really engage with people.”

Sheikh says living in Fez “showed me the really different ways people can live in urban environments. Fez was nothing like cities I’ve seen in America or even other places in the world. It helped me see how the cities people live in inform the kinds of lives they lead.”

Morocco’s diversity made a deep impression. “We hear the media narrative about the Middle East and North Africa as being places of exclusion or extremism, but learning about the history of Morocco and Fez, you can see how multicultural it is,” Sheikh says. “From an anthropological perspective, it’s interesting how all those different identities are negotiated in Morocco and there’s still an overarching sense of what Morocco is.”

The experience led her to modify her anthropology major with Middle Eastern studies. “The FSP solidified for me that I want to continue in Middle Eastern studies. It also revived my interest in Arabic. Next term I’m going to take the new ‘Arabic 1-2’ course, which condenses two terms of Arabic into one term. I’d like to get to ‘Arabic 3’ before I graduate. And I want to go back to Morocco, and to explore other places in the region, as well.”