“The thought of it may make you squeamish now, but after two months you will be comfortable discussing the color, consistency and frequency of your stools. You will get traveler’s diarrhea. You will most likely get food poisoning. Welcome to Morocco.”
It was the first day of exchange student orientation, and this is what our program coordinator found most relevant to share with the group of 30 international students.
Language & Culture Studies
As an undergrad I double-majored in Linguistics and Middle Eastern Studies, and since my school didn’t have an extensive Middle Eastern Studies department, it was easier for me to get the credits I needed by studying abroad. I looked into programs all over the region, but I eventually decided on Morocco as I thought I’d be able to work on both my French and Arabic language skills.
My French improved drastically during the year. I lost my telltale American accent and was able to speak fluently after one semester, but I found that being able to speak French kept me from relying on Arabic. The only Arabic I learned in the college classroom was Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), and the local dialect, Darija, is so different from MSA that I almost always gave up on it and slipped back into French. According to linguists, Moroccan colloquial Arabic is so different from MSA that it’s technically considered another language.
If you want to study standard Arabic in Morocco, be prepared to spend a lot of your time practicing with other students. Otherwise, take some Moroccan Arabic classes and French classes instead so you can put your language skills to use outside of the classroom.
Al Akhawayn University
While most of Morocco’s institutions of higher education follow the French tradition, Al Akhawayn University (AUI) is an American-style English curriculum university. The faculty is a mix of Moroccan and foreign professors. If you’re not a Middle Eastern Studies major, you will probably be able to find classes that count as general education credits or for your major. AUI has three schools: Business and Administration, Science and Engineering, and Humanities and Social Sciences.
In addition to studying Arabic language, I took classes in subjects like Islamic Art & Architecture, Middle Eastern History, Berber Language & Culture, and Islamic Theology. The university has several Master’s level programs, so I was also able to sign up for a graduate course in Moroccan Foreign Policy as well.
The school is located in Ifrane, a small town in the Middle Atlas Mountains and about an hour’s drive from Fez. In winter it snows, and in summer Ifrane becomes a resort town for vacationing Moroccans. The architecture in Ifrane is like nowhere else in the country; it’s as if someone airlifted an entire Swiss Alpine village and dropped it in the middle of North Africa.
Life Outside the Classroom
On campus there are so many events to attend and clubs to join that it can be difficult to choose what to get involved with. I took twice-weekly belly dance classes, learned Tai Chi, went to several live music events, and joined the campus Salsa Club. By the end of the first semester, I was teaching swing dance and hip-hop to fellow students and directing a full-length dance show.
Morocco is an excellent place for last-minute travel. Trains and buses are efficient, and as long as you’re willing for a “grand taxi” to fill up with passengers, you can get pretty much anywhere. Islamic and national holidays create a lot of long weekends, so even if you’re only in Morocco for a semester you should have ample opportunity to discover destinations other than your host city.
Independent travel in Morocco taught me just as much, if not more, than my time in the classroom. I mastered the squat toilet, learned how to ball couscous and eat it with my hands, got custom djellabas made at the tailor and navigated city labyrinths by referencing minarets.
I rode the bus all the way to the disputed Western Sahara territory, accidentally walked through a land-mine zone in the desert, and met and an old Spanish priest who lamented that fact that the church bar (yes, as in alcohol-selling bar) was shut down now that there aren’t any other Spaniards to drink with.
Studying abroad in Morocco was not only an excellent introduction to Muslim culture, but it was also my first taste of being in one place long enough to realize that I could make anywhere home.
And yes, I did get my introduction to food poisoning. Our program coordinator was right, discussing bowel movements and eating Digestive cookies became a normal part of living abroad, just like elbowing my way onto trains, hearing the call to prayer, or drinking mint tea.
Want to Study Abroad in Morocco?
To study at Al Akhawayn, you can apply via the University of Montana, SUNY Binghamton, or CCIS.
International Studies Abroad offers semester, summer and year programs in conjunction with Moulay Ismail University in Meknes, and the University of Minnesota has semester-long language and culture programs in Fez. If you’d like to study in Morocco’s coastal capital, Rabat, you can check out CIEE ‘s Arabic language program or IES semester and summer programs. IES offers Business and Engineering classes in English, and other subjects are taught in English or French.