Singularity: The state, fact, or quality of being unique or unusual
When I told people that I was going to Fez, Morocco to study Arabic this summer, the most common reactions I got were “Oh, the Middle East, how exciting!” and “Wow, you’ll love Marrakesh!” It is hard to blame people for not knowing much about Morocco, since it tends to fly under the news radar.
But as many Moroccans reminded me throughout my stay, the sultan was the first leader to recognize the United States when it declared independence from Great Britain, and that makes our countries old allies. Although I read up on the culture before I arrived, living in Morocco for seven and a half weeks was still an adventure. Every day I was put in situations that required quick thinking or exposure to major differences between Moroccan culture and that of the U.S. Staying with a host family in their dar (house) gave me an opportunity to live there as a student of culture, rather than as a tourist.
I already miss some aspects of Moroccan culture, like the way the seating inside homes is really conducive to conversation. Having low, divan-style seating that completely lines the room provides ample seating and frees up the rest of the room so people can stand, making it very easy to entertain. Plus all of the couches can double as beds, so a lot of people can sleep over too. This is how living rooms are set up all throughout Morocco and it reflects the extraverted nature of Moroccan culture. There is no such thing as “me time” in Morocco. People do not schedule time to hang out with friends; every moment of the day is spent with friends or family.
At first it is a little disconcerting to be thrust into a lifestyle where the people around you are always talking boisterously and emphasizing their points by punching your arm or pulling at your shoulder. But after a while this strong sense of community became very appealing.
Moroccan food is another example of how much emphasis there is on community. Most traditional Moroccan dishes are eaten by everyone at the table out of a single, communal bowl. People scoop bites out of the bowl using pieces of khubz (bread). Etiquette requires that each person eat only the food in front of them and use only their right hand to eat (this is from earlier periods when toilet paper and Western-style toilets were uncommon). I became an immediate devotee of Moroccan cuisine: couscous, tajine, kefta and lots of fresh fruit. This language program was through Wake Forest and the six other Wake students and I (plus Reynolds Professor of Film Studies Peter Brunette) spent a lot of time discussing our experiences while in Morocco.
Amongst the many positive experiences, there were some elements of the culture that we found difficult to accept. One of them comes from the intense sense of community: many domestic or social problems are relegated to the family unit to solve, rather than civil law. We saw this as a potential problem for women, since many domestic disputes are worked out by members of the extended family, rather than by a judge.
One of the reasons this program was so valuable to me is that it gave me further insight into my own culture by seeing it through another perspective, particularly a non-Western one. Recognizing that there are other ways to orient living spaces or eat food or settle disputes forces me to step back and re-examine why our culture does things a certain way.
In some ways I was very happy to return to the uncomplicated amenities of the U.S. (like dependable flushing toilets, effective air conditioning and legitimate expressways), but living without those luxuries for a while was a pittance compared to all I saw and smelled and learned in Morocco.