For the first nineteen years of my life, whenever I was asked, “What ethnicity are you?” I always responded with, “I’m Moroccan!” However, it wasn’t until my semester abroad in Meknes, Morocco in Fall 2019 that I finally understood what it meant to be Moroccan.
Both my parents immigrated from Morocco before I was born. For the first few years of my life, we visited Morocco annually during the summer. However, by my 6th birthday, our trips abroad came to a halt. From then on, I didn’t return to Morocco. Until I went abroad with ISA, that is!
During my first week abroad, I not only got to know Morocco, but got to know my classmates, roommates, and our amazing on-site staff. A particular memory that sticks out in my mind was my first day in Casablanca, at the Mohammed V Airport. At that time, one of our program coordinators met my classmates and I to take us to our hotel for the evening. As he read off our names from his list, he paused after reading mine, before asking, “Are you Moroccan?” I responded “yes,” before watching him start to grin. That day, he promised me that, after the next three months, I would leave Morocco as a true Moroccan.
He asked if I’d ever been to Morocco, to which I recounted my childhood trips with my parents. He then encouraged me to try to recall as much Moroccan-dialect Arabic (Darija) as I could, and, when visiting various sites on our first week of excursions, he jokingly asked if I recognized anything. Throughout these trips, my answer was always a resounding “no.”
Yet, there was one instance during our first week that felt familiar and left me feeling right at home. When we had first arrived in Meknes, my roommates and I settled into our apartment and agreed that, after a long morning of travel, we would all retreat to our new rooms to take naps after lunch. I, however, couldn’t sleep.
While our first week of traveling did little to spark any childhood memories for me, it was the cool lull of our quiet apartment that afternoon that brought me back to my past. I felt an odd sense of peace and belonging as I sat in our living room, looking out our large window onto the hushed streets below. I was reminded of balmy afternoons in my grandmother’s house in Tetouan, where I napped on the couch beside my younger brother after spending a long morning shopping in the markets with my mother and aunt, or after going sight-seeing with my father in his childhood neighborhood.
The sights, sounds, and sensations of my childhood summers in Morocco came flooding back to me in an instant, and though I was far from what I had then considered “home,” I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was my home.
Ever since then, that comfortable feeling of my “home away from home” stuck with me. The next three months flew by, as I got to discover more about myself and learned more about Morocco’s unique culture, history, and language. I enjoyed my classes thoroughly, improved my language skills, and the feeling of home I was greeted with upon arriving at Meknes only became stronger as I adapted, grew, and developed during my time in Morocco. It wasn’t long before I was completely in love with Meknes and the family of classmates, on-site staff, and local students we had become. Through these extraordinary relationships, I was not only brought closer to my native heritage, but I began to learn what it meant to be Moroccan.
To me, it means being open-minded and curious about others. I learned this through the inquisitive nature of all who I encountered while in Meknes; whether it was the shopkeeper in the bodega next to our study center or my local friends’ families, everyone was eager to learn more about my classmates and I, and our experiences in Morocco thus far.
Moreover, it meant being caring and compassionate towards others, demonstrated by the consideration and selflessness of our friends, host families, and even strangers. When I had first come to Morocco, I felt homesick and far from my family. However, it wasn’t very long before I felt loved and cared for by all of those around me, including friends, host families, and on-site staff who treated us like members of their families and who I still consider my own family.
Finally, it meant being enthusiastic and optimistic, even during difficult times. This came to light as our program drew to a close. My peers and I lamented at the thought of having to go home as our return date drew closer and closer, only to find that our new family in Meknes dreaded this just as much as we did. However, this only brought us closer together and made us value the memories we had made and the time we had left together even more. It was also around this time that one of my friends, who was a local student in Meknes, asked me why I loved Meknes so much.
I froze when he asked that question. There was no easy way for me to express the gratitude for the lessons, adventures, friendships, and discoveries I was granted during my time in Morocco. I mean, it wasn’t every day you discovered a new part of your identity, all while making lifelong friends along the way. Instead, I replied, “Because Morocco is my home.” That was the only way I could describe it.
Through study abroad, I learned more about the cultural and linguistic nuances of Morocco, formed connections with fellow undergraduate students from all over the United States and the world, and I became more resilient, independent, and culturally competent. However, the real prize of my journey was the self-discovery and the friendships I made.
Before climbing onto the same bus that had brought us to Meknes, to carry us away from our home of three months and to the airport to fly us back to our anxiously awaiting families, I hugged my Program Manager and thanked him for helping me learn what it meant to be Moroccan.
Soon, I was on my way back home. And while I took the memories, lessons, and love I received in Morocco back with me to my family and friends at home, I couldn’t help but miss my home away from home.
My parents were thrilled to see me, remarking at how much better my Darija had gotten, and marveled at the stories and pictures I shared with them. When my mom jokingly asked if I had any plans to go back, the look on her face when I immediately answered “Yes!” was one of great surprise.
“Why?” She asked. “You just got back!”
I grinned as I replied, “Because Morocco is my home.”