We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
This post was written by Jenny Lee a few weeks into her trip to Morocco where she is volunteering at a national park.
Several weeks into my trip, and Morocco continues to amaze me. There is such contrast here. There are shops in a bustling medina built hundreds of years ago right down the street from a modern shopping mall. A mother and daughter can be walking down the street together, one wearing a traditional djellaba, and the other in blue jeans. On the same street you can see both donkey carts and Mercedes Benz, both heading into the city. Traditional tagines, pastries and couscous, can be found just down the street from a McDonalds. There is a huge disparity between the strictness exhibited by the week night curfew of the Al-Akhawayn University, where we stay, and the very lax car laws allowing a total of six passengers in a car designed to fit a total of five people. Even the town of Ifrane with its Swiss Chalet style buildings and green, well-watered lawns contrasts sharply to the more traditional town of Azrou with its bustling medina, city apartments, and natural, dry-mountainous landscape. Even language is not a constant. Although almost everyone speaks Moroccan Arabic (Darija), and many people speak French, there are also people who speak English, Spanish, and Berber ( the language of the indigenous people of North Africa). A good number of Moroccans speak an impressive combination of three or even four languages.
Two things that seem to unite Moroccans are Ramadan, and the general sense of hospitality that is so overwhelming in their culture. Our group of eight AUA volunteers arrived before Ramadan had even started. We were finally getting into a schedule when all of Morocco suddenly changed on the July 8 for a month of fasting. Suddenly the bustling cafes were empty, other than staff and a few foreigners. Businesses opened later or closed earlier, as Muslims (who make up over 98% of Moroccans) refrain from eating or drinking from dawn to dusk. However, at night after the sun sets, Morocco comes alive with life and energy. Families and friends gather together to celebrate ‘iftar’ meaning ‘breaking of the fast’. Every Muslim throughout Morocco, despite social class, occupation, sex, age (excluding children who are too young to fast), is united as they all take their first bite of food at sunset.
In regards to hospitality, it is easy to say that I feel welcomed everywhere I go. When I first arrived in Casablanca, three days before the other volunteers, I had some problems getting to my hotel. A sweet Moroccan lady, who I shared a cab with, kindly invited me to stay with her family. When I visited my friends in Meknes and Rabat their families welcomed me as though I was part of their family by showing me around their cities and filling my plate with home-made Moroccan food until I could not move from being so stuffed. The other volunteers and I have been invited to multiple iftar celebrations with our roommates, co-workers from our placements, students from one of the other volunteer’s English classes, and host families that we’ve stayed with while traveling. Each iftar has been a great experience and I have always felt amazingly welcomed and enjoyed being part of such an important aspect of Moroccan culture.
However, my time in Morocco has not been all traveling and iftar. Every day I have been working at the national park to develop environmental education materials. Everything seemed to be against me on my first week on the job. Day one, I found out that the toilet at the park did not work, nor did the water pump in the garden. Day two, a group of forty plus seven year-olds showed up for a tour of the museum and no one was there to show them around, but me. This might not have been so bad, except that most of them did not speak much English. Also within that week, a field trip to the lake with the al-Akhawayn summer camp ended early when our bus tire popped in the middle of the national park.
I have learned to expect the unexpected, and now my job is running much more smoothly. We are planting saffron in the garden of the national park center and I have been working to beautify the garden by clearing neglected paths and weeding. I have also been working on creating self-guided tours in English and French for both kids and adults to experience the eco-museum. One of my favorite parts of my job is when I get to go out into the field to help with summer camp groups (when the bus does not get a flat tire). It is so much fun to see the kids learn about and enjoy nature, and I get to practice my French speaking skills with them. The park is so beautiful with the giant cedar trees and the adorable Barbary Macaques (a threatened monkey species in the park, one of the few places they can be found). I really love being able to spend time there, and it is nice to know that my work will help others find this same enjoyment.